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Environment and
Sustainable Development



Water Crisis
International Rivers and Lake Basins Management

The complex nature of problems and issues within this theme requires an integration that covers all components of the hydrologic cycle, including: surface water bodies (lakes and rivers), groundwater aquifer, coastal areas (including mangroves), and open-sea marine environments. This integrated approach gives due consideration to both water quantity and quality aspects. Particular emphasis is provided on management of transboundary water resources.


Introduction

Today, well over 200 transboundary water systems exist in the world, with their basins shared by two or more riparian states. The number increased in the latter part of the twentieth century, in part due to the emergence of newly independent states following the breakup of the former Soviet Union. A large fraction of the global population - as much as 60 per cent - depends on these international water systems, which include most of the world's greatest freshwater bodies. At the same time, these water systems support invaluable natural ecosystems extending across one or more international boundaries. In many of such international water basins, serious environmental, social and also political problems are mounting due to the increasing pressures of economic development and competition for scarce resources. It is easily deducible that ensuring collaboration among nations sharing such water bodies is critical to achieving sustainable use of the shared water resources and defusing potential tensions. However, because of the geopolitical concerns and varied implications for the nations concerned, this is by no means an easy task.

The finite and vital nature of freshwater as a natural resource has long raised concerns regarding the socio-economic, political and environmental security of human activities and ecosystem health in transboundary water basins. Considering the importance of governance of international water systems and the associated challenges, the United Nations University (UNU) has given this theme the highest priority since its establishment in the early 1970s.

Agenda 21, the plan of action adopted at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, recognized the multisectoral nature of water resources development as well as the diverse interests involved in their utilization. At the same time, it also recognized the great significance of transboundary water resources and their use by riparian states, and called for cooperation among those states for integrated approaches to the development, management and use of their transboundary freshwater resources.

In the decade since UNCED, the importance of water as an invaluable natural resource has increasingly been acknowledged. For instance, water is identified as a central issue in the Millennium Development Goals, a set of time-bound and measurable goals and targets for combating various environmental and development problems adopted by heads of state gathered at the UN Millennium Summit in September 2000. Water resource management has also come high on the agenda at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) held in Johannesburg in September 2002 (Rio +10). One of its major output documents agreed to by the participating governments, the Plan of Implementation, calls for a number of immediate actions for the promotion of integrated water management. The importance of management of transboundary water systems has also been explicitly and concretely recognized by the international community, as signified by the establishment of the Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1997 after nearly three decades of drafting. As an autonomous and unbiased research institution in the United Nations system that works through a global network of scholars, UNU has been making extensive use of its capacities to foster policy-oriented research, institution building and capacity development in this politically sensitive and scientifically demanding area. In response to the need for protecting the quality and supply of freshwater resources, and in view of the critical importance of transboundary water resources management urged by the international community, over the past decade UNU has played an active role in identifying challenges and drawing on synergies in articulating appropriate mechanisms for the management of various international water systems. A brief overview of this UNU International Rivers and Lake Basins Management Project follows here.

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Project Objectives

The project aims at the interdisciplinary study of water resources as a limiting factor for regions sharing international water bodies, in view of providing bases for environmentally and politically sustainable management of critical resources. The project also intends to bring innovative perspectives of international water management to the forefront of global discussions of the problematique, both in the academic and policy-making spheres. It aims to identify the issues that can lead to conflicts concerning water resources, alternative scenarios that could lead to the solution of complex problems related to water and environment, and the recommended processes through which the concerned countries can agree on mutually satisfactory solutions by sharing resources and benefits. The project targets the development of policy-oriented outputs that identify and recommend models for governance and conflict resolution around international basins.

Having been engaged in the field of environment and development for over a quarter century and in the field of international waters management for the past decade, UNU recognizes the significant role played not only by governments but also by potential non-state actors in policy-making processes over natural resources management including international rivers. Ultimately, it is also an aim of the project to provide integrated and science-based environmental management scenarios for sustainable development of international freshwater bodies. Methodology The project utilizes a multidisciplinary methodology combining approaches derived from natural resources management, geography, international relations, political science and international law. The project emphasizes development of networks and mechanisms for integrating relevant research into the decision-making processes of international water systems management. For this purpose, an important element is creating forums that bring together scientific and technical experts with practitioners and decision makers from concerned countries and regions to discuss, on neutral ground, the various scenarios. Based on these scenarios, science-based alternative solutions that are environmentally sound, and economically, technically and desirably politically feasible, can be identified.

