How Water is Governed: Transboundary Water Agreements and Climate Change Adaptation


As climate change impacts continue to affect various jurisdictions, transboundary water management must consider new ways to adapt to these changes while ensuring fair and respectful water sharing arrangements. Around the world, climate change and climate variability will impact the supply, quality and demand on our water resources. As a result, transboundary agreements must reflect these changes and address potential issues. Presently, transboundary agreements are based on calculations of natural flow to accommodate variability. Extreme weather impacts such as flooding or drought can alter water supplies while increases in temperature can compromise water quality by enabling the growth of algae blooms. Thus, it is integral for transboundary agreements to address climate variability issues in the following ways; ensure flexible water allocation strategies, prepare for flood and drought possibilities, and enable joint review boards to implement committees responsible for studying the effects of climate change on specific watersheds[1]

 Glacier National Park St. Mary's Falls
"Glacier National Park St. Mary's Falls" by Mindy is licenced under CC BY 2.0.


Combining Different Objectives and Standards in an Agreement   

Transboundary water agreements are the result of negotiations between different nations or provinces to determine how water resources can be shared. Reaching common ground, however, can be challenging due to the existence of multiple regulatory frameworks and different expectations between negotiators. For example, the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty negotiations between Alberta and the U.S. State of Montana have encountered disagreements over interpretations of treaty language such as apportionment and the overall fairness of previously agreed upon terms. Specifically, the International Joint Commissions (IJC) 1921 Order confirmed that Canada and the U.S. receive an average of 55 and 45 percent, respectively, of the combined flows of both the St. Mary and Milk River’s. Nonetheless, in 2003, the Governor of Montana requested the IJC conduct a review of the 1921 Order to determine whether or not improvements could be made to the original Order so that each country received equal benefit of apportioned waters. Alberta, on the other hand, believes that the 1921 Order is fair and respectful of each jurisdictions water needs and that the failure of one country to fulfill and utilize their water entitlement should not penalize the rights of the other jurisdiction. 

Differences in how Alberta and Montana see prior appropriation, in addition to differences in water storage infrastructure, have resulted in apportionment disagreements between both jurisdictions. The Governor’s request for a review in 2003 indicates the difficulties associated with reaching long-lasting agreement on transboundary issues. Furthermore, the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty is indicative of the challenges with agreements that try to combine the different objectives and standards of different jurisdictions. 






[1] Cooley, H. , Christian-Smith, J., Gleick, P., Allen, L., Cohen , M. (December 26, 2009). Climate Change and Transboundary Agreements. The Pacific Institute. Retrieved from