UAlberta Law Prof. Tamar Meshel proposes solution for international fresh water disputes

Expert in international water law publishes latest research in prestigious law journal

Sarah Kent - 01 May 2020

Countries worldwide should change their approach to international fresh water disputes and focus on balancing harms-to each other and the environment-instead of arguing over what is "equitable" or "reasonable," says University of Alberta Faculty of Law Assistant Professor Tamar Meshel.

Meshel, an expert in international law and dispute resolution, outlines a new model for peacefully resolving international fresh water conflicts in her latest publication.

Her article, "Swimming Against the Current: Revisiting the Principles of International Water Law in the Resolution of Fresh Water Disputes," appears in the Harvard International Law Journal, one of the top 10 most influential law journals in the world.

With climate change and the increasing scarcity of fresh water, international conflicts over how to share this vital resource are arising more frequently and have the potential to escalate in the future.

International water law can contribute to the peaceful resolution of such disputes, but it remains an underused tool that should be made more effective, says Meshel.

She proposes reworking the core principles of international water law, which govern how states can use, conserve and manage shared bodies of water.

The principles of "equitable and reasonable use" and "no significant harm" are the cornerstones of international water law, yet these principles can be interpreted as competing or contradictory. What is equitable and reasonable for one state may be viewed as harmful by another, causing states to "cling to contradictory interpretations that suit their unilateral interests, thereby aggravating the dispute," says Meshel.

While the dominant view in the scholarship tends to treat "equitable and reasonable use" as the governing principle, Meshel argues that this remains the goal of fresh water dispute resolution but a "balance of harms" approach may be more effective in achieving it.

This approach provides states with a shared objective of avoiding actions that cause the greater overall harm. It "encourages a resource-focused, rather than a state use-focused, approach" and also works "to reduce the incredibly high transaction costs involved in the resolution of interstate fresh water disputes," she writes.

Meshel has been working on this research for several years, as it was originally part of her SJD dissertation.

Her latest article adds to a long list of research that has been published in recent months or is forthcoming, including in the Yearbook of International Environmental Law; the Advocate's Quarterly; the Stanford Journal of International Law, the University of Colorado Law Review (co-authored with Professor Moin Yahya), the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy; Cardozo International Comparative, Policy and Ethics Law Review; and the University of Pennsylvania Journal of Business Law.