Talk16 on 'Is the Columbia River Treaty Experience Relevant for Benefit-Sharing on the Kabul River Basin?'

10 May, 2018


The Columbia River, shared by U.S. and Canada, is the fourth largest river in North America based on annual flows and generates more hydropower than any other river basin in North America. Beginning in the 1940s, officials from the U.S. and Canada began an intensive collaborative initiative to seek a joint solution to flooding in both countries as well as means to generate additional hydropower required by both countries. This initiative was finalized in the Columbia River Treaty (CRT), an international agreement between U.S. and Canada, which formulated a collaborative development between the two countries for joint water resources infrastructure development as well as joint water resources regulation of the Columbia River Basin. The Treaty was signed in 1961 and implemented in 1964. The Treaty provided, at the time, a unique mutual benefit-sharing program between the countries, but currently is going through re-negotiations.

LEAD Pakistan, as part of its ongoing LEADING Perspectives series on Managing Shared Basins, hosted an interactive session on “The U.S.-Canada Columbia River Treaty - Blueprint for Mutual Benefit-Sharing of the Kabul River Basin between Afghanistan and Pakistan?” The guest speaker for this session was Mr. William Doan, P.E. Senior Water Resources Engineer at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, discussed various aspects of the Columbia River Treaty and how it might serve as a guide for formulating a similar treaty on the Kabul River Basin. William Doan has several decades of experience in the water sector performing complex hydrologic analysis of large river basins and reservoir systems as well as designing numerous dams and reservoirs.

Columbia River Treaty process

The groundwork of the treaty began in March 1944. In 1944, new studies were initiated to construct new infrastructures and by 1959 they had a plan. The CRT Commission appointed a board to investigate, whereby, the board issued a report in April 1959, while analyzing power-generation and flood-control alternatives. After nine diplomatic negotiation sessions, the treaty was signed in January 1961 and implemented on September 16, 1964, when President Johnson and Prime Minister Lester Pearson signed documents at Blaine, Washington, near the Canada-U.S. border. According to the treaty U.S. and Canada could build four dams, three by Canada and one by U.S.

The Treaty required Canada to construct and operate three large dams (Mica, Arrow, and Duncan) with 15.5 million acre-feet (Maf) of storage in the upper Columbia River basin in Canada “for improving the flow of the Columbia River.” 8.95 Maf (of the 15.5 Maf) of the Canadian Treaty storage is first operated for flood control in Canada and the U.S. 15.5 Mafis operated for optimum power generation within flood control constraints. The Treaty allowed the U.S. to construct and operate Libby Dam with 5 Maf of storage on the Kootenai River in Montana for “flood control and other purposes”.

Blueprint for Pakistan Afghanistan Mutual Benefit Sharing

LEADING Perspectives aims to bring together a diverse set of experts to accelerate the thought process on pressing water and environmental issues. William’s presentation invoked an informed, pluralistic and multi-sectoral analysis of the CRT. He shared that the CRT could be a very relevant topic for Afghanistan and Pakistan or Pakistan and India and could even potentially serve as a "blueprint" for mutual benefit sharing between the two countries. Below are some of the key components of the CRT that are particularly relevant to any future water cooperation:

1. The Treaty was originally transcribed so that the development of any additional dams for either country could be constructed and operated to generate additional hydropower and to meet flood hazard objectives for the whole region that would maximize the benefits of the overall Columbia River Basin.

2. Both countries eventually agreed-upon building three dams in Canada to essentially provide for flood control in the U.S. as well as supply river flows resulting in additional hydropower generation for U.S. dams. In return, the U.S. annually repays Canada half of the benefits resulting from less flood damages in the U.S. and additional hydropower generation from the U.S. dams. Later on, a new dam was constructed in the U.S. as well.

3. The Treaty was also innovative in the sense that the new dams as well as the existing dams in both countries would be operated as a system in order to maximize benefits.

4. While these general benefit-sharing plans was agreed upon at the on-set of the Treaty, it took five years to determine the exact distribution of the shared-benefits between the two countries.

5. The exact shared-benefits are currently being re-evaluated between both parties using the latest engineering methods and tools.

6. Lastly, the original Treaty in 1964 did not take into account environmental concerns or climate change impacts, something that is currently being assessed by both countries. (This could serve as a useful “blueprint” for Afghanistan-Pakistan future efforts in the climate change context).

7. Either Canada or the U.S. can terminate the Treaty at any time on or after September 16, 2024, with a minimum of 10 years’ written advance notice.

8. Subsequently, both U.S. and Canada have begun technical analysis to assess the merits of future Treaty scenarios to adequately consider environmental, irrigation, navigation, and other issues that were not addressed in the original Treaty and balance these new interests with the continuing need for flood control and hydropower benefits.

9. All of the technical (re)analyses has been completed and renegotiations between Canada and the U.S. have begun.

Conclusion and Way Forward

The reason for the success of the Columbia River Treaty was that the United States and Canada only looked at water and in some cases underground water and didn’t bring in other issues across the border. They were only able to focus on water solely. There have never been any major issues between U.S. and Canada over the Columbia River Treaty. The only issue was that the U.S. feels that it was over paying for the extra water, but they still kept paying nonetheless. In Pakistan and Afghanistan context, the governments are much more centralized and the people at the basin never get representation whenever negotiations happen. This is a major difference between CRT and Indus Water Treaty (IWT) and has its own implications. From Pakistan point of view, one of the important steps we need to be taking today is to try and plan ahead and start building dams. We are not storing water instead are wasting a lot of rain and flood water which could be used effectively.

The two countries must not stay prisoner to the Indus Water Treaty instead the Kabul River Basin gives us a chance to innovate and think differently. Unless we educate ourselves how the world has developed since the IWT, we will not be able to make effective use of water in this country. Our own education capacity needs to increased through independent studies and not Government led studies. The government can fund universities or research institutions, nationally and internationally for research studies on the basin management. Each study will trigger new studies and our thinking will get refined. Pakistan is lacking the capacity and knowledge, but it can partner with global leading world institutes on studies around water. The studies must be progressive, to see what ‘can be done’, instead of focusing on the ‘status on ground today’.

60 years ago when the Indus Water Treaty came into existence, both sides were unaware of ecological issues, such as environment. They just divided the rivers and did not think of fisheries, the ecosystem, the culture or the people. The need to think of an eco-system is crucial and within that, both sides need to figure out their respective interests without compromising the health of the ecosystem. IWT has become hostage to the political differences and Pakistan has trapped itself into technical negotiations instead of political negotiations. Political differences widen technical differences. However, if there is a political clarity of what we want then the scientists can come up with benefit sharing strategies. The question is how we can maximize our interest. Only option Pakistan has, is to re-evaluate its negotiating strategy in the years to come.