Specific activities and outputs delivered by UNU for this purpose include:

  • Joint/solicited researches on the nature of the problems pertaining to particular international water basins;
  • Interactive workshops of experts, decision makers and other key stakeholders, at times of a politically high profile nature, to discuss on neutral ground;
  • Policy recommendations based on the researches and discussions carried out as above; and
  • Information dissemination to interested professionals and the general public, through symposiums, seminars, publications and websites.

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An Overview of UNU's Initiatives

With the above objectives and method of work, UNU, in collaboration with a number of partner institutions, scholars and experts, has initiated research and thematic dialogue on various international water systems. The following are some of the major areas of UNU work since the early 1990s, with a strong focus on basins shared by developing countries and countries with economies in transition. The outputs from these activities can also be found in the relevant UNU publications listed below.

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Middle East
Nile, Jordan and Euphrates-Tigris Rivers
Water is seen as one of the major questions of international politics, and tension, in the Middle East, where freshwater is a scarce resource. By organizing a Middle East Water Forum, UNU brought together key actors from the countries in the region, many of whom were closely involved in the Middle East peace talks. The Forum and associated studies looked at the international waters of the region from the viewpoint of management for sustainable and peaceful purposes. This was seen to make a contribution to the Middle East peace process by providing objective and scientifically based knowledge and management options for the utilization of the transboundary water resources in the region.

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Central Asia
Aral Sea
The Aral Sea water basin, one of the most serious environmental disaster zones on earth today, is shared by a number of independent nations that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Aral Sea is on the way to disappearing, owing to past political decision-making in the 1950s-1960s regarding the intensive agricultural development of the Syr Darya-Amu Darya river basins for irrigation. Through a series of workshops and symposiums since the early 1990s, UNU has been working to seek international cooperation on solutions to overcome the severe problems that the Aral Sea region is facing. These efforts have brought together scientists and international organizations with policy makers from the Aral Sea countries to seek mutual ground for moving towards sustainable development of the basin. Today, a new dimension has been added to the issue of sustainable development around the Aral Sea by the political instability and conflicts related to terrorism in the region. The prospects of economic and agricultural development foreseen in Afghanistan, a riparian state hosting the headwaters of the Amu Darya, bring additional factors to the equation. UNU aims to focus on this potentially critical new aspect of the Aral Sea issue, which is still hugely overlooked by the international community at large.

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Caspian Sea
The Caspian Sea is the world's largest inland lake, with several important river systems associated with it. In the second half of the twentieth century, the water level of the Caspian Sea was continuously rising, exceeding the historical average level and causing significant damage through inundation along the coast of its five riparian states (Russia, Iran and three of the newly independent states of Central Asia). Building upon its work on the Central Eurasian water crises and perspectives, UNU facilitated expert discussions through a forum on the problems of this water basin, focusing on such issues as hydropolitics among the nations concerned, the effects of intensive development of the international rivers in the area, and the potential impacts of global climate change.

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South and South East Asia
In South and South East Asia, UNU facilitated a series of meetings concerning the following international rivers. A number of experts and policy makers from the riparian countries were brought to the table, together with representatives of major international organizations and donors active in the region. The intention was to provide a politically neutral ground for discussions to contribute towards effective and equitable use of the resources, and to provide models that would allow the riparian countries to preempt these conflicts through "second-track diplomacy.'" This approach included science-based thematic discussions and collaboration among experts from the different riparian countries, who share the same goal of sustainable and peaceful management of their precious resources.

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Mekong River
The Mekong, which starts in Tibet and pours into the South China Sea via the Indochina peninsula, provides extremely valuable resources to its six riparian countries. Effective utilization of the Mekong is indispensable for ensuring sustainable development of the entire region benefiting from its waters. Established in 1957, the Mekong Committee (later renamed the Mekong River Commission, MRC) has played the role of facilitating mutual cooperation among the lower basin countries. While there was still a critical lack of participation by China, the most influential riparian country in the upstream, MRC was seen as a model institutional mechanism to be followed by other international river systems. However, with time, the needs of the riparian states have changed, and so have the functions of MRC. This necessitated a new cooperation scheme among the countries to ensure the full and sustainable utilization of the Mekong waters, which was discussed at a forum organized by UNU.

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Salween River
Running through China, Myanmar and Thailand, the Salween River is rich in water resources, with the potential to play a major role in regional development strategy. While the Salween has thus far received relatively minor impacts from human activities, due to its remote location and the political situation, it is likely that the development pressures in the river basin will increase with economic development and political integration in the region. The potential for conflict would likely increase with the increasing demands for the use of the Salween waters for irrigation, urban and industrial uses, and navigation. In order to achieve sustainable development and use of its water resources while avoiding possible conflicts, experts under the UNU umbrella examined the options that might be available at the national and sub-regional levels for cooperation in the sustainable development of the region.

