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Part V: International organizations and inland seas

12. The role of international organizations in the integrated management of international water bodies: The activities of the UNU, UNEP, and the World Bank in the Middle East

12. The role of international organizations in the integrated management of international water bodies: The activities of the UNU, UNEP, and the World Bank in the Middle East

International water bodies require integrated management
The need for international efforts and a role for international organizations
The UNU: Accomplishments to promote sound management of international waters
Assistance given by UNEP and the World Bank to the Aral Sea programme
Programme for the Caspian Sea basin as an international effort

Mikiyasu Nakayama

International water bodies require integrated management

National interests among countries are likely to diverge when it comes to international water bodies. Given the international context, however, inefficiency caused by interdependent water uses cannot be resolved through a single government's policies. Upstream countries tend to see little benefit from increasing or maintaining the flow and quality of water for downstream countries. Without enforceable international water-use rights established by treaty, countries make decisions without considering the consequences for other basin countries. However, securing such international agreements and putting them into practice is often difficult. The end result may be environmental, social, and economic losses in the downstream countries that are greater than the benefits to the upstream countries.

More than 200 river basins are shared by two or more countries. These basins account for about 60 per cent of the earth's land area. Fragmented planning and development of the associated transboundary river, lake, and coastal basins are the rule rather than the exception. Although more than 300 treaties have been signed by countries to deal with specific concerns about international water resources and more than 2,000 treaties have provisions related to water, coordinated management of international river basins is still rare, resulting in economic losses, environmental degradation, and international conflict (World Bank, 1993).

International conferences such as the 1992 Dublin Conference on Water and the Environment and the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, have stressed the need for the comprehensive management of water resources, using the river basin as the focus of analysis. Cooperation and good will among states sharing a drainage basin are essential for the efficient development and utilization of international rivers and groundwater aquifers. In order to fulfil their own economic goals, it is important that such states formally collaborate to exchange data, share water, preserve the environment, and generate development programmes that are of mutual interest and joint benefit (World Bank, 1994a).

The need for international efforts and a role for international organizations

Basin states in developing regions may lack the capacity to develop and manage their own portion of shared water resources. The international community may provide both technical and financial supports to develop and implement an integrated water resources management scheme. Through cooperation, states may obtain aid that might not otherwise be available to them (LeMarquand, 1981).

Overcoming institutional barriers, between riparians and within the various basin countries, to the management of international watercourses is not an easy task. Managing institutions, such as river basin authorities, often involve only one ministry in a basin country, and the decisions of such an institute may not be conveyed to the central decision-making mechanism of that basin country. Thus, specific treaties or agreements are needed to codify the responsibilities of participating nations and the facilitating agency. The lessons of experience with agreements and joint actions between riparians, such as the World Bank's difficult but successful nine-year effort to facilitate the 1960 Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan, suggest that external assistance and encouragement are valuable and sometimes essential ingredients in establishing international water agreements. Where the basic institutional framework exists, international agencies should provide support and encouragement. However, in case the regional institutional framework does not work satisfactorily, an international organization could still serve as a mediator. It was actually the case with the Interim Mekong Secretariat, which was composed of three basin countries of the Mekong river basin, in the 1991-1995 period. The member states failed to solve by themselves the "veto power" issue, namely if a riparian country could put a veto on another basin country's project in an international water body, and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) acted in a mediatory role to get through the impasse and let the basin countries develop a new agreement (Nakayama, 1997). International agencies can also assist riparians in developing and managing water resources and in facilitating the implementation of treaties.

The three main objectives of international efforts should be (a) to help riparian countries address their problems with international water resources, (b) to remove the obstacles to priority development activities that are usually held hostage by disputes over shared watercourses, and (c) to reduce inefficiencies in the use and development of scarce water resources caused by the lack of cooperative planning and development. Since no single international organization commands all the skills, experience, or resources necessary to achieve the needed cooperation, collaborative efforts among potential donors, international organizations, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) would promote the sound management of international waters (World Bank, 1993).

The cooperation and good will of riparian countries are essential ingredients for the efficient development and utilization of international waterways. International organizations should attach the utmost importance to riparians entering into appropriate cooperative arrangements for such purposes, and stand ready to assist them in achieving these objectives. In cases where differences remain unsolved, international organizations should require that the country offer to negotiate in good faith with other riparians in order to reach appropriate agreements or arrangements (World Bank, 1994b).

