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1. Perspectives on water environment management


Juha I. Uitto

Water is a finite natural resource, essential for the sustenance of life on earth. Agenda 21, a major outcome of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), popularly referred to as the Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 1992, states that effectively integrated management of water resources is important to all socio-economic sectors relying on water. Rational allocation prevents conflict and enhances the social development of local communities, as well as economic planning and productivity.

Competition for fresh water resources, particularly in the arid and semi-arid regions of the world, is bound to lead to conflicts in the near future among countries sharing international freshwater bodies. Furthermore, environmental degradation resulting from intensive water development and usage, as well as from global change, plays an important role in the socio-economic and political processes both nationally and internationally.

Chapter 18 of Agenda 21 on the "Protection of the Quality and Supply of Freshwater Resources" further identifies the great importance of trans-boundary water resources and their use to the riparian states. It recognizes that cooperation among the riparian states is desirable in conformity with existing agreements and other relevant arrangements, taking into account the interests of all riparian states concerned.

Issues pertaining to the management of international waters for sustainable development figure prominently in the research programme of the United Nations University. Environment and sustainable development are one of the five main areas of concentration in the UNU programme. The programme entitled "Global Life-Support Systems" responds to Agenda 21. In 1993, the UNU appointed a high-level advisory team to explore ways by which the institution could contribute to the implementation of Agenda 21 and the Earth Charter. With a view to providing bases for sustainable environmental and political management of critical natural resources, the overall objectives of UNU activities in the field of the management of international waters focus on the comprehensive and objective study of regions in which countries share major international water bodies.

In 1993, the UNU organized a project focusing on the international waters of the Middle East, including the Nile, the Jordan, and the Euphrates-Tigris rivers. Water is seen as one of the major concerns in international politics in regions where fresh water is considered to be a scarce resource. The UNU Middle East Water Forum was organized, together with the International Water Resources Association and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), in Cairo, Egypt, in February 1993. It brought together key actors from the countries in the region, many of whom had been involved in Middle East peace talks. The project looked at the international waters of the Middle East from the point of view of management for sustainable and peaceful purposes. It was, indeed, seen as making a contribution to the Middle East peace process by providing objective, scientifically based knowledge as well as management options for the utilization of regional trans-boundary water resources. Outputs of that Forum included the publication of three major books on water resources management and politics in the region (Biswas, 1994; Murakami, 1995; Wolf, 1995).

An ongoing activity that relates to environmental management focuses on the Aral Sea region, where a major environmental disaster, shared by a number of independent nations, has built up over a 30-year period. The Aral Sea is one of the regions assessed in the UNU project on "Critical Zones in Global Environmental Change" (Kasperson et al., 1995). In 1992, the UNU joined with the Global Infrastructure Fund Research Foundation of Japan to organize a symposium on the "Environmental Management of the Aral Sea

Region." A follow-up symposium, reporting on research progress, was held in December 1993 (Paoletto, 1992, 1994). The objective of these symposia was to seek solutions to the problems of the Aral Sea region through international cooperation.

The Asian Water Forum, organized in Bangkok in early 1995, focused on conflict resolution with regard to water allocations between the countries sharing three major Asian water bodies in Asia - the Mekong, the Ganges-Brahmaputra, and the Salween rivers. A related objective was to study issues related to industrial development, environment, and navigation along these rivers. Once again, the aim was to bring to the same table scholars and policy makers from the riparian countries, as well as representatives of major international organizations and donor agencies active in the regions of concern. Thus, these activities have major policy implications that go well beyond just academic research.

Building on past activities and common theoretical frameworks, the UNU cooperated with the International Lake Environment Committee Foundation and the UNEP International Environmental Technology Centre to organize a Forum focusing on water resources management in the major enclosed inland seas in the Central Eurasian region - the Aral Sea, the Caspian Sea, and the Dead Sea. This Forum was part of a three-day activity focused on the Central Eurasian water crises (27 December 1995 in Tokyo and 28-29 December 1995 in Otsu). With the invaluable cooperation of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, leading scholars were brought together from the countries in the region, including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Iran, as well as Russia, the United States, and Japan, who could speak on the common as well as unique problems facing the Caspian, Aral, and Dead Seas. The goal was to stimulate new, creative ideas for solving the environmental, social, economic, and political problems that are likely to emerge over shared water resources, especially inland seas. This volume is the outcome of that Forum.


Biswas, A. K. (ed.). 1994. International Waters of the Middle East: From Euphrates Tigris to Nile. Bombay: Oxford University Press.

Kasperson, J. X., R. E. Kasperson, and B. L. Turner II. 1995. Regions at Risk: Comparisons of Threatened Environments. Tokyo: United Nations University Press.

Murakami, M. 1995. Managing Water for Peace in the Middle East: Alternative Strategies. Tokyo: United Nations University Press.

Paoletto, G. (ed.). 1992. Environmental Management of the Aral Sea Region: Finding Solutions to One of the World's Major Environmental Disasters. Report of the International Symposium held at UNU Headquarters Building, Tokyo, Japan, 29 September 1992. Tokyo: The United Nations University and Global Infrastructure Fund Research Foundation of Japan.

_____(ed.). 1994. Report of the Seminar on the Aral Crisis: Second UNU/GIF Meeting on the Environmental Management of the Aral Sea Region. Tokyo: The United Nations University and Global Infrastructure Fund Research Foundation of Japan.

Wolf, A. T. 1995. Hydropolitics along the Jordan River: Scarce Water and Its Impact on the Arab-Israeli Conflict. Tokyo: United Nations University Press.

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