In this period of profound turmoil and transformations that the Arab world is witnessing, regional cooperation for over even the most basic subjects remains elusive and cooperation over something as complex as shared water resources seems hopeless. However, in a changing and increasingly uncertain world, our survival depends on just such finite and vulnerable water resources to sustain life. The importance of water cooperation lies in the fact that it is essential to human life; it cuts across all borders and demands the concerted efforts of all stakeholders at every level. That is why the year 2013 was designated by the U.N. General Assembly as the International Year for Water Cooperation, aiming to raise awareness of the challenges of increased and competing demand for water access, allocation and services and the potential of cooperation in containing such challenges.
The Arab region in particular faces many pressing development challenges, including food security, adaptation to climate change, energy security, migration and regional conflicts, all of which are linked to the management of water resources in one way or another. The region is one of the driest on earth and water scarcity is a major issue. The increasing demand for water, as well as unsustainable patterns of use over the past years, have led to the resource’s reduced availability and the degradation of its quality. These challenges are expected to worsen, owing to the anticipated negative impacts of climate change on water supplies, particularly when an estimated 66 percent of the substance’s total renewable resources of all Arab countries originate outside their borders. Consequently, competition over shared water resources has been intense and has often contributed to regional conflicts. Cooperation over water is thus not only a necessity for sound management, but also an important measure for preventing conflict.
Reaching a common understanding on the use and ultimately the joint management of shared basins, particularly when supported with sound and objective information, clear international or regional legal instruments and an effective institutional setup for knowledge sharing and cooperation, can actually be a game changer. It can dispel mistrust among riparians and bring them to the negotiating table in order to formulate a shared vision for a shared precious resource. While historically transboundary water cooperation has not been easy, several examples from across the globe demonstrate that shared waters can support political dialogue on broader issues, such as economic integration and sustainable development. One example is the Southern African Development Community that coordinates transboundary water cooperation for 15 basins across Southern Africa. The SADC regional approach has shown great success in facilitating negotiations on river management, following a protocol that fosters cooperation in the protection and utilization of shared watercourses and has mostly lead to win-win settlements and contributed to greater regional integration and poverty alleviation. Another examples is the Mekong River Commission in Southeast Asia, which has led to decades of cooperation on river basin management among the lower Mekong countries. In Europe as well, degrading water quality and transboundary pollution prompted a move toward greater cooperation over the Danube River Basin.
In the Middle East, countries of the ESCWA region have taken important steps toward regional cooperation on water, even though the road remains long and challenging. The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia Committee on Water Resources, which offers an effective inter-governmental platform for regional dialogue and cooperation on water, has been instrumental in advancing Integrated Water Resources Management principles and tools. One significant initiative launched recently was the “Inventory of Shared Water Resources in Western Asia,” prepared in collaboration with the German Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR) and constituting the first U.N.-led effort to assess shared surface and groundwater resources in Western Asia in a comprehensive, unified and standardized manner. It contains a wealth of information on the status of these shared resources and provides a good scientific base to engage ESCWA member countries in informed dialogue for improved and sound water management. Dialogue actually started from the preparatory phases of the Inventory among representatives of ESCWA member countries through intense and ongoing discussions on methodology, data sharing, validation and vetting of basin chapters as they evolve. In some instances, this lengthy and delicate process brought to the surface divergent viewpoints and opinions among countries on their shared water resources and other interlinked issues; but in the process, it has triggered discussions that rarely occur in other contexts among these neighboring countries of the region, and this constitutes an important first step toward consolidating cooperation in the field.
However, much remains to be done to strengthen cooperation on water resources in the region and ensure the continuity of this initiative. Practically speaking, cooperation can be defined as a “continuum of cooperative options” that extends from unilateral resolutions to joint action. In the context of shared basins, this means that cooperative mechanisms need to evolve into effective bilateral and multilateral agreements, joint technical committees or basin organizations to allow joint decision-making and proper implementation. These joint bodies should serve as a forum for the exchange of information on existing and planned uses of water installations that are likely to have a transboundary impact, elaborate joint monitoring programs concerning water quality and quantity and encourage cooperation on scientific research.
Knowledge improvement on shared basins through in-depth water resources assessment studies is also crucial in order to ensure informed and adequate decision-making. As the Inventory of Shared Water Resources in Western Asia shows, the resources in the region are many but poorly understood, especially when it comes to groundwater. Information on the status of shared water resources could be updated through joint water assessment studies and inventories including the collection of hydrological/hydrogeological, water quality and socio-economic data. The role of nonstate actors is equally important in promoting water cooperation, and recently many groups from the civil society, private sector and media have been increasingly active in this context. The involvement of such actors can add legitimacy and support legislation, providing valuable perspectives.
This accumulated wealth of knowledge has allowed ESCWA to develop a range of capacity building programs and tools, to support member countries in formulating sound and sustainable water strategies and regional cooperation mechanisms. Such initiatives include the Legal Framework for Shared Water Resources in the Arab Region, which brings together Arab countries around common principles to govern the cooperation, management and allocation of shared water resources. Another example is the Regional Initiative for the Assessment of Climate Change Impacts on Water Resources and Socio-Economic Vulnerability in the Arab Region (RICCAR), which provides a common and comparable scientific understanding of climate change impacts and associated vulnerabilities across the Middle East and thus informs policy dialogue, negotiations and exchange among Arab decision-makers.
The global and regional efforts to integrate water issues in national and international development policies have become indispensable to ending the potential crises and conflicts resulting from the shortage of water and the deterioration of its quality. Nurturing the opportunities for water cooperation, in particular in transboundary waters management, can help build mutual respect, understanding and trust among countries and promote peace, security and sustainable economic growth. As the international community is paying its tribute to Nelson Mandela, one of the most iconic figures of truth and reconciliation, we are reminded that cooperation is key to social justice and equity. Recognizing the need to sustainably manage our water resources, he famously said: “Water is central in the social, economic and political affairs of the country, the African continent and the world. It should be a lead sector of cooperation for world development.” This quote illustrates his clear understanding of water’s importance in our life and development. Cooperation on such a practical and vital issue as water management can help overcome cultural, political and social tensions and can also build trust and social peace between different groups, genders, communities, regions or states. As we ended the International Year of Water Cooperation in a period of profound regional transformations, the development of cooperative approaches for water resources management has thus become critical for the overall sustainable development of the region. Let it be a wakeup call for the region to acknowledge that the only way to move forward is to unite and cooperate for a shared sustainable future.
Roula Majdalani is director of Sustainable Development and Productivity Division at ESCWA. Joelle Comair is in the Water Resources Section of Sustainable Development and Productivity Division at ESCWA.