Transboundary Water Management - Difficult questions awaiting pragmatic answers

Transboundary Water Management- Difficult questions awaiting pragmatic answers

Water and water based resources qualify as essentials for human and environmental sustenance. While land use and land cover resources are location based and their management remains mostly within the influence of national level institutions or policies, water resources have a prominent flow dynamics both at surface and subsurface levels changing with topographical features and seasonal changes. In many cases the geographical range of water resources crosses national borders presenting water systems as Transboundary resources and their management as a matter of regional and international interest.

Globally there are more than 250 Transboundary river systems. Small or big they share a lot of joint issues regarding resource use & division, conflicts in claims and rights and often a lack of consensus based cross-border diplomacy. Common example of Transboundary river basins worldwide includes Nile, Mekong, Limpopo, Brahmaputra, and Amazon. Although small in landmass, Bangladesh reports more than 50 rivers & channels that originate from its neighboring countries and crosses its landmass. Numerical estimates report more than fifty percent of the global fresh water flow emerging from Transboundary water systems and historical evidences mark these regions as hubs of human settlement. In essence, water resource forms a vital socio-ecological system. Industrial growth, expansion of agriculture, multifold rise in urban water demand is among key factors that changed the water demand-supply equation and people-water relation in many Transboundary regions worldwide.

In old times the need was limited and supply was in abundance, therefore water governance was not such a complex issue. Existing references support that early stages of development continued with some basic consensus between different constituencies in the basin region. A report by Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) mentions more than three thousand international water resources treaties between AD 805 and 1980's. In recent times, the demand of water has witnessed manifold rise as of industrial sector needs, unprecedented rise of global population, food security issue closely tied with agriculture productivity and agriculture productivity closely tied with the irrigation facility. In addition, rampant increase of urban sprawls is causing sharp rise in water demand both in big and small cities. Further, irregularities in climate system and climate change is causing shift of rain fed to irrigated agriculture. The cumulative impact of these factors along with many others such as diversification of water use for energy is instrumental in stimulating countries and regions to secure their water (& energy, economic) needs and to protect their water supplies based on demand projections and without much cross-border consultations, especially in case of Transboundary water systems.

System or a Resource?

A constant debate towards the best understanding to natural resources management is still ongoing. Water is an important resource in that portfolio. Recent introduction of ‘system thinking' that acknowledges three elements i.e. ‘composition or structure', ‘functions or behavior' and ‘interconnection with surrounding (boundary)' has added value to the current interpretation of natural resources. How…? Owing to conventional demand and supply economics, natural resources were commonly understood as a source, asset or service that brings benefit to humans by satisfying their needs. The conventional understanding could not carry together the system and resource aspects. Often the economic value attached to a ‘resource' supersedes its requirement as a ‘system'. The fundamental understanding that an intact system is prerequisite to avail benefits of a resource is often taken for granted.

Balancing the system and resource dynamics becomes even more complex if the actors involved are not a part of shared social and political system. If one is to consider the scenario of Transboundary river basins, the system boundary is deeply connected in physical aspect and seriously disconnected in the geopolitical space. The concept of ‘eco-system' based management expands on the systems understanding and compliments the conventional natural resources management practices. This understanding can provide a fresh ground to retain the lost balance in the resource-system interface. It would be interesting to note how it can facilitate fresh discussions and may possibly help build consensus in hydro diplomatic discussions and policies. In one of my assignments the above understanding was adopted to coordinate systematic dialogues for the Ganga Brahmaputra Meghna [GBM] Transboundary basin where key actors representing India and Bangladesh had a fair degree of agreement on the need for a common Transboundary agenda. A series of cross country dialogues focused on direct water dependent ecosystems services like agriculture water productivity & food security. Associated issues viz., poverty, climate change adaptation and conserving riparian biodiversity were also included in the multi-stakeholder dialogues []. Overall the discussions reflected a determination to act beyond the existing political rigidities. The arguments reiterated the need to maintain overall environmental security that allows economic development while retaining ecological composition and functions of the water ‘resource-system'. Related aspects like river based cross-country transportation were the part of engagement processes that could benefit from bilateral negotiations on Transboundary water management [more at]. The learning-‘ Priority needs to go to establish regular engagements with Transboundary member states in order to influence and change the viewpoint of key actors involved with basin management'.