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Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna Rivers
The Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna river system, shared by Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal, is the third-largest freshwater outfall to the world's oceans, exceeded only by the Amazon and the Congo Rivers. More people live in this river basin than in all the countries of Western Europe combined, or on the entire North American continent. Moreover, it is the largest pocket of poverty in the world, and water is the central resource in the region and the key to its development. UNU has worked on this river system in order to provide the countries concerned with an independent platform where senior policy makers and experts could meet in a non-political setting. These experts explored the potential for cooperation for the sustainable development of the water, energy, land and biotic resources of the region, and also worked to understand and appreciate each other's perspectives and needs.

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Southern Africa
The Southern African region is one of the "hottest" areas in terms of managing international water systems, with as many as 15 transboundary water basins - including the Zambezi, Orange, Okavango and Kunene Rivers - that meander through countries with varied natural, economic and political conditions. A large disparity exists in the availability of water between the relatively "wet" northern part of the region and the "dry" southern part. There have been discussions about sharing the water resources among the basin countries of many of the existing international rivers in the region. While the first-ever transboundary transfer of water has been materialized within the region (between Lesotho and South Africa) and some others are being planned, such water transfer plans have been matters of dispute, both for environmental and security concerns. UNU has facilitated research and discussions on different cases of international water system management in the region from environmental, socio- and hydro-political, and institutional viewpoints, in an effort to help work out the most suitable approaches for each of the river systems. Discussions by scholars gathered by UNU over South African international water systems focused on the role of regional river basin organizations, the role and significance of non-state actors, public participation and information sharing, as well as institutional issues for decision-making. These discussions have urged UNU to look into more innovative aspects of water resources management.

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Europe
Danube River
UNU's Danube study examines the complexity of dynamic interactions of human intervention and the physical environment in the context of changing socio-political and economic structures in the middle reaches of Europe's largest international river. In 1977, Czechoslovakia and Hungary concluded a treaty on the construction of a joint water regulation system, the Gabcovo-Nagymaros Barrier System, along the Slovak-Hungarian border. In 1989, Hungary suspended and subsequently abandoned completion of the project, alleging that it entailed a grave risk to the Hungarian environment. Slovakia (created by the split of Czechoslovakia in 1993) questioned such possibility and insisted that the treaty obligations of Hungary be carried out. UNU's research focuses on the challenges and the possibilities offered by the joint efforts of science and technology to resolve this highly political dispute over the environmental impacts of the project. Despite such political standstill, a joint system for monitoring the environmental impacts of the water management project was developed, as a basis for the identification of mutually acceptable technical solutions for the sustainable management of the shared waters. UNU's study also looks at the difficulties in the establishment and operation of this joint monitoring system, at the possibilities for optimizing it, and at its broader implications for the management of conflict-prone international freshwater resources.

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Current & Future Focus

Through a number of scientifically solid, field-based projects covering vast areas as above, with closely inter-related objectives focusing on such areas as hydropolitics and geopolitical decision-making, UNU has accumulated significant knowledge and experience in the field of governance over shared water resources. Such expertise has served in more recent years as a basis to further identify a set of innovative concepts, which are now integrated under the UNU International Rivers and Lake Basins Management Project. The focuses of the project have developed into activities related to the following four unique aspects of management of transboundary water systems. UNU has been facilitating collaborative researches and expert discussions in these areas and beyond.

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The Impact of Domestic Security Issues on International Water Management
The international security aspects of transboundary water management have garnered significant attention from researchers and policy makers. The impacts of domestic security issues on decisions regarding the management of international water systems, however, have not been adequately explored. There are growing capacities and domestic leverage of ethnic and other interest groups with internationally relevant agendas in the context of globalization, not least in many developing countries with unstable political situations including those with international disputes over shared water systems. These facts underline both the importance of and the need for further research on the implications of domestic security for management of shared water resources. Research in this area is in line with the recommendations of the "Water and Conflict" session of the 2nd World Water Forum (The Hague, 2000) for increased attention to sub-regional and local water disputes as well as the goal for the development of integrated approaches to development, management and use of water resources set by Chapter 18 of Agenda 21.

