The unity of wa­ter

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE - By Mikhail Gor­bachev

In May, Viet­nam be­came the 35th and de­ci­sive sig­na­tory of the 1997 United Na­tions Con­ven­tion on the Law of the NonNav­i­ga­tional Uses of In­ter­na­tional Water­courses. As a re­sult, 90 days later, on Au­gust 17, the con­ven­tion will en­ter into force.

The fact that it took al­most 50 years to draft and fi­nally achieve the nec­es­sary rat­i­fi­ca­tion thresh­old demon­strates that some­thing is very wrong with the mod­ern sys­tem of mul­ti­lat­er­al­ism. Re­gard­less of long­stand­ing dis­agree­ments over how cross-bor­der fresh­wa­ter re­sources should be al­lo­cated and man­aged, and un­der­stand­able pref­er­ences by gov­ern­ments and wa­ter pro­fes­sion­als to rely on basin agree­ments rather than on in­ter­na­tional le­gal in­stru­ments, that half-century wait can be ex­plained only by a lack of po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship. So, though the world may cel­e­brate the con­ven­tion’s long-awaited adop­tion, we can­not rest on our lau­rels.

Roughly 60% of all fresh­wa­ter runs within cross-bor­der basins; only an es­ti­mated 40% of those basins, how­ever, are gov­erned by some sort of basin agree­ment. In an in­creas­ingly wa­ter-stressed world, shared wa­ter re­sources are be­com­ing an in­stru­ment of power, fos­ter­ing com­pe­ti­tion within and be­tween coun­tries. The strug­gle for wa­ter is height­en­ing po­lit­i­cal ten­sions and ex­ac­er­bat­ing im­pacts on ecosys­tems.

But the re­ally bad news is that wa­ter con­sump­tion is grow­ing faster than pop­u­la­tion – in­deed, in the twen­ti­eth century it grew at twice the rate. As a re­sult, sev­eral UN agencies fore­cast that, by 2025, 1.8 bil­lion people will be liv­ing in re­gions stricken with ab­so­lute wa­ter scarcity, im­ply­ing a lack of ac­cess to ad­e­quate quan­ti­ties for hu­man and en­vi­ron­men­tal uses. More­over, two-thirds of the world’s pop­u­la­tion will face wa­ter-stress con­di­tions, mean­ing a scarcity of re­new­able fresh­wa­ter.

With­out res­o­lute counter-mea­sures, de­mand for wa­ter will over­stretch many so­ci­eties’ adap­tive ca­pac­i­ties. This could re­sult in mas­sive mi­gra­tion, eco­nomic stag­na­tion, desta­bi­liza­tion, and vi­o­lence, pos­ing a new threat to na­tional and in­ter­na­tional se­cu­rity.

The UN Water­courses Con­ven­tion must not be­come just an­other ig­nored in­ter­na­tional agree­ment, filed away in a drawer. The stakes are too high. In to­day’s con­text of cli­mate change, ris­ing de­mand, pop­u­la­tion growth, in­creas­ing pol­lu­tion, and over­ex­ploited re­sources, ev­ery­thing must be done to con­sol­i­date the le­gal frame­work for man­ag­ing the world’s wa­ter­sheds. Our en­vi­ron­men­tal se­cu­rity, eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, and po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity di­rectly de­pend on it.

The con­ven­tion will soon ap­ply to all of the cross-bor­der rivers of its sig­na­to­ries’ ter­ri­to­ries, not just the big­gest basins. It will com­ple­ment the gaps and short­com­ings of ex­ist­ing agree­ments and pro­vide le­gal cov­er­age to the nu­mer­ous cross-bor­der rivers that are un­der in­creas­ing pres­sure. World­wide, there are 276 cross­bor­der fresh­wa­ter basins and about as many cross-bor­der aquifers. Backed by ad­e­quate fi­nanc­ing, po­lit­i­cal will, and the en­gage­ment of stake­hold­ers, the con­ven­tion can help ad­dress the wa­ter chal­lenges that we are all fac­ing. But will it?