Experience in the past has shown that the use of third parties in a mediator's role can facilitate dispute resolution, guide complex bargaining toward acceptable outcomes, and help maintain balance and commitment by riparian countries to the negotiating process (World Bank, 1994c). International organizations, such as the United Nations University (UNU), the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), or the World Bank, have many advantages as such a third party because each one of these can (a) act as an independent broker; (b) provide leadership inherent in its international role in donor coordination; (c) catalyse the mobilization of official as well as private funding; (d) provide an important channel for gaining access to expertise; (e) be creative in promoting appropriate process solutions; and (f) help ensure systematic evaluation of alternative solutions through the appropriate use of analytical techniques.

The UNU: Accomplishments to promote sound management of international waters

The UNU is an autonomous academic organization under the United Nations umbrella. Environment and sustainable development form one of its five major areas of concentration. The programme area entitled "Environment" responds to the United Nations' Agenda 21. The overall objectives of UNU activities in the field of management of international waters focus on the comprehensive and objective study of regions that share major international water bodies, with a view to providing bases for the sustainable environmental and political management of critical resources (Uitto, 1995).

The UNU Middle East Water Forum was organized, together with the International Water Resources Association (IWRA) and UNEP, in Cairo in February 1993. Participants invited to the Forum in their private capacities (27 leading authorities on Middle East waters) discussed the complex problems of sharing the limited water resources available in a very arid region (Biswas, 1994; Murakami, 1995; Wolf, 1995). Participants found the Forum useful in terms of developing personal contacts, new ideas, and an improved understanding of many technical facts. As a result of the Forum, the Middle East Water Commission was established.

Another UNU activity relates to environmental management of the Aral Sea region. The Aral Sea has been one of the regions studied under the UNU project on "Critical Zones in Global Environmental Change" (Kasperson et al., 1995). As an international (but not as an intergovernmental) academic institute, the UNU, through its global networks of scholars, has been actively involved in the identification of problems and solutions to water issues in the Middle East and other regions.

Assistance given by UNEP and the World Bank to the Aral Sea programme

The Aral Sea basin covers an area of over 690,000 km2, which is shared by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Small portions of its headwaters are located in Afghanistan, Iran, and China. The basin contains the two largest rivers of Central Asia - the Amudarya and the Syrdarya. These rivers are fed by the snowmelt and glaciers from the mountains. The Amudarya's sources are mostly located in Tajikistan, with a few watercourses originating in north-eastern Afghanistan. The Syrdarya originates mainly in Kyrgyzstan. It runs across small portions of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and through the Kazakh provinces of Chimkent and Kzyl-Orda (World Bank, 1994d).

In 1960 the Aral Sea was the fourth-largest inland lake in the world. Since then, however, its area and volume have decreased significantly to sixth place. This resulted from the fact that the river inflows from the Amudarya and Syrdarya have greatly diminished as a direct result of water withdrawals for newly developed irrigated farmlands both within and outside the catchment. By 1989 the sealevel had fallen by 14.3 m and the surface area had shrunk from 68,000 km2 to 37,000 km2. The salinity of the Sea had increased to eight times its 1960 level. The major environmental problems now observed in the Aral Sea basin include: the reduction of the Sea, the destruction of its aquatic ecosystem, the degradation of soil quality in many parts of the basin, pollution of surface water and groundwater of the delta areas, depressed economic activity owing to the collapse of the Aral fishery and related small industries, and adverse health impacts on the population because of the lack of safe potable water and food.

Inefficient irrigation practices coupled with heavy chemical applications, cultivation of cotton and rice, and inappropriate development policies are among the important causes. The Soviet policy for the region in the 1950s and 1960s called for the expansion of irrigated agriculture in the Amudarya and Syrdarya basins in order to promote cotton production, so that the Soviet Union could become self-sufficient in this commodity. The area devoted to paddy-rice production was also extended, despite the fact that the region is so close to the northernmost agro-climatic limit of rice cultivation. The primitive irrigation techniques applied induced massive leakage and evaporation, which led to the waterlogging and salinization of the irrigated fields.

