We shall sink or swim together
‘It seems intuitive’, write the authors, the less water there is, the more likely it must be that people will fight over it. Well, actually, no. Researchers have found that arid climates are no more conflict-prone than humid ones. This is just one of the myths debunked in the article overleaf which inaugurates this, the International Year of Water Cooperation. There are more surprises in store. It transpires that conflicts over water erupt in equal measure in rich and poor countries, democracies and autocracies, fortunately on rare occasions. Over the past 70 years, incidences of cooperation have actually outnumbered conflicts by two to one. And there is apparently no evidence of coming water wars, whatever the Cassandras of this world might say.
There is thus real cause for celebration. Be it a transboundary river basin or aquifer, or a water pump built for a rural village, examples of cooperation apparently abound. Which is just as well since, with demand for freshwater increasing as a corollary of demographic and economic growth, we shall have to pull together even more in future to ensure that there is enough of this fragile, finite resource to go around. That will also mean convincing the food, water and energy sectors to work together, rather than in silos. It will take strong institutions at both the national and international levels to satisfy competing demands and defuse tension when it arises, such as over proposals for shale gas extraction, mass irrigation or dam construction.
UNESCO’s programme From Potential Conflict to Cooperation Potential and the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education both regularly hold workshops on managing shared water bodies. Interestingly, they have discovered that the lawyers, hydrologists, engineers and economists who congregate within their walls do not speak the same language. At one workshop, each had a different definition not only of the term ‘transboundary basin’ but even of the word ‘conflict’! It took some intense dialogue for them to start seeing these terms through one another’s eyes.
Language is no barrier for the hydrologists who collaborate within the FRIEND network coordinated by UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme (UNESCO-IHP). Each of the eight FRIEND networks shares information, data and techniques, in order to monitor climate variability and change in river basins in a given region. The research produced by the European network may even lead to the adoption of a European Drought Policy.
Meanwhile, the UNESCO-IHP's Internationally Shared Waters Resource Management programme (ISARM) has assisted the United Nations in drafting the first international law on transboundary aquifers, due to be discussed in October during the UN General Assembly. In just over a decade, ISARM has mapped 400 transboundary aquifers, including five in Africa that had never been accurately studied before.
The Year is being launched at UNESCO headquarters in Paris on 11 February. Over the next 12 months, UNESCO and its partners will strive to convey four key messages. The first is that water cooperation is vital for poverty eradication and social equity; the second, that it creates economic benefits; the third, that it helps to preserve water resources and protect the environment; and, last but not least, that it builds peace. Water cooperation will also be the theme of this year’s World Water Day on 22 March.
Within these pages over the coming year, we shall be profiling some of the success stories – and failures – in shared water management that can make such a difference to peoples’ lives.
Assistant Director-General for Natural Sciences