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RIO+20 The Future We Want

RIO+20 the future we want

Water diplomacy in action: Cooperation starts with coordination

Secretary General and General Assembly President

New York, 22 February – Greater cooperation on water access and use across national borders could bring even larger development dividends, according to water experts who shared their experiences and mapped a path for better coordination at a UN meeting aimed at promoting the International Year of Water Cooperation.

Aiming for greater concerted action to tackle water sector issues, UN-Water—an umbrella group for many UN agencies working on water issues—and several countries calling themselves "Friends of Water" called for dialogue to further water cooperation.

"Water, water everywhere, only if we share," said Michel Jarraud, Chair of UN Water, summing up the quandary that faced event participants and the world while he used the International Year of Water Cooperation's winning slogan, written by a young woman from India. "We really have to get out of our traditional boxes and work together."

While water cooperation between nations sharing resources has existed for centuries, what could be a potential source of conflict has most often resulted in agreements. Since 1948, 37 water-related conflicts have occurred, yet more than 200 agreements have been signed, including between Israel and Jordan, and among the more than dozen riparian nations along the Nile and Mekong river basins.

Water was "the ultimate cross-cutting issue", said Jarraud, highlighting that cooperation remained both a major challenge and opportunity.

"Water risks and water challenges are growing and the time of silo-thinking was over," said Ursula Schaefer-Preuss, Chair of the Global Water Partnership, which supports the sustainable development and management of water resources at all levels to build a water-secure world. "Integration is needed among players."

Highlighting lessons learned, Josefina Maestu, Coordinator of the UN-Water Decade Programme on Advocacy and Communication, said mediation in cooperation agreements was water diplomacy in action.

Other lessons learned came from India, where new approaches had produced startling results for 1 million farmers. A government-subsidized promotion of drip and sprinkler irrigation systems aimed at providing farmers with the tools to water their crops resulted in a low 30 per cent uptake by participants, whereas a programme supported by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization that made the farmer the central agent for change had a 200 uptake.

The secret of success? "Let the farmer be the scientist or the hydrologist," said Sanjay Pahuja, Senior Water Resources Specialist at the World Bank. "The idea is that the person on the ground has to be the agent."

Designed by behaviour scientists from the Netherlands, the programme aimed to raise awareness of water management, with farmers donating part of their land to establish a rain gauge to learn how to measure rainfall. The project spread to 550 villages, reaching 1 million farmers, and becoming the first place in the world to show large scale success in community water management. Spin off benefits of women's empowerment were immense, he said.

The scope of water concerns has changed since the United Nations World Water Development Report was launched in 2003, said Olcay Unver, Coordinator of the United Nations World Water Assessment Programme of the UN-Water and Direct of UNESCO’s Programme Office. While 2003 and 2006 editions of the triennial report examined the state and use of water resources, the 2009 edition moved to a holistic approach, providing recommendations for decision-makers, identifying that most challenges and impacts on resources were coming from other sectors and examining demographics, consumption patterns, technological and climate change issues.

The 2012 Report provided further insight for water managers and other decision-makers through a lens of risk and uncertainty based on the recognition of changes in the last decade, he said. Now that UN-Water decided to move from triennial to annual reporting, the next Report will be launched in March 2014, with the theme of water and energy. Adequate, reliable and safe water was also essential for sustainable development, the theme of the 2015 Report, he said, pointing out that many of the more than billion people living on less than $1.25 lacked access to safe water.

The United States Agency for International Development Global Water Coordinator Christian Holmes agreed, noting that one billion people defecated openly on a daily basis and more than two billion needed adequate sanitation services. The health implications were alarming, he said, noting that stunting was primarily due to inadequate sanitation and contaminated water, with data showing that 56 per cent of stunting arose through exposure to fecal matter.

Joakim Harlin, Senior Water Resources Advisor at UNDP, said water flows through all the Millennium Development Goals, adding that the MDGs are "unfinished business and we must learn from the MDG structure and take a step forward to the post-2015 period".

The World Water Development Report showed that water is finite, he said, emphasizing that this reality must be captured in the development framework. Science- and data-based solutions were needed but the political and human realities must be realized, he added.

"We're all in the same boat and we're facing increasing difficult weather," he said, summing up the general tone of the meeting. "We might not be able to adjust the wind but we will be able to navigate and get through this."