Moving natural boundaries.. New maps redrawn by climate change

Writer: Marwa Badawy - Translator: Amira Gawdat
السبت 10 فبراير 2024 | 05:59 مساءً

Borders between countries are considered to be fixed and strict red lines, which cannot be infringed or compromised, so that conflicts would not flare up. But, in the climate age everything has changed. There are no longer constants and changing borders or moving the lines between countries became normal for which military and colonial powers do not take its responsibility, but nature's anger, which worsens every day with climate shocks, does.

If in the past boundaries were drawn under post-war treaties, the implications of climate change are now moving and changing the locations of borders between countries as they wished, until a new term emerged in the climate geographical world known as "moving natural boundaries" between countries.

Moving Natural Boundaries

According to a study by “The American University” in Washington, the boundaries are often demarcated by natural phenomena such as fresh rivers, glaciers, seas and oceans. These water blocks, whether moving, frozen or salty, are influenced by climate changes that recede frozen water to increase salt water. With the frequent rate of extreme events such as floods, water distribution and availability will change across three main ways

:First - Freshwater

Rivers are important natural boundaries, as they represent more than one third of the total length of international land borders. Climatic phenomena can alter river flows or drill new channels and get others dry.

:Second - Glaciers

Rivers and ice caps represent a common border in mountain regions as we see on the continent of Europe, but they are rapidly and suddenly melting due to global warming.

:Third - Maritime boundaries

Rising oceans may alter maritime boundaries and affect each country's territorial rights and economic zones.

The American study suggests that climate-induced border change and differences in measurement rules between countries may lead to "border dispute", because some countries may accept the idea of a moving border and others may deal with it hostile; Therefor, climate change may cause a regional border dispute.

Examples of moving natural boundaries between countries and ways of dealing with them

Benin-Niger Water Boundary

One of the most famous cases of dispute, in which the International Court of Justice has been invoked, is the Benin-Niger border case across the Micro River Basin. It is a trans-boundary river basin and a tributary of the Niger River, which separates Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger.

The river is of great importance because it meets the basic water needs of the population in one of the world's poorest regions, secures the economic activity of the population, maintains fragile ecosystems, but suffers from climatic variability and rainfall fluctuation.

As a result of river flow changes, a dispute has arisen over the Grand Lété Island's ownership, which is seasonally flooded, what makes it so valuable for cattle herders in the dry season.

The war between Niger and Benin in 1963 was almost ignited by these moving borders, but they eventually chose to settle the dispute by peaceful means. In the early 1990s, a joint commission was assigned to demarcate the boundary between the two countries, but was unable to reach an agreement, until the International Court of Justice was able to end the dispute and ruled in Niger's favor in 2005.

The International Commission for the Adjudication of the Dispute relied on the "Taluk Line" or the line representing the boundary between any two countries separated by a water surface. This term is used in international law to refer to the bottom line of maritime boundary delimitation in the country's territorial waters.

By climate phenomena, one of the banks of the river may be corroded or the flow of the river is altered leading to the movement or advance of the “Taluk Line”, which divides the river at its middle to dislodge the border towards one of the two countries, resulting in loss of part of one country’s territorial and valley waters to the other. The “Taluk Line” is therefore reviewed for every specific period of time to avoid conflicts.

Melting glaciers between Italy and Switzerland

Some peaks and high-points in glaciers are used to refer to international borders, such as in Europe's Alpine regions. Political boundaries are often drawn on snowy mountain lines, but melting glaciers and permafrost resulting from low snowfall and high temperatures reshapes the landscape, and local authorities are sometimes forced to redraw the map.

Matthias Haas, the expert and head of the Swiss “GLAMOS” glacier monitoring and measurement network, explained in an interview with “Euractiv” website that the largest glaciers were already declining due to climate change, while many small glaciers had disappeared altogether, and there were currently 1,400 glaciers remaining in Switzerland. "In the last 40 years, around 1000 glaciers have disappeared, some of which have not been significant, but we are now in the process of losing a number of significant ones."

The European Union policy website “Euractiv” states that the border between Italy and Switzerland is redrawn or corrected every period of time as a result of the repercussions of climate change and ice melting.

For centuries, the two countries have used the natural barrier of the Alps as a border reference, and during the World War II a bilateral commission was identified to deal with landslides and glaciers that could affect borders.

