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At about 820 miles (1,320 kilometers) in length, the Rhine River is one of the longest and most important rivers in Europe. It extends from the Swiss Alps to the North Sea, flowing through six countries: Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany, France, and the Netherlands, defining the border along some of these nations. Large and important cities such as Bonn, Rotterdam, Basel, Strasbourg, Mannheim, Ludwigshafen, Neuss, and Cologne are located along the river or its larger tributaries. The Rhine serves as a constant source of water for the countries it flows through: it provides drinking water and is also used by the industrial, agricultural, energy, and transportation sectors. Furthermore, the river is a natural habitat for diverse plant and animal life including many birds, fish, and other species.
As an international river, the Rhine has played a role in shaping political forces and national boundaries. Control of the river’s waters has already been defined as a priority by these principal countries, thus creating tension in the region. Originally, conflicts occurred over the definition of the frontier and rights to transportation use. Currently, conflicts are more related to water quality and problems in river ecology and are opportunities for creative cooperation.
Historically, these countries tried to find nonconfrontational ways to solve their disputes. They created organizations related to the Rhine basin, some of which still exist. The Central Commission for Navigation on the Rhine (CCNR), which is the oldest active European organization, was created in 1815 by the Congress of Vienna, and was revised in 1868 and again in 1963. The main purpose of the CCNR is to ensure the freedom of navigation on the Rhine and its tributaries.
In 1970, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) founded the International Commission for the Hydrology of the Rhine Basin (CHR) in order to promote closer cooperation in international river basins. The CHR’s projects focus on sustainable water resource management of the Rhine. In 1950, the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine against Pollution (ICPR) was created, but it did not receive its legal foundation until the conclusion of the Convention of Berne in 1963. At present, the legal basis for the work of the ICPR is the new Rhine Convention, which was signed in April 1999 with the European Union included. Its new name is the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine. Additionally, there are numerous projects in progress and planned for the future of the Rhine, all of which focus on the principle countries’ cooperation and integrated sustainable water management.
The Rhine River is also part of the PC-CP (From Potential Conflict to Cooperation Potential), UNESCO and Greencross International’s project created to address the possible challenges of shared water. Areas of concern for this project are: Flooding; the fishing industry, which is being harmed by navigation and hydropower interests; and pollution, as most of Europe’s important industrial plants can be found along the Rhine discharging toxic substances into the river. Also contributing to pollution is wastewater discharged by agriculture and households.
- Dieperink, “International Regime Development: Lessons from the Rhine Catchment Area,” TDRI Quarterly Review (v.12, 1997);
- United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization and Greencross International, “From Potential Conflict to Co-operation Potential,” in PC-CP Program Case Study: Rhine (2003);
- Aaron Wolf, “Conflict and Cooperation Along International Waterways,” Water Policy (v.1/2, 1998).