An am­bi­tious agenda should be adopted now, at a time when the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity is ne­go­ti­at­ing the con­tents of the Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment Goals (SDGs), the suc­ces­sor to the UN Mil­len­nium De­vel­op­ment Goals, which will ex­pire in 2015. We at Green Cross hope that the new goals, which are to be achieved by 2030, will in­clude a stand-alone tar­get that ad­dresses wa­ter-re­sources man­age­ment.

More­over, the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity will soon have to agree on a cli­mate-change frame­work to re­place the Ky­oto Pro­to­col. Cli­mate change di­rectly af­fects the hy­dro­log­i­cal cy­cle, which means that all of the ef­forts that are un­der­taken to con­tain green­house-gas emis­sions will help to sta­bi­lize rain­fall pat­terns and mit­i­gate the ex­treme wa­ter events that so many re­gions are al­ready ex­pe­ri­enc­ing.

But the UN Water­courses Con­ven­tion’s en­try into force raises as many new ques­tions as ex­isted in the pe­riod be­fore its rat­i­fi­ca­tion. What will its im­ple­men­ta­tion mean in prac­tice? How will coun­tries ap­ply its man­dates within their borders and in re­la­tion to ri­par­ian neigh­bors? How will the Amer­i­can and Asian coun­tries that have largely ig­nored rat­i­fi­ca­tion re­spond?

Fur­ther­more, how will the con­ven­tion re­late to the Con­ven­tion on the Pro­tec­tion and Use of Trans­bound­ary Water­courses and In­ter­na­tional Lakes, which is al­ready in force in most Euro­pean and Cen­tral Asian coun­tries and, since Fe­bru­ary 2013, has aimed to open its mem­ber­ship to the rest of the world? Sim­i­larly, how will the con­ven­tion’s im­ple­men­ta­tion af­fect ex­ist­ing re­gional and lo­cal cross-bor­der fresh­wa­ter agree­ments?

The coun­tries that rat­i­fied the UN Water­courses Con­ven­tion are ex­pected to en­gage in its im­ple­men­ta­tion and to go fur­ther in their ef­forts to pro­tect and sus­tain­ably use their cross-bor­der wa­ters. What in­stru­ments, in­clud­ing fi­nan­cial, will the con­ven­tion pro­vide to them?

Sev­eral le­gal in­stru­ments can be im­ple­mented jointly and syn­er­gis­ti­cally: the Ram­sar Con­ven­tion on Wet­lands, the UN Con­ven­tion to Com­bat De­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion, and the UN Frame­work Con­ven­tion on Cli­mate Change, to name just a few. The UN Water­courses Con­ven­tion’s long-de­layed en­act­ment should be viewed as an op­por­tu­nity for sig­na­tory states to en­cour­age those that are not yet party to co­op­er­a­tive agree­ments to work se­ri­ously on these is­sues.

Clearly, politi­cians and diplo­mats alone can­not re­spond ef­fec­tively to the chal­lenges that the world faces. What the world needs is the en­gage­ment of po­lit­i­cal, busi­ness, and civil­so­ci­ety lead­ers; ef­fec­tive im­ple­men­ta­tion of the UN Water­courses Con­ven­tion is im­pos­si­ble with­out it.

This is too of­ten over­looked, but it con­sti­tutes the key to the long-term suc­cess of co­op­er­a­tion that gen­er­ates ben­e­fits for all. In­clu­sive par­tic­i­pa­tion by stake­hold­ers (in­clud­ing the af­fected com­mu­ni­ties), and the de­vel­op­ment of the ca­pac­ity to iden­tify, value, and share the ben­e­fits of cross-bor­der wa­ter re­sources, should be an in­te­gral part of any strat­egy to achieve ef­fec­tive mul­ti­lat­eral col­lab­o­ra­tion.

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