Peaceful water cooperation requires new thinking

Regional collaborations on common natural resources are crucial to avoid conflicts. At the same time, the decision-making processes within intergovernmental institutions are complex, something that makes it difficult to collaborate on, for example, shared water sources. It is therefore necessary to think new in the water sector and to involve more actors in order to achieve sustainable management. It writes Therese Sjömander Magnusson, program manager at SIWI, in a reply.

The challenges for regional cooperation on common natural resources may never have been as great as they are today. Weather and climate-related crises and disasters are occurring more and more often, globalization means that nations, markets and sectors must adapt to faster change, and the high pace of urbanization poses major challenges for decision-makers in terms of urban planning, environmental issues and concentrated resource needs.

At the same time, the population is increasing most in the areas that today do not have social systems that are able to strengthen individuals' opportunities to resist and, above all, recover from these crises and disasters. In a world where development is accelerating and globalization is also affecting regional and local conditions for economic growth, many government representatives in these regional processes are facing difficult decisions. Extraction and export of natural resources can alleviate in many cases the urgent need for foreign capital for states, but this often leads to greater problems, not least for ecosystems and the conditions of the local population. Equally difficult challenges arise in connection with occasional global events such as severe drought in some parts of the world, which could affect food prices on a completely different continent.

In this context, the concept of security gets, which Malin Mobjörk refers to in her article on the Development Aid debate, a wider meaning. Today, it extends beyond the traditional concept of defense and increasingly includes the link to, among other things, human security, sustainable ecosystems and financial systems. From a broader perspective, the benefits of regional cooperation on natural resources should appear convincing. But there are difficulties in balancing sovereignty with regionalism.

From the context above, it is easy to discern how cooperation and management of a watercourse or lake shared by two or more countries is very complex. We know that water is crucial for people, production sectors and economic interests, but also for sustainable ecosystems. If the largest and most reliable water source in a country is shared with other countries, the need for cooperation is crucial. But this cooperation moves in the borderland between safeguarding national interests and at the same time compromising in order to exploit the potential and achieve greater regional benefits for several countries. The geographical location of a nation, upstream-downstream, in a catchment area reinforces the risk of imbalance in the negotiations on how water should be allocated between countries but also how the watercourse can be developed (eg hydropower and irrigation).

Despite these challenges, we have seen few armed conflicts over water in the world. The risk of nations going to war over water is today seen as very small. On the other hand, we are seeing more and more areas of concern about lack of water supply within countries, e.g. between ethnic groups and within parts of cities. This, of course, increases the demands on governments to be able to meet a growing dissatisfaction and increased vulnerability due to climate change and population growth.

In recent years, the concept of "benefit sharing" (roughly translated "shared income") of a common watercourse has been widely heard. The concept is to discuss and agree on how countries within a catchment area jointly manage and receive part of the income from the water. One example is Lesotho Highland Project which generates hydropower and secures the water supply for both Lesotho and South Africa. With joint investments and agreements on how the income from hydropower generation will be distributed between the countries, Lesotho and South Africa have, through increased regional cooperation, found a balance to secure national interests.

But joint management of shared watercourses is also part of a political context that does not always facilitate regional cooperation. A number of formalized institutional collaborations (through intergovernmental agreements) exist worldwide, e.g. Mekong River Commission in Southeast Asia and Okavango River Commission in South Africa. These institutions play a critical role in bringing together representatives of the various nations at the same table, thereby minimizing the risk of conflicts but also of finding forms of cooperation.

The challenge we are increasingly seeing today is the complex decision-making processes that intergovernmental institutions are undergoing are leading to the emergence of more and more sub-regional forms of cooperation outside the intergovernmental agreement. These may be two nations that decide to cooperate on a hydropower plant. The problem arises when these two countries are located upstream in the catchment area and where investments can thus cause major consequences downstream. The interesting question is how these sub-regional alliances undermine the intergovernmental agreements around the entire watercourse. How do you maintain a good level of regional identity and willingness to cooperate in that context?

The forms of regional cooperation probably need to be reviewed and developed in line with this. The possibilities are undoubtedly on several levels. The intergovernmental institutions probably need to reduce their areas of responsibility and have a clearer role in coordination, conflict management and sustainable development. At the same time, other forms of regional co-operation are likely to have an increasing influence on cross-border water resource management, such as ASEAN in Asia. Different regional institutions are driven by different interests and purposes. Where the EU is an example of intergovernmental cooperation based on institutions and state actors, ASEAN is rather driven by different regional economic networks. In order to find clearer incentives for governments to engage in regional cooperation and management of a common watercourse, we need to better understand how different forms of regional cooperation outside the water sector work.

In the light of the developments I have described above, it is likely that we will increasingly need to see how other, parallel management structures affect cross-border water cooperation. Decades of focus on supporting the construction of intergovernmental institutions on water cooperation have been crucial in strengthening the capacity for the sustainable development of these rivers. Maybe we need to think new and different to meet the fragmentation that is developing in catchment areas? In the water sector, we probably need to see how other types of institutions, networks, partnerships and forms of cooperation that strengthen regional integration affect water management between countries.

At SIWI, we are currently developing the approach to regional integration and how various regional actors, within and outside the water sector, may affect the management of cross-border water in the coming years. We develop examples from, among others, the Mekong River in Southeast Asia but also around the Nile in East Africa.

The challenge in this context lies in understanding and thus being able to influence these institutions so that we contribute to a socially, economically and ecologically sustainable development and management of shared water resources.

Therese Sjömander Magnusson

Program manager for the theme area Transboundary Water Management SIWI

This is a debate article. The author is responsible for analysis and opinions in the text.

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