In this context, one can also refer to Mekong River Commission (MRC) that involves participation mostly by the downstream nations and serves as a good example of Transboundary initiative which has outlined functional agenda for an active involvement. MRC has seen both successes and setbacks in its long period of existence; however its continuing commitment to harmonize people and water interactions flags it as an example worth citing.

A Common Understanding

As challenges in Transboundary water management intensify and global dialogue on sustainable use of natural resources continue, different Multilateral Environmental Agreements presents themselves as a skillful negotiator attempting the harmonizing act. For example, Ramsar Convention or the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance signed in 1971 and currently holding 168 members (countries) is observing 2000 sites (wetland landscapes) including basin areas recognized for their multiple ecological services. Reemphasizing the concept of natural resource units as ‘systems', the recently constitutedIntergovernmental science-policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services(IPBES)with 118 member countries on board caters to the vision of strengthening active dialogue between governments, scientific community and related stakeholders towards understanding of land and water resources related ecosystem services. More specifically, Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (Water Convention) adopted in 1992 brought together a common agenda on ecologically sound management and protection of Transboundary water resources for regions in the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. The agenda of United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non Navigation Uses of International Watercourses (UN Watercourses Convention) adopted in 1997 accounts sustainable use, development, protection, management and conservation of watercourses worldwide for present and future generations. The mention of developing countries needs in international water negotiations is quite an impressive point in that agenda.

Selected examples of provisions of equitable water sharing drafted at regional level via cross-country consensus include the Nile Basin Initiative partnership by riparian states in 1999 and the Limpopo Water Course Commission Agreement of 2003. Considering many such global Transboundary basin initiatives are already in place, it is evident that there is a strong will to coordinate efforts for better management of shared resources. It is interesting to note that many requirements to handle these Transboundary situations already exist viz., international agreements, regional initiatives and local level (stakeholder) consciousness. What is missing? Could be a lack of political will or possibly a lack of common understanding or agenda... In order to enable active, organized and fair governance of Transboundary resources, specific objectives in a Transboundary agenda can include: (1) Assimilating scientific evidence for the feasibility, usefulness and pragmatism of incorporating ecosystems based management approaches into the governance of cross-boundary waterscapes (2) strengthened capacity at all levels of stakeholders on the essentials of ecosystem based approach- how can this approach help address complexity of growth and ecological interactions (3) Endorse projects and institutions that help promote the integrated concept as a continuous processes (not only a short lived case study) (4) Create and disseminate knowledge products showing experiences of ecosystems based approach from across the basin regions

A common understanding or agenda can help re-trigger diplomatic negotiations for Transboundary resource-systems and establish long term water-people harmony. It would be fair to argue that most Transboundary river systems or water resources have shared set of issues irrespective of their geography and socio-cultural diversity. Many of these issues are politically complex. Besides global agreements there also are global goals. For instance, the Millennium Development Goals (MDG's) that ignited the emphasis for a common global program towards sustainable development and received a fair degree of acceptance worldwide. The up-coming post 2014 agenda is moving towards setting of sustainable development goals(SDG's) in order to measure the sustainability progress worldwide. It remains to be seen how these global goals relate to regional cooperation and local actions on key issues like Transboundary water management. Can such global obligations and global objectives help shape the regional-level discussions and provide dialogue space towards holistic management of regional resources or would they mainly remain localized to national level monitoring?

While quite a few aspects can be tackled by science or evidence supported hydro-diplomacy amongst member countries, regional-level establishments, or through percolation of common understanding -‘water is just not a resource that can be exploited at will or managed in isolation but an important part of global ecosystems'

[The above comments are motivated by firsthand experience while in association with International Water Management Institute, World Fish Center and International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) and ground interactions in Limpopo -Southern Africa, Mekong-South East Asia and GBM -South Asia Transboundary basins].

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- About Author : Dr.Nidhi Nagabhatla is with UNU(United Nations University):Institute for Water, Environment and Health ( UNU-INWEH ), Canada. She also serves as the Steering Committee Chair at YPARD- (Young Professionals for Agricultural Development), FAO-Rome.She has a multidisciplinary background through formal education and acquired skills in natural resource management, landscape ecology, wetland and biodiversity conservation, remote sensing and geospatial analysis and integrated water resource management (IWRM) incorporating socio-economics, environmental and policy issues.