After recent heated debate over China’s mega-dam plans, any visitor to the UN’s much-vaunted International Year of Water Cooperation this week would have been disappointed.
As well as a notable absence of any representatives from China, there was a lack of any discussion of large infrastructure projects, just weeks after the country announced plans to build a slew of controversial giant dams on rivers flowing to other countries, including India.
The positive mantra of cooperation, cited by diplomats, technocrats, scientists and policymakers gathered at UNESCO’s headquarters on Monday, side-stepped the more intractable factors that lie at the heart of water conflicts; neglect of treaties, powerful political and business interests and asymmetrical power relations between countries that share river basins.
Participants highlighted impressive cases of collaboration – from clearing up pollution along the Danube, to economic cooperation on the Nile; from joint management of water tables in Africa, to city-to-city collaboration on water sanitation and flood control.
A recent study on water cooperation and conflict from 1945 to 2008 was cited to prove conventional wisdom on “water wars” wrong. Researchers at Oregon State University compiled a database for every reported water interaction between states and found that there were more than twice as many cooperative events than conflicts between riparian countries.
But the same research also shows that 90% of conflict-laden events related to just two issues (infrastructure and quantity) – the very gripes that keep China’s neighbours awake at night. And when there are no existing legal frameworks for cooperation or mechanisms to share data across river basins - like between China and other Asian countries – these are tricky issues to tackle.
“Political will is the crucial aspect we need to work on in the water world,” warned Johannes Cullman, chair person of the International Hydrological Programme. “Without the political will, we can have lots of nice discussion and councils, we can have lots of nice programmes on paper, but we will not change the way the people live in our world in terms of scarce and contaminated resources.”
The UN can be congratulated for pushing the importance of water cooperation up the agenda, but the right parties need to be brought together for discussion around the same table.