Recognizing the crucial need to save the disappearing Aral Sea and the need to provide an overall perspective of the Aral region, the former Soviet Union, in 1989, asked UNEP to work on the environmental issues of the Aral Sea basin. UNEP has been working on the environmental management of international river and lake basins within the framework of its EMINWA (Environmentally sound Management of INland WAters) since 1985 (David et al., 1988). The EMINWA programme is designed to encourage and assist governments to integrate environmental considerations into their management and development of inland water resources, with a view to reconciling conflicting interests and ensuring the harmonious regional development of water resources - harmonious with regard to the water-related environment throughout entire water systems. The most important aim of the EMINWA programme is to introduce this synthetic approach to the management and development of freshwater resources on a basinwide scale and to promote sustainable development in entire inland water systems. The first priority is to help countries that share common river/lake/aquifer basins to develop their water resources in a sustainable manner and to use them without conflict. UNEP had assisted basin countries of the Zambezi River basin (David, 1988) and of the Lake Chad basin before it was asked by the former Soviet Union to work on the Aral Sea basin.

As a result of meetings of the working group of experts and field visits, a report ("Diagnostic Study for the Development of an Action Plan for the Aral Sea") was issued by UNEP in September 1992. The objectives of the Diagnostic Study were, within the framework of the EMINWA programme of UNEP, (a) to define specific environmental problems and their impacts in the present and the foreseeable future, and to help basin countries to formulate programmes for the incorporation of environmental concerns into the management of water resources, and (b) to increase the awareness of various governmental institutions involved in socio-economic development activities about their potential impacts within the basin, and to encourage potential donor countries to contribute to the implementation of the projects (David et al., 1988).

The Diagnostic Study presented a comprehensive analysis of the causes of the Aral Sea crisis, but did not recommend a specific action plan. It provided, however, a basis for elaboration and analysis of the strategies for further activities for mitigating the consequences of the ecological disaster. Upon completion of the Diagnostic Study by UNEP, the World Bank took over the role of coordinator of Aral Sea activities among basin countries, donor countries, and international organizations. In response to requests for assistance from the five "Aral Sea republics," a World Bank mission visited the region in late September 1992. After a review of existing reports, field visits, and discussions with the ministries and local officials of the region, the mission presented an aide-mémoire recommending four major thrusts to address the Aral crisis: (a) stabilizing the environment of the Sea; (b) rehabilitating the disaster zone around the Sea; (c) undertaking comprehensive management of the international waters; and (d) building regional institutions to plan and implement the above programmes (World Bank, 1994e).

The World Bank, in collaboration with UNEP and the UNDP, organized an international seminar in Washington D.C. in April 1993 to mobilize the support of donor countries and international agencies for the proposed programme to address the crisis. Ministerial-level representatives of the five Aral Sea basin states presented their respective heads of states' message requesting international support for the programme and confirmed their strong commitment to cooperate in order to address the Aral Sea crisis. The donors supported a Central Asian proposal to establish a "Fund" and provided a substantial grant to finance the start of work on the first phase of the programme.

The "Aral Sea Program - Phase 1" was subsequently formulated by the Executive Committee of the newly established Central Asian Republics' Interstate Council for Addressing the Aral Sea Crisis, with assistance from the World Bank, UNEP, and the UNDP. The Program has four main objectives: (a) to stabilize the environment of the Aral Sea Basin; (b) to rehabilitate the disaster zone around the Sea; (c) to improve the management of the international waters of the Aral Sea basin; and (d) to build the capacity of the regional institutions to plan and implement the above programmes. The Phase 1 Program included 19 projects designated to achieve the objectives stated above. In broad terms, 3 projects were intended to initiate the first steps to improve conditions in the disaster zone, 7 projects were intended to improve conditions in the disaster zone, and 9 projects were centred on managing the water resources of the basin. In addition to 19 projects, the Program included a separate project for building the capacity of the regional institutions to plan and implement the Program.

Based on the fact that the basin countries of the Aral Sea (a) agreed upon the Program, and (b) decided to establish a river basin organization, some donor countries have developed their projects along with the Program. This suggests that the assistance given by international organizations has proved quite effective in accomplishing some of these achievements, which might not otherwise have been attained in such a short time-frame.

Programme for the Caspian Sea basin as an international effort

The Caspian Sea is the largest closed basin lake in the world. The Sea is about 1,200 km long and about 310 km wide. Its coastline is approximately 7,000 km long. The area of the Sea is 386,400 km2, measured at 27.5 m below mean sealevel, and its drainage basin is 3.1 million km2. Five nations -Azerbaijan, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan - share the catchment. The Caspian Sea possesses a variety of marine and coastal ecosystems. Several important economic activities in the Caspian have a bearing on the Caspian environment. These include stocks of sturgeon, on which many people in fisheries depend for a livelihood, and which are an important source of export revenue. Oil exploration and exploitation around the Caspian are also of major importance.

