International Annual UN-Water Zaragoza Conference 2012/2013
Preparing for the 2013 International Year. Water Cooperation: Making it Happen! 8-10 January 2013

Addressing cooperation: tools and mechanisms

At all levels, cooperation requires the application of a wide range of tools and mechanisms, such as:

Legal Frameworks and Institutional Arrangements

Legislation and national water policies governing water are often underdeveloped and weak at both the national and international level, but increasing pressures on water resources from population growth, climate change are leading to greater water scarcity and underscore the need for strong legislation to govern water resources.

  • At transboundary level. International Water Law outlines the sovereignty of States, the principles of non-interference into matters of exclusive national jurisdiction, responsibility for breach of a State international obligations, and guidelines for peaceful settlement of international disputes. The UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (UN Watercourses Convention) and the Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (the Water Convention) establish frameworks where general principles and prescriptive obligations are set out. The Water Convention is widely viewed as a codification of customary international law with respect to at least three of the obligations it embodies, namely equitable and reasonable utilization, prevention of significant harm, and prior notification of planned measures. The adoption of these conventions facilitates dispute resolution as it provides a common ground and focus from which mediation can occur. A key issue will be to have a greater number of countries adopt the conventions in the coming years.

Global and Regional Legal frameworks for water cooperation

The UN ‘Watercourses Convention’ and the UNECE ‘Water Convention’address almost the same subject matter and, as pointed out by Mr. Marco Keiner (UNECE), they are fully compatible and of a complementary nature. Water cooperation in the pan-European region is fostered by the five UNECE environmental conventions and their protocols. In particular, the Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (the Water Convention) and its Protocol on Water and Health are key instruments to promote cooperation across borders and across sectors. Since its entry into force in 1996, the UNECE Water Convention has been a key driver for continuous progress on transboundary water cooperation. It has operated in very different situations, including in the context of economic difficulties and political tensions, and it has been a crucial model for transboundary cooperation arrangements. Among them are the 1994 Danube River Protection Convention and the 1999 Rhine Convention; other examples include the agreements on the rivers Sava, Meuse and Scheldt, on Lake Peipsi, as well as on Kazakh-Russian and Russian-Ukrainian transboundary waters. