Back to Table of Contents
Thematic Maps: Visualizing Spatial Variability and Shared Benefits
Thematic Map Index
Aaron T. Wolf
Oregon State University
Spatial variability is at the heart of geography, a field dedicated to
understanding where things are and why. It is also a critical component
in understanding many complex systems, particularly those which include
interactions between wildly disparate sets of forces.
Water systems, for example, can act as a powerfully unifying resource,
so it is ironic to the point of absurdity that water education, management,
and discourse are so fragmented. To truly assess water resources in their
most holistic sense, one needs to include the many aspects of the hydrologic
cycle, from meteorology to surface hydrology to soil sciences to groundwater
to limnology to aquatic ecosystems. And that is just the physical system.
One should also have an integral sense of the human dimensions, from economics
to law to ethics to aesthetics to sociology and anthropology. Universities
and management institutions are simply not organized along these lines;
often they are fragmented to the point where even surface water and groundwater,
quality and quantity, are separated out as if they were not inextricably
Fortunately, nature has given us a unit for analysis in which all of
these components coalesce the river basin1.
Unfortunately, many analysts have a tendency to ignore this hydro-centric
unit, especially when including socio-economic or geo-political variables,
in favor of units for which one can actually find data, notably the nation-state2.
The fact that water resource issues manifest themselves within basins,
while analyses are often based on country boundaries, can lead to fundamental
misunderstandings. Take, for instance, the most widely cited measure for
water resources management Malin Falkenmarks (1989) Water
Stress Index. This index, which divides the volume of available water
resources for each country by its population, was originally only meant
for preliminary, comparative purposes. Yet, as with many elegant measures,
it has taken on a life of its own, often pointed to in security studies
as an indicator of future conflict.
The top of Figure 4 shows a river basin shared by two nations, neither
of which is particularly water stressed, at least if assessed
on a national basis. Yet, as presented in the lower figure, when we break
down the data by basin and further include spatial variability (in this
case, of precipitation), we obtain a much more accurate picture of the
stresses in the lower Colorado River, shared by the United States and
Figure 4. Spatial variation.
By superimposing several different data sets within a Geographic Information
System (GIS), unified by the river basin, one can often increase understanding
of the complex systems at work. Figure 5, for example, superimposes Ohlssons
Social Water Stress Index (water stress essentially weighted
for level of economic development by a factor based on UNDPs Human
Development Index), in the middle layer, over topography (which shows
where the headwaters, dam sites, and agricultural land all lie), on the
bottom layer, for the Ganges-Brahmaputra basin. These two data layers
alone allow us to visualize representations of interactions between the
location of headwaters, economic development, national water scarcity,
likely dam sites and agricultural land and, perhaps as a result of these
interactions, allow us to gain some insight into each basin countrys
vote in the UN General Assembly on the 1997 Convention on the Law of the
Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (represented in the
Figure 5. GIS and visualization: from bottom to top topography,
social water stress index, and country votes on 1997 UN Convention. Green
states voted yes, red voted no, pink abstained,
and states in white were absent.
What does this have to do with treaties? What one notices in the global
record of water negotiations is that many begin with parties basing their
initial positions in terms of rights the sense that a riparian
is entitled to a certain allocation based on hydrography or chronology
of use. Up-stream riparians often invoke some variation of the Harmon
Doctrine, claiming that water rights originate where the water falls.
Down-stream riparians often claim absolute river integrity, claiming rights
to an undisturbed system or, if on an exotic stream, historic rights based
on their history of use.
In almost all of the disputes that have been resolved, however, particularly
on arid or exotic streams, the paradigms used for negotiations have not
been rights-based at all neither on relative hydrography
nor specifically on chronology of use but rather needs-based.
Needs are defined by irrigable land, population, or the requirements
of a specific project. Occasionally, rare agreements go beyond needs
to interests the underlying incentives which influence
individual and political behavior, such as the political capital gained
through addressing a particular set of constituents water issues.
