13.02.2013 - UNESCOPRESS

Water cooperation: more urgent than ever

© UN Photo/Fred Noy Children collect water from a water-pump well in the Abyei suburb of Molomol, where individual voluntary returnees from North Sudan are settling with the assistance of the United Nations.

A hush fell over the room when Megha Kumar took to the stage in front of hundreds of international delegates at UNESCO's launch ceremony for the United Nations International Year of Water Cooperation on 11 February 2013. How often do 23 year olds get to address global leaders and experts in water security?

Megha Kumar's message was simple, “Water, water everywhere, only if we share”.  As the Delhi (India) native thanked delegates for selecting her as the winner of the International Year of Water Cooperation slogan contest and adopting her message as the official 2013 slogan, she said it was important for humanity to understand the deeper meaning behind her words, and work towards resolving transboundary issues involving water sharing.

Her slogan is a call for the global community to come together for freshwater, which has no borders. With 148 countries sharing at least one transboundary river basin and two thirds of the world's 276 river basins being shared by two countries, cooperation is the key to preserving water resources and protecting the environment, but also to fostering and maintaining peaceful relations within and among communities.

Communities sharing freshwater resources may have competing needs or claims, requiring that traditional stakeholders in freshwater management -- namely, scientists, governments, policy makers -- join forces with individuals or organizations outside this “water box”, such as sociologists, ministries for women or indigenous peoples, community activists and civil society.

How water cooperation can best contribute to the Global Agenda on Sustainable Development for the post-2015 era so as to fulfill the needs of all societies was the subject of Monday's kick-off events for the United Nations International Year of Water Cooperation. Officially launched by Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO and Michel Jarraud, Chair to UN-Water and Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization, the event brought together government representatives, local communities, NGOs, UN organizations and eminent specialists in water security to discuss how to harness cooperation at all levels, from the local to the national and international levels, and across all socioeconomic sectors.

In her opening address, Ms Bokova stressed the importance to act where needs were most acute, pointing to Africa where over 300 of the 800 million people in the Sub-Saharan region live in a water-scarce environment. Since January 2012, UNESCO has been working in the drought-affected countries in the Horn of Africa to identify and to map groundwater resources for an aquifer that will provide at least 200,000 cubic meters of renewable water every year.

“We have started in Ethiopia, where this will change people’s lives, providing water also to refugee camps in Kenya,” Ms Bokova said. “This kind of water cooperation can be a game-changer for entire regions, and we need more of it.”

Water is central to the well-being of people and the planet, Mr Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations explained in his address to delegates at the launch ceremony via video message, “We must work together to protect and carefully manage this fragile, finite resource”.

“One-third of the world’s people already live in countries with moderate to high water stress. Competition is growing between farmers and herders; industry and agriculture; town and country. Upstream and downstream, and across borders, we need to cooperate for the benefit of all – now and in the future,” Mr Ban Ki-Moon urged.

The benefits of water cooperation, in economic, social and environmental terms, are considerable. Contrary to common belief, examples of cooperation greatly outshine conflict. The Indus Waters Treaty signed by India and Pakistan in 1960 has survived three major conflicts and is still in force today. As Mr Otto Lampe, Ambassador and Deputy Director-General UN-Affairs and Human Rights, Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Germany, told delegates at UNESCO's launch event, “Peace can only be achieved in an atmosphere of mutual cooperation”.

Ms Bokova concluded her speech, quoting the late Nobel Prize laureate Professor Elinor Ostrom, who during the 2011 Stockholm World Water Week, called for each of us to become what she called “super co-operators.”

“Nowhere is this more true than with water,” Ms Bokova said. “Together, let us respond to her call and become super co-operators. This is my commitment, and my appeal to you today."

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