By Dr David Tickner, Head of Freshwater Programmes, WWF UK
Published Monday, 28 January, 2008 - 15:56
Only 16 countries have ratified the UN Water Courses Convention, to sustainably share water - the author calls for more action on part our and all leading governments in the world to do more to ensure everyone has water in the future.
Next time you see a map of a political hotspot in a newspaper article, take a careful look. It’s a fair bet that there will be a river marked on it somewhere. It’s equally likely that it will be an international river.
Think about it: Conflict in Israel and Palestine? That’ll be two countries divided by the Jordan River. Tensions between Iraq, Syria and Turkey? Probably exacerbated by conflicting demands for the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates. India and Pakistan not getting on so well? Actually, one thing those two nations will talk to each other about is how to carve up the flow of the Indus River. But it’s never an easy conversation.
It’s a fact of life that countries argue over water. Some people, including the current UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and his predecessor Kofi Annan, contend that water rather than oil could cause future wars, especially as climate change makes river flows ever more unpredictable. As Mark Twain remarked, “whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over.”
Whether or not the “water wars” hypothesis is true, access to water, and the perceived theft or abuse of it by your upstream or downstream neighbours, certainly doesn’t help the cause of international diplomacy.
This isn’t surprising and one thing everyone agrees on is that water is a very precious substance. Without safe and sustainable access to clean water for drinking, washing, growing food and running our factories life can be pretty miserable, if not impossible. And we shouldn’t forget all those nice flamingoes, otters, salmon and dolphins, to name but a few, that live in the rivers, lakes and wetlands of the world.
So you’d think that an international agreement regarding ways to manage water wisely and co-operatively would have universal appeal. Well, no, as it happens.
In May 1997, after decades of discussion and debate, the UN General Assembly adopted the – deep breath – UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses. We water policy people call it the UN Watercourses Convention.
The Convention basically says that countries should protect and use international rivers and lakes equitably, sustainably and reasonably. In making decisions about water management, they should take special regard for human needs, including those in all the countries that share the watercourse. Where nations can’t agree about sharing water, they should abide by a logical conflict resolution process.
It’s not a perfect Convention. There are compromises and fudges. But it’s a pretty good, common sense approach to managing arguably the world’s most critical natural resource.
Neither is it the most ambitious or detailed UN Convention going. It’s meant to set out a framework of general principles rather than specific targets or measures. This is one reason why 103 countries voted in favour of it, with only three (China, Turkey and Burundi) voting against. In 1997 the new Labour Government, just three weeks after coming to power, even co-sponsored the Convention.
Now, ten years later, just 16 nations have completed the domestic ratification or accession processes required to formalize their support for the Convention. For the Convention to come into force, 35 countries need to do this. Several EU countries have ratified it, including Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany. Others – including the UK – are yet to even start the accession process. In a parliamentary response in 2007, the then Secretary of State for International Development, Hilary Benn, said that the UK government was thinking about it.
What is there to think about?
The Convention is as relevant now as it was ten years ago. The UN Millennium Development Goals are focusing the world’s attention on issues such as the need to reduce hunger and poverty (which depend on reliable water supplies to farmers), to achieve universal education (which requires piped water supplies so that young girls don’t have to skip school to collect water from distant wells) and to ensure improved sanitation for more than two billion poor people (which implies sufficient water to dilute a lot of sewage). All of these goals could be for nothing if countries can’t agree how to share water sustainably.
With climate change beginning to take effect and floods and droughts seemingly increasing in frequency and severity it is possible that the UN Watercourses Convention is actually more relevant than ever.
Over the last ten years, many expert panels and NGOs have expressed support for the Convention, including the World Water Council, the World Commission on Dams, and WWF my own organization. Esteemed publications such as the 2006 UN Human Development Report have called on politicians to redouble their efforts to co-operate over managing transboundary waters.
Here in the UK, leading academics and a broad collection of NGOs are asking Gordon Brown’s Government to accede to the Convention and to use it as a template for foreign policy engagements, for overseas development aid allocations and for supporting climate change adaption efforts.
John F Kennedy once said that "anyone who can solve the problems of water will be worthy of two Nobel prizes - one for peace and one for science." The UK shouldn’t feel compelled to solve the world’s water crisis by itself, but the Government has shown admirable leadership on other global issues, including those on climate change mitigation and on improving the provision of water and sanitation.
If the Government won’t sign up to a Convention that links those two issues and one that asks countries to co-operate for peaceful, sustainable sharing of our most precious natural resource, it needs to provide a compelling reason why.
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