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“An emergency alliance”

by Will Swanson
Dwindling freshwater resources can serve as an opportunity for increasing peaceful cooperation between nations. The threat of water-related violence must be countered with the recognition of humankind’s shared vulnerability.

“Water binds us together in an emergency alliance.” For Ingeborg Baldauf, a professor of Central Asian studies at Berlin’s Humboldt University, the increasing scarcity of freshwater must be seen as a call to cooperative action between nations to preserve dwindling resources. The rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and aquifers that make up the world’s accessible freshwater resources do not fit neatly within national borders. Sustainable management of these vital resources demands a collaborative multi-shareholder approach known as Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM). It is about developing environmentally sustainable policies at the basin or watershed level.

Farsighted IWRM programmes are necessary as worldwide population growth, coupled with shifting weather patterns associated with global warming, have led to warnings of violent “water wars” waged for control of freshwater resources. In recent years, water scarcity has already contributed to the eruption of ethnic violence in Sudan. The risk of similar conflicts may rise as traditionally separated social groups converge on remaining water resources.

According to the UN, more than 1 billion people do not have access to safe drinking water, and more than 2.5 billion live without basic sanitation services. These two factors, especially potent in combination, lead to high infection rates for water-borne diseases, causing rampant disease and death, as shown by the recent cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe. Even where safe water is available, discriminatory practices may restrict access to privileged groups, reinforcing social inequalities.

At a conference hosted by Germany’s Foreign Office in Berlin in March, Uschi Eid, member of German parliament and deputy chairperson of the UN Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation (UNSGAB), emphasised the need for greater public awareness of water-related issues. According to Eid, there is widespread resistance to act on urgent sanitation issues because of taboos forbidding public discussion of faeces and urine. Instead, government money and aid work tend to be channelled to high-profile reputation-enhancing projects, such as new freshwater wells and AIDS prevention or treatment. Chronic underinvestment in sanitation – rarely amounting to more than 0.3 % of global GDP – was also an important theme at the 5th World Water Forum in Istanbul.

According to Shaden Abdel-Gawad, president of the Egyptian National Water Research Centre in Cairo, growing slum settlements pose a dilemma for governments: these settlements are illegal, yet the people who live there have a right to water. Any solution to Cairo’s water problems will depend on the Nile, rendering Cairo dependent on riparian countries upstream. Fortunately for Cairo, the Nile Basin Initiative, including nine riparian countries as members, is a promising example of IWRM principles in action.

In view of the exemplary success of international cooperation along the Rhine and Danube rivers, Germany’s Federal Government envisions European expertise playing an important role in the establishment of sound IWRM policy in Central Asia, where the rapid disappearance of the Aral Sea has become a potent symbol of the dangers of water mismanagement. The scanty water resources shared by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan serve a growing population and water-intensive cotton cultivation. The climate is increasingly dry and hot, and there is a lack of regional cooperation. Germany has therefore pledged to support regional water initiatives and to expand the water-management programme at the German-Kazakh University.

Such efforts indicate progress, but András Szölllösi-Nagi, director of the Division of Water at UNESCO, stresses the need for greater international commitment to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses. This convention would provide a solid basis for the governance of freshwater resources shared by neighbouring countries. Despite overwhelming approval of the Convention in 1997, only 16 countries have ratified the Convention so far, with another 19 required for it to enter into force. Germany was one of the first countries to sign.
Will Swanson