The level of the Caspian Sea over the past 100 years has exhibited a clearly expressed tendency towards lowering. In 1977, the level reached a record low mark of 29.0 m below mean sealevel (Rodionov, 1990). As the Sea declined, human activities such as farming shifted onto the newly exposed seabed. The Soviet government responded with engineering solutions, developing plans to bring water to the Sea from wetter parts of the Soviet Union (Glantz, 1995). Shortly after this record low, the water level of the Caspian began to rise. This rise has been unusual in terms of the rate of its acceleration and, more importantly, its uninterrupted duration (Rodionov, 1990). Environmental problems are mounting: coastal inundation because of sealevel rise, water pollution by raw sewage and oil production, fishing pressure and its impacts on fish populations (especially sturgeon, the main source of high-value caviar) (Glantz, 1995). The fall in lake level between 1927 and 1977 resulted in lakeward encroachment of all kinds of economic activity, not the least important of which has been those of the petroleum industry. These included oil exploration, oil field development, and pipeline construction. Shoreline changes necessitated the lakeward movement of facilities such as moorages, docks, embankments, etc., as the lake area decreased. The unexpected rise in the lake's level since 1977 has caused the inundation of everything built on the exposed lakebed during the course of the 50 years of lake-level decline (Shafer, 1994). The Caspian basin countries and their peoples face significant environmental and resource management issues and problems, many of which are interrelated. These issues and problems have not yet been analysed in a comprehensive and systematic manner.

During the past several years, the Caspian Sea coastal states have undertaken a number of initiatives with respect to the environmental protection of the Caspian Sea. In 1991, the basin countries organized the first multilateral conference on the environmental problems of the Caspian Sea, which called for international coordination of activities aimed at the protection of the marine environment and the establishment of an international monitoring system. At Almaty, Kazakhstan, in May 1994, the coastal countries held a regional meeting on the implications of climate change for the Caspian Sea region. In the "Declaration on Environmental Cooperation in the Caspian Sea" adopted by the five basin countries, the provisions of the draft Convention for the Conservation and Utilization of Bioresources of the Caspian Sea were reaffirmed (Meeting of the Representatives of the Caspian Sea, 1994). Concern was expressed about environmental degradation of the Caspian Sea basin, particularly in its coastal zone, and about marine biological resources. The states declared that:

1. Sealevel rise, irrational utilization of natural resources, and other adverse factors represent significant risks to the region of the Caspian Sea.

2. Urgent needs exist to define the status of the Caspian Sea and its big-resources, including specially protected reserve territories and water bodies.

3. The fastest implementation of coordinated measures on stabilization of the ecological situation will prevent further degradation of the ecosystem of the Caspian Sea and its coastal territories.

4. Coordination of international cooperation in research, management, economic incentives, and harmonization of legislation with the goal of conserving the biodiversity of the Caspian Sea and its coastal zone is the highest priority task of all Caspian states.

5. The Caspian Sea states affirm their desire to cooperate constructively in environmental management and actions aimed at sustainable and ongoing utilization of the biological resources of the Caspian Sea.

6. The Caspian Sea states will cooperate fully in the preparation and implementation of programmer of joint activities on protection of the environment which should establish the basis for rational utilization of natural resources and identify a priority sphere of activities.

7. The representatives of the Caspian Sea states call on the international community to support their joint efforts and provide assistance in the development of the environmental programme.

The meeting called for coordination among the basin countries and international organizations, and agreed to request that UNEP prepare an action plan on the protection and management of the environment of the Caspian Sea. UNEP, UNDP, and the World Bank have agreed to respond to recent policy commitments made by the governments of the basin countries concerning the Caspian environment by embarking on various steps to assist the governments in the preparation and implementation of a comprehensive and integrated environmental and resource management plan for the Caspian (called the Caspian initiative). The ultimate aim of the Caspian initiative would be to facilitate the integrated management and sustainable development of oceans and seas, including enclosed and semi-enclosed seas, and coastal and marine areas (including exclusive economic zones), and the protection, rational use, and development of their natural resources.