In 2009, the concept of "moving borders" was formally referred to in the agreement between Italy and Switzerland. The two countries agreed to adapt to border movement due to melting of the glacier, and every two years a measurement process is carried out by a commission of Italian and Swiss engineers and technicians to verify any change and the boundary line be carefully redefined.

A crisis caused by a ski resort on the border of the two countries

The issue of the border between Switzerland and Italy was brought back to the forefront by a ski resort called “Guide del Cervino”, built 40 years ago within Italian territory, until the resort owner was surprised some time ago that part of the building's land was within Swiss borders and was supposed to be subjected to Switzerland's laws and taxation system. The resort manager describes the situation in his interview with the Italian newspaper “il post”, saying: "The living room is now divided into two parts: Swiss and Italian ".

The borderline between Switzerland and Italy passes through a pool of water on both sides of the Alps. The movement of that borderline is due to the retreat of the “Theodol Glacier”, which lost about a quarter of its mass between 1973 and 2010, due to warming and snow melting. That led to revealing of the underlying rocks and changing of the hills’ shape and then the course of the wastewater pool has changed. Melt-water infiltrated the resort, what made the virtual borderline, which is supposed to exist a few meters from the resort, move until it passes directly below the building and divides it between the two countries.

Mahran said that international law addressed such disputes arising from the movement of natural borders, and established mechanisms for their settlement through diplomatic negotiation and adoption of uniform rules of measurement

Moving natural boundaries in the Arab world

The Arab boundaries depend on land, but there are boundaries of water blocks. There is already a file of the water boundary between Iraq and Iran and the issue of the redrawing of the “Taluk line” in “Shatt al-Arab”, which is essentially an issue of moving natural boundaries. How are these events dealt with legally in the Arab world? And what is the authority competent to resolve this type of dispute? “Green in Arabic” addressed these issues with Dr. Mohamed Mahmoud Mahran, a Specialist in Public International Law and an Expert in International Disputes, who emphasized that climate changes are posing significant challenges to the delimitation of territorial boundaries between countries, which may fuel the border disputes between them.

In a special interview to “Green in Arabic”, Mahran said that international law addressed such disputes arising from the movement of natural borders, and established mechanisms for their settlement through diplomatic negotiation and adoption of uniform rules of measurement. He noted that if negotiations failed, the two parties would resort to mediation, arbitration or litigation before international courts to adjudicate the dispute in accordance with international law.

He demonstrated that boundaries’ disputes arising from climate change could be dealt with legally through diplomatic negotiations between the conflicting countries to reach bilateral agreements on the delimitation of the new boundary. He pointed out that uniform rules and benchmarks for delimitation could also be agreed that take into account changes in river trajectories and coastlines caused by climate change.

In addition to referring to the possibility of recourse to international mediation or arbitration if direct negotiations fail, then a third party may amicably resolve the dispute in accordance with international law, as well as the possibility of seeking advisory opinions from the International Court of Justice on the legal aspects of the border’s dispute, or of requesting its dismissal on the topic of delimitation.

The international expert also explained that there are several regional bodies in the Arab world that can deal with border disputes caused by climate changes. One of the most prominent bodies is The Arab League, which plays a central role in the settlement of disputes between member countries through its mechanisms such as the Arab Dispute Resolution Commission. He called for establishing of a specialized international body for the settlement of climate change disputes to oversee demarcation processes and provide expertise on how to address such challenges.

Regarding to the issue of the maritime borders between Iraq and Iran in the region of “Shat al-Arab”, Dr. Mahran demonstrated that this issue needs to be treated wisely and thoughtfully away from escalations, for its geopolitical

importance and its repercussions on bilateral relations. He appealed to the two countries to resort to constructive diplomatic negotiations in the light of the international legal standards adopted for maritime delimitation contained in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982.

He added that substantive rules should be agreed on to measure the course of the “Taluk Line”, taking into account the two parties' rights and mutual interests in territorial waters and the exclusive economic zone. He also noted that Arab or international mediation could also be resorted to if the dispute reached a deadlock in finding conciliatory satisfactory convention to both countries, or resorting to international jurisdiction such as arbitration or the International Court of Justice.

Finally, climate change could lead to dramatic and unpredictable consequences, which could lead countries to dispute borders. Therefore, the two countries must agree on principles and rules on natural boundaries, coordinate with each other, and take advantage of past situations of moving boundary demarcation to deal with future climate challenges.