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The Role of Information Transparency and Public Participation
Transparency of information and decision-making processes, as well as public participation in these processes, have long been identified as crucial elements for the success of development projects. Their implications for the management of international water systems, however, have not been adequately addressed. UNU's past work in this field has indicated that these two factors are essential for promoting cooperation among riparian states, and ensuring domestic and international support for management decisions. In order to empirically test that concept, UNU, in cooperation with its partner institutions, is working on extending public access to decision-support systems developed for the management of international water systems and inland water systems through the Internet. An online decision-support system, which has been developed with support from UNU, is expected to be functional in the first half of 2003.
  • Improving Public Participation and Governance in International Watershed Management (18-19 April 2003)
  • Public Participation and Governance in Water Resources Management (8 October 2003)
    Poster  /  Programme  /  Press Release  /  
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    The Implications of Real and Virtual Trade of Water Resources
    While "real" water trade implies physical transfer or commercial transaction of water resources in some manner - whether in the form of bottled water business by private companies or interbasin water transfers between governments - "virtual water trade" implies transfer of commodities whose production requires use of substantial amounts of water resources. The oft-cited water-intensive commodities carrying a lot of "virtual water" include various important agricultural products, such as wheat. Virtual water is a concept with potentially great implications on various issues such as water scarcity, international water systems and other natural resource management, conflict prevention and food security as well as international trade policy. However, the concept is still fairly new, and case studies are so far limited in number due to the term's recent entry into the academic and professional language. Still, being intuitively an easily understandable and practical concept, it has been drawing increasing attention widely as an analytical tool to rethink the issue of water scarcity and water conflict.

    Today virtual water is seen by some as an essential element that provides a viable policy option and stabilizes political economies of water-scarce regions, as it helps to balance the regional water gap and the global water surplus in a politically non- (or less) stressful way. It is also recognized as a novel way of interpreting the impact and strategies of the worldwide trade in agricultural products. Thus, while "real water trade" can have a lot of clear implications for international water systems management in various water basins, it is expected that research into "virtual water trade" will also provide a significant and innovative perspective over management of transboundary water basins.

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    Development of the World Lake Vision
    Lake systems have long provided research subjects focusing on water quality, wetland ecosystems, fauna and flora, and catchment management, but their nature as international water systems has not been widely appreciated. The conflicts related to internationalization and management of the Caspian and Aral Seas, following the breakup of the former Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990s, have brought the need for development of mechanisms for the governance of international lakes to the forefront of the research agenda on the international water systems management. The past experience and knowledge accumulated by UNU in the area of institution- and confidence-building in this field should be useful inputs in this respect. As a promising way for channeling its experience, UNU participates in the development process of the World Lake Vision, which is being formulated by the International Lake Environment Committee (ILEC) as a guiding document for lake management.

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    Collaborating Organizations

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    Major Publications

    Beach, H., J. Hamner, J. Hewitt, E. Kaufman, A. Kurki, J. Oppenheimer and A. Wolf (2000): Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Resolution: Theory, Practice, and Annotated References, UNU Press, Tokyo
    Biswas, A., Z. Dakang, J. Nickum and L. Changming, eds. (1983): Long-Distance Water Transfer: A Chinese Case Study and International Experiences, UNU Press, Tokyo
    Biwas, A., N. Cordeiro, B. Braga and C. Tortajada, eds. (1999): Management of Latin American River Basins: Amazon, Plata, and So Francisco, UNU Press, Tokyo
    Biswas, A. and J. Uitto, eds. (2001): Sustainable Development of the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna Basins, UNU Press, Tokyo
    Faruqui, N., A. Biswas, and M. Bino, eds. (2000): Water Management in Islam, UNU Press, Tokyo
    Hori, H. (2000): The Mekong: Environment and Development, UNU Press, Tokyo
    Jansky, L., M. Nakayama and J. Uitto, eds. (2002): Lakes and Reservoirs as International Water Systems - Towards World Lake Vision, UNU/ESD, Tokyo
    Kobori, I. and M. Glantz, eds. (1998): Central Eurasian Water Crisis: Caspian, Aral, and Dead Seas, UNU Press, Tokyo
    Murakami, M. (1996): Managing Water for Peace in the Middle East: Alternative Strategies, UNU Press, Tokyo
    Nakayama, M., ed. (2003): International Waters in Southern Africa, UNU Press, Tokyo Uitto, J. and J. Schneider, eds. (1997): Freshwater Resources in Arid Lands, UNU Press, Tokyo
    Wolf, A. (1996): Hydropolitics along the Jordan River, UNU Press, Tokyo


    Contact:
    Dr. Libor Jansky
    Senior Academic Programme Officer
    Environment & Sustainable Development Programme
    United Nations University
    5-53-70, Jingumae, Shibuya-ku
    Tokyo 150-8925 Japan
    Tel: +81-(0)3-3499-2811
    Fax: +81-(0)3-3499-2828
    Email: Libor Jansky


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