Water Cooperation—Necessary and Challenging: Q&A with Danilo Türk and Sundeep Waslekar

Aerial view of the Santa Branca dam, in the interior of Sao Paulo, which belongs to the Paraíba do Sul basin. The Paraíba river basin supplies water to approximately 14 million people. (Agencia Estado via AP Images)

Transboundary river basins extend over 140 countries and impact the lives of over 2 billion people. Access to the fresh water that flows through these basins is an increasing cause of concern, as UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently warned that by 2050 at least one in four people will live in circumstances where the lack of fresh water will be either chronic or recurrent.

The challenge of ensuring access to fresh water is complicated by the need for cooperation between nations, especially in regions where conflict impedes these efforts. It is for these reasons and others that in 2015 the Global High-Level Panel on Water and Peace was established in Geneva.

On the sidelines of an event on global water management hosted by the International Peace Institute in January, the Global Observatory spoke with Danilo Türk and Sundeep Waslekar on the complexities of water cooperation. Mr. Türk, a former President of Slovenia and UN Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs, is the Chair of the Global High-Level Panel on Water and Peace. Mr. Waslekar is the President of the Strategic Foresight Group, a think tank based in India that supports the work of the panel.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What are the factors that hamper or facilitate cooperation over water and water resource management?

Mr. Waslekar: Trans-border water cooperation exists at various levels and we can make a distinction between basic cooperation and active cooperation. Basic cooperation is technical—like day-to-day communication between riparian countries, small technical projects, and small agreements. Active cooperation is where there is a demonstration of strong political will. The countries work together to launch and manage perhaps significant water projects. They have very strong alternative dispute resolution mechanisms and sound functioning institutions.

The 286 shared water basins in the world can be divided into three categories: those that do not have any cooperation; those with basic cooperation; and some that have active cooperation. There is a direct correlation between the level of political will and the nature of cooperation—the higher the political will, the higher the cooperation.

Mr. Türk: In terms of factors that hamper cooperation, there are two kinds. First, the physical nature of the problem. Water scarcity is a real challenge and it is difficult to find optimal water cooperation arrangements.

The second part is political. Countries are understandably careful not to sacrifice their sovereignty when it comes to natural resources, especially with water. So, it’s always very sensitive to work out arrangements between countries—some of whom are upper riparian, others lower riparian—that have varying concerns. This results in challenging political environments for water cooperation, even though cooperation is necessary.

To give an idea, there are 147 states involved in the 286 shared water basins, but there are only roughly 86 water arrangement or water cooperation mechanisms. On aquifers there are only about seven, which shows there is a very serious need for strengthening cooperation and overcoming obstacles.

Are there examples of high levels of active water cooperation?

Mr. Waslekar: The Strategic Foresight Group has produced something called the “Water Cooperation Quotient,” which ranks all 286 shared river basins in the world on the degree of cooperation. In this ranking there are six or seven shared water arrangements of this kind.

Prime examples are the Senegal River Basin Organization and the Gambia River Basin Organization. In both basins, the countries concerned own all the water research, dams, irrigation systems, navigation lines, etc. National sovereignty is thus subordinate. This is the ultimate example of cooperation over water, or really anything. I don’t know of many examples in any field besides water where countries are voluntarily surrendering their sovereignty over resources located in their countries.

There is another kind of cooperation which comprises all the rivers between the two countries, like the Albufeira Convention between Spain and Portugal, and the arrangement between Finland and Russia. In these arrangements the countries don’t own the assets or surrender sovereignty, but they take all decisions jointly.

Taking the Mekong River as another example, in that context there has been significant technical cooperation, but not political. How central are the mandates of river basin organizations to reaching the goals of water cooperation?

Mr. Waslekar: The mandate is the result; the drive for cooperation has to come from political leaders. This is what happened in the Senegal River basin, the Gambia River basin, and also the Trifinio Plan in Central America. In the Mekong River basin, even though there are government meetings once in a few years, the management is the responsibility of water ministers. When water ministers are the managers you will never have active water cooperation, you will only have basic cooperation.

Eighty percent of the water in many developing countries is used for agriculture, so how can you separate water from agriculture? Water is also related to security issues. More and more there is a demand on water resources for producing hydroelectricity and for diverting water flows to urban areas. A water minister cannot decide about security or agriculture because that’s with other ministers. They cannot decide how much water should go or not go into the urban area around the capital. In order to coordinate all this, you need leadership from the head of the government. In the Mekong basin they have somehow failed to do that.

