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Can regional organisations prevent future water conflicts?

by Thin Lei Win | @thinink | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 8 November 2012 12:07 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Political will is key ? as Laos' decision to push ahead with the Xayaburi Dam, despite neighbours' opposition, shows

By Thin Lei Win

The Nile, the Indus, the Mekong, the Danube are just some of the famous rivers that provide food and energy to millions of people. Their basins are shared by countries of varying sizes, needs and stages of development.

According to the United Nations, 263 transboundary lake and river basins cover nearly half of the earth’s land surface and account for an estimated 60 percent of global freshwater flows. Yet more than half of those - 158 - lack a cooperative framework between neighbouring countries on how to use and manage the water.

As the world’s population grows and urbanises, demands for water for domestic and industrial use will rise and put these rivers and governments under growing pressure, scientists say – even without the added threat of climate change.

A conference last week in Chiang Rai in northern Thailand said ‘hydro-diplomacy’ is required to avert future water-related conflicts, with river basin organisations (RBOs) an important tool to help tip the balance from potential conflict to cooperation.

Teferra Beyene, chief executive officer for Nile Basin Initiative, an RBO which brings together government ministers from the states along the Nile, said such organisations can enhance efficiency in water use, contributes to the reduction of risks from climate change and offer a platform for dialogue and building consensus. 

They are also essential to analyse the needs, synergies and trade-offs between countries sharing the same river basins, said Torkil Jønch Clausen, senior advisor to the Global Water Partnership and chair of the scientific programme of World Water Week in Stockholm.

“River basin entities can be advisory. They can be light, they can be heavy. Like in the Mekong there are several hundred people for five countries. In the Danube, there are less than 20 (people) for 10 countries,” he told AlertNet.  

They could also be bilateral, like the International Boundary Commission between Canada and the U.S., or broader, like the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River, which has 14 members.


Clausen has a note of caution, however.

“Unless what they do is mainstreamed and owned by the countries, it won't work,” he said – a point echoed by others at the conference.

“(RBOs) are a long and complex journey. There's no single path to success and there are very few shortcuts,” said Gordon Johnson, environment and energy team leader for the U.N. Development Programme in the Asia Pacific region.

“First and foremost, political will is key,” he said.

An integrated approach to water use - instead of simply focusing on a specific bit of infrastructure or a specific problem – combined with information-sharing between countries to build trust and and efforts to ensure the sustainability of the organisation through national budgets instead of relying on donors can make such organizations successful, Johnson said.

According to the U.N., water availability varies greatly across the Asia Pacific region. Southeast Asia has more than 150,000 cubic metres of available water per square kilometre, whereas the Pacific sub-region, including Australia and New Zealand, has less than 30,000.

Still, “If there's a water security problem in Asia, it's likely due to governments rather than a lack of water,” said Ian W. Makin, principal water resources specialist for the Asian Development Bank, who said there’s a strong relationship between national water security and status of governance in a country.


But what should the mandate of an RBO be? Should it be simply a facilitator? Or something more?

Hans Guttman, chief executive officer of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) Secretariat, said his organisation’s role as an inter-governmental facilitating agency is to provide technical, scientific information that can underpin political decision.

“When there are competing demands and different opinions about impacts, both positive and negative, technical support will be able to move that discussion forward,” he told journalists on the sidelines of the conference.

Yet there are times when technical support is not enough.

On Wednesday, Laos held a groundbreaking ceremony for the controversial $3.5-billion, 1,260-megawatt Xayaburi Dam despite opposition by environmentalists, neighbouring countries and MRC’s own recommendation for a 10-year moratorium

Xayaburi is the first of a dozen dams planned by landlocked, impoverished Laos, which has ambitions to become the “battery of Southeast Asia” by exporting most of the power generated by its hydro projects.

In December, under pressure from neighbouring countries who are concerned about damage to fish migration routes, farm land, food security and local livelihoods, Laos had agreed to put the project on hold.

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