In other words, the process of conflict resolution involves understanding
the characteristics of a basin, in all of its bio-physical, socio-economic,
and geo-political complexity, and then identifying the potential for positive-sum
solutions based on the disparate interests of each party. Occasionally,
this comprehensive approach has allowed riparians to move beyond looking
at water as a commodity to be divided a zero-sum, rights-based
approach and rather to develop an approach that equitably allocates
not the water, but the benefits derived there from a positive-sum,
integrative approach, as seen below:
Agreements developed under the Boundary Waters Agreement
between Canada and the United States of America, for example, allocate
not water, but equal benefits, usually defined by hydropower generation
and flood control. This allocation of benefits results in the seemingly
odd arrangement that power may be exported out of the basin for gain,
but the water itself may not. In the 1964 treaty on the Columbia, an arrangement
was worked out where the United States paid Canada for the benefits of
flood control and Canada was granted rights to divert water between the
Columbia and Kootenai rivers for hydropower. The relative nature of beneficial
uses is exhibited in a 1950 agreement on the Niagara, which provides a
greater flow over the famous falls during the show times of
summer daylight hours, when tourist dollars are worth more per cubic meter
than the alternate use in hydropower generation.
In 1957, the creation of the Mekong Committee for Coordination
of Investigations of the Lower Mekong Basin was the first example of UN
involvement in a program to develop an international river basin. The
new Mekong Agreement was signed in 1995, after a relatively short period
of negotiation benefiting from a shared data base, long-established relationships,
and the familiarity of the key players with the provisions of relevant
international jurisprudence. The Mekong Agreement clearly states the mutual
commitment to cooperate. It establishes the Mekong River Commission as
the international body that implements the Agreement and seeks cooperation
on all aspects of water management.
Despite three wars and numerous skirmishes since 1948,
India and Pakistan, with World Bank support, have managed to negotiate
and implement a complex treaty on sharing the waters of the Indus River
system. The Indus Water Treaty was finally signed in 1960. During periods
of hostility, neither side targeted the water facilities of the other
nor attempted to disrupt the negotiated arrangements for water management.
The political will to achieve a basin-wide agreement
and framework for long-term cooperation on the part of the ten Nile Basin
riparian states is gathering momentum. In 1992, representatives of all
ten states agreed upon a Nile River Basin Action Plan, with the task of
developing a cooperative scheme for the management of the Nile. In 1995,
the World Bank, together with UNDP and the Canadian International Development
Agency, accepted the request from the Nile riparian states to give impetus
to the project. In 1999, the Nile Basin Initiative was launched, with
the participations of all the basin states. The international community
has facilitated an ongoing dialogue between the riparians of the Nile
Basin, to develop a process of joint planning and institutional capacity-building.
The Danube Convention is a vital legal continuation
of a tradition of regional management along the Danube dating back 140
years. As a document, it provides a legal framework for integrated watershed
management and environmental protection along a waterway with otherwise
wide-spread potential for disputes. The Environmental Program for the
Danube River is also a basin-wide international body that actively encourages
public and NGO participation throughout the planning process. This proactive
stakeholder participation may help preclude future disputes both within
countries and as a consequence, internationally.
Even while Israel and Jordan were legally at war, Israeli
and Jordanian water officials met several times a year at so called Picnic
Table Talks. As a result, when the Jordan-Israel Peace Treaty
was signed in 1994, it was possible to include a well-developed annex
acknowledging that, water issues along their entire boundary must
be dealt with in their totality.
Part of the process of identifying options for joint gains is simple
visualisation. One needs to be able to see both the spatial diversity
of the problems, and the unifying forces of the watershed to be able start
to comprehend mutually beneficial trade-offs. To that end, we include
the following thematic world maps. These ten maps, which include some
traditional hydrologic data, and some less-traditional (as well as less
hydrological), are broken down spatially but unified by one delineation
the international river basin. It is our hope that, by seeing
sometimes familiar information within these new delineations, these maps
may help spark some new approaches to a problem as old as history
how do we share this critical resource on which everything we do relies?
1 A river basin is defined as the area which contributes
hydrologically (including both surface- and groundwater) to a first order
stream, which, in turn, is defined by its outlet to the ocean or to a
terminal (closed) lake or inland sea. Thus, river basin is
synonymous with what is referred to in the US as a watershed
and in the UK as a catchment.
2 A useful exception is Revenga, C., S. Murray, J. Abrams, and A. Hammond.
Watersheds of the World (Washington, DC: World Resources Institute,
1998), which describes 15 biophysical variables for 145 of the worlds
major river basins.
of Agreements per International River Basin
Domestic Product per Capita
Density per International River Basin
Cover and Use
Areas, circa 1995
Density per International River Basin
Stress per International River Basin
Back to Table of Contents