Asian traditions and contemporary international law on the management of natural resources

Eyal Benvenisti*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In the 1997 decision of the International Court of Justice in the dispute between Hungary and Slovakia regarding the uses of the Danube, Judge Weeramantry invoked ancient Asian traditions concerning the utilization of shared water resources to offer novel insights for the development of international law. In searching for inspiration for the concept of sustainable development in international environmental law, Judge Weeramantry examined the ancient irrigation-based civilization of his country, Sri Lanka, as well as early systems in other Asian societies. Asian traditions reflect numerous examples for fruitful cooperation in the management of shared natural resources, in diverse areas such as Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia and Iran, and the Middle East. Local social norms, shared culture and even religion have been utilized for sustaining long-term equitable utilization of shared watercourses. Many of the irrigation systems, including the social arrangements that supported them, survive to this day. In later periods, under the influence of Western scientists who showed no reverence to "primitive" practices, many Asian governments upset the delicate indigenous systems by imposing centrally planned, unsustainable management systems. Contemporary scientists and disillusioned governments are now rediscovering those ancient practices and are trying to reinstate them where possible. This paper describes these traditional irrigation practices and analyses the logic of collective action that sustains them. The insights of this exercise are then used to examine contemporary issues related to the management of freshwater resources in Asia, including the Indus, the Ganges and the Mekong rivers. The basic argument is that the shared Asian traditions, which also are reflected in contemporary international law, can and should serve as guidance in the management of the region's many shared resources.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)273-283
Number of pages11
JournalChinese Journal of International Law
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jul 2008


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