Another issue specific to the Mekong basin is that the entire effort has been driven from the outside. Until recently, the management was from Europe or from other places, and you cannot progress if there is not local ownership.

Given the different contexts for each water basin, can a strategy be made for every case? Are there certain mechanisms that could generate cooperation in all situations?

Mr. Türk: Clearly no two circumstances are exactly the same, but situations like the Senegal River system can be illuminating. In this system, all the water infrastructure is under the Senegal River Basin Organization. States have accepted that this infrastructure is commonly owned and not for them as sovereign countries. One can see over decades how this has helped with political stability in the region between Senegal, Guinea, Mali, and Mauritania.

This arrangement cannot be replicated everywhere but it does give an idea of what is possible. A small example: in the lower part of Senegal River, there is a dam to prevent high water from the sea entering the river and destroying agriculture. Everybody understands the dam’s importance. I asked the people who are in charge of security for the dam, “Are you afraid of any terrorist venturing in this area?” They said, “No, because we have the entire population with us. If there is something funny happening, we’ll know.” In this small example you see that the dam serving all people in the area is in itself a strong guarantee of collective security.

It is clear that an entire community’s support can have far-reaching impact. What can be done in places where the fabric of community has been broken, for example where a conflict has destabilized an entire region?

Mr. Türk: Again, each situation is different, but we know from history that when war ends, then water cooperation is an obvious aspect of peace arrangements. We have seen this in Europe in particular, as in the Peace of Westphalia which had water clauses, and most recently after the war in the former Yugoslavia. After the war, the first multilateral arrangement was joint cooperation over the Sava River, one of the major tributaries of the Danube. It flows from Slovenia to Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, and also included Macedonia and Montenegro indirectly later. These countries recognized the need to cooperate in order to prevent floods and to make use of the river for irrigation and electricity production.

Now, whether this applies within a single state where there has been internal conflict, that is an open question. In such situations I think one should look to West Africa, because there are many river arrangements there and some of them in places which were affected by wars, such as Liberia. Looking at these examples and using the knowledge that water cooperation is needed in peace making and post-conflict peacebuilding can help in complex situations.

Many recognize the importance of water cooperation or arrangements after conflict, as you mentioned, but can frameworks for sustaining peace be implemented so we are not limited to post-conflict action on water?

Mr. Türk: The history of war in Syria is a dramatic and tragic lesson in this regard because it is now obvious that what took place in the country before was a major contributing factor to tensions and subsequently to war. This is very important because when the [UN] secretary-general gave his vision of security cooperation in the Security Council in December last year, he said two key things: one is that water scarcity is a major factor contributing to the collapse of peace, and secondly, prevention must be in the center of everything we do.

I hope the UN system will organize itself around these ideas so that all the UN agencies will be aware of potential disruptions as a result of water scarcity and other water-related problems, and they will work out plans on how to deal with them.

The report, A Matter of Survival, highlights people diplomacy as important in mediating local water conflicts. Can you give examples of how citizens can be empowered to negotiate?

Mr. Waslekar: I can give two concrete examples, one positive and one negative. Iraq and Turkey have decided—in the middle of the conflict in Syria—to manage the Tigris River jointly. Turkey, which is an upper riparian country, has even allowed a delegation of the Iraqi government to visit the controversial Ilısu Dam, and after consultation, has agreed to postpone filling it. This has been possible because of the Blue Peace community that has emerged in the Middle East over the last seven or eight years. The group is made up of a few hundred champions of trans-border water cooperation—members of parliament, current and former ministers, government officials, media people, academics, and other experts. They identified water as something concrete that can be used to harness cooperation. Step by step they advocated for meetings and cooperation, all of which translated into an intergovernmental agreement, signed in March 2017.

On the other hand, you have the Nile basin. In March 2015, the heads of states of Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan signed a Declaration of Principles in which they agreed to a coordinated approach towards the future of a dam on the Nile River in Ethiopia. They even made a plan of action, but the agreement was limited to the heads of states, and there was no equivalent of a Blue Peace community. As a result, after increasing public pressure within each country, the governments have many times tried to withdraw from the original agreement. The dynamics are such that in public statements they withdraw, but then away from the gaze of the public they try to reach a compromise. These two examples are evidence of how the existence of a community like Blue Peace can make or break deals.