Discussion among basin countries of the Caspian Sea and international organizations is in its very early stages. It is, thus, still not known what sort of activities are to be included in a programme that could be developed for the Caspian Sea. However, if the previous successful case in the Aral Sea basin can be viewed as a precursor, similar steps could be taken toward the development of a (Caspian programme. A working group of experts, composed of representatives from basin countries, donor countries, international organizations, and NGOs, should be established. A diagnostic study could then be prepared by the working group, as a baseline for understanding the circumstances of the water body and its catchment. A draft programme or a draft action plan could be developed, based on the findings of a Caspian Sea diagnostic study. At the same time, donors' meetings could be organized to let potential donor countries and organizations know the nature of the issue(s) and possible ways and means for solution(s). The programme developed should be adopted by basin countries as a binding document. Riparian countries should also agree upon the implementation scheme for the adopted programme; this may include the establishment of a river/lake basin organization.


Past experiences accumulated by the UNU, UNEP, and the World Bank have shown that the following aspects are essential in promoting the integrated management of international water bodies: collaboration among international organizations and donor agencies; and the involvement of the central decision-making mechanism.

Collaboration among international organizations and donor agencies

Although the importance of collaboration among various organizations, each with a different mandate, has been stressed, it has not always been realized in the past. For example, UNEP developed, between 1985 and 1987, the "Action Plan for the Environmentally Sound Management of the Common Zambezi River System" (David, 1988). The plenipotentiaries of the Zambezi River basin countries (ministries responsible mostly for water and/or environmental matters) signed the International Agreement on the Action Plan for the Environmentally Sound Management of the Common Zambezi River System in 1987 at Harare, Zimbabwe. The implementation of the Action Plan has nevertheless been very sluggish, because only a few donor agencies showed interest in the implementation of the Action Plan (Balek, 1992). As before, development activities in the Zambezi River basin have been conducted in an uncoordinated manner by riparian countries and donor agencies.

International organizations often stress the importance of coordination among basin countries. However, as a matter of fact, basin countries sharing an international water body usually have such mechanisms as a river basin authority or a lake basin commission for this purpose, and the remaining problem is how to make these institutional arrangements functional. Ironically, what is generally lacking is a mechanism that permits international organizations and donor agencies to coordinate their activities in a particular international basin.

One possible excuse for the lack of such a mechanism is that it is only the recipient country that is in a position to provide this mechanism - neither international organizations nor donor agencies are supposed to collaborate by themselves. However, if donor agencies assume that a basin country (in the developing world) lacks the capacity to manage its own water resources (and they provide it with various forms of aid), it would be very naive to presume that the same country would have the capacity to coordinate projects that would be provided by donor agencies. The lack of coordination may stem from the fact that (a) international organizations and donor agencies are themselves competing to support the "better" projects, (b) few of these organizations are willing to be coordinated by another donor agency, (c) little effort has been given to the establishment of a mechanism for coordination, and (d) neither international organizations nor donor agencies are keen to enhance the capability of the recipient country to coordinate aid operations. Thus, efforts are clearly needed to develop an appropriate mechanism so that development activities in an international basin could be coordinated both among basin countries and among international organizations and donor agencies.

The involvement of the central decision-making mechanism

Another essential factor in promoting integrated management of international water bodies is the involvement of the central decisionmaking mechanism in each basin country. The success of the World Bank in the Indus Water Treaty in getting the agreement of the riparian countries (though the Treaty did not aim at integrated management of the basin) can be attributed to the fact that the Prime Minister of India and the President of Pakistan were involved in the process and consulted throughout the negotiation process. The impasse in the implementation of the Action Plan for the Zambezi River basin may stem from the fact that (a) only ministries in charge of environment in basin countries, which were responsible for UNEP related issues, participated in the development of the Action Plan, (b) other ministries working on development projects in the basin had little to do with the Action Plan, and (c) the commitment of the central decision-making mechanism in each basin country was not obtained for implementation of the Action Plan.

Implementation of the "Aral Sea Program," promoted by the World Bank, can be used as a prototype because (a) the Program was supported by the top decision makers of the basin countries, (b) efforts were made to coordinate the activities of other international organizations and donor agencies, and (c) ministries in charge of developing projects in the catchment actively participated in the formulation of the Program.


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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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_____1994a. A Guide to the Formulation of Water Resources Strategy. World Bank Technical Paper Number 263. Washington, D.C.: World Bank.

_____1994b. International Inland Waters. World Bank Technical Paper Number 239. Washington, D.C.: World Bank.

_____1994c. A Strategy for Managing Water in the Middle East and North Africa. Washington, D.C.: World Bank.

_____1994d. Turkmenistan - World Bank Country Study. Washington, D.C.: World Bank.

_____1994e. Aral Sea Program Phase 1. Briefing paper for the proposed donors' meeting to be held on June 23-24, 1994 in Paris. Washington, D.C.: World Bank.

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