Water Can Be Fought Over or Shared, But Cooperation Brings More Benefits for All
Op-Ed by Michel Jarraud, Chair of UN-Water
for Skoll Forum
22 March 2013
Water is a shared resource. Our planet counts nearly 276 transboundary basins and as many transboundary aquifers. 148 countries in the world share at least one basin with one or several countries. Access to clean water and sanitation was declared a human right in July 2010. Indeed life, as well as the environment and most human activities, depend on the availability of adequate quantities of water of an acceptable quality. To ensure a future where we all have access to water and sanitation it is essential that we cooperate.
By declaring 2013 the International Year of Water Cooperation, the United Nations General Assembly recognizes the broad benefits of cooperation in the water domain for achieving the Millennium Development Goals and other internationally agreed goals, and calls Members States and all concerned stakeholders to strengthen dialogue and partnerships. Every year, we withdraw 3,800 cubic kilometers of freshwater from the environment to satisfy our domestic needs, produce food and energy and manufacture all sorts of goods. In the last decades, competition for water has increased sharply as demands to satisfy the various needs of a growing population have swollen, while the resource appears to be scarcer in many areas. If nothing changes, we will need several planets Earth to sustain a global population achieving the current lifestyle of the average European or North American.
We have heard of imminent “water wars” and risks of conflicts over scarce freshwater resources. However water has, so far, rarely been at the roots of the tensions, but can indeed be an exacerbating factor where social and political tensions already exist. Historically, transboundary cooperation has been difficult but the hundreds of treaties signed between riparian states and the institutions created to manage and use transboundary waters in an equitable and sustainable manner around the world show that sharing a resource as precious as water can be a catalyst for cooperation rather than conflicts. Sharing waters is actually often a driver for international cooperation and regional integration. Indeed cooperation in the realm of water brings very concrete social, economical and political benefits to countries and their populations, including regional peace and security.
The roots of competition and possible tensions over freshwater
Population growth, especially in cities, associated with changing consumption patterns are driving water demand up. Our lifestyles are more water-hungry. With the world population expected to grow from a little over 7 billion today to 8 billion by 2025, water withdrawals are predicted to increase by half in developing countries and by 18 percent in developed countries. Water for irrigation and food production constitutes one of the greatest pressures on freshwater resources.
But in many areas of the world, water withdrawals are already exceeding the recharge capacity of the environment and water availability is decreasing. About 66 percent of Africa is arid or semi-arid and more than 300 of the 800 million people in sub-Saharan Africa live in a water-scarce environment. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) the incidence of droughts is expected to increase as a result of human induced climate change and decreasing trends in precipitation in some areas, and water stress is likely to increase in central and southern Europe. By the 2070s, the number of people affected is expected to rise from 28 million to 44 million.
Pollution also puts the resource at risk and reduces its availability for consumption. Up to 90 percent of wastewater in developing countries flows untreated into the environment and threaten health, food security and access to safe drinking and bathing water.
Rising levels of scarcity due to a number of demographic, economic and social factors as well as climate changes can exacerbate tensions as the interests of domestic users, farmers, hydropower generators, recreational users, ecosystems are often at odds. International boundaries make the situation even more complex.
A catalyst for cooperation
However, the mutual benefits brought by cooperation constitute a strong driver. Gains can include the costs averted by reducing tensions and disputes between neighbours. Strained relations linked to water management can indeed impact trade, transport, telecommunications and labour markets.
A new analytical publication on water security produced by UN-Water and released on the occasion of World Water Day on 22 March 2013 underlines that “numerous examples from across the globe demonstrate that shared waters provide opportunities for cooperation across nations and support political dialogue on broader issues such as regional economic integration, environmental conservation, and sustainable development.”
Cooperation in the future development framework
The Rio+20 outcome document identifies water as a key area for achieving sustainable development. Taking place at a moment when the discussions on the Post-2015 development framework and the formulation of Sustainable Development Goals are advancing fast, World Water Day and, more generally, the International Year of Water Cooperation, give us the opportunity to reflect on the benefits of cooperation and promote increased cooperation at all levels as a way to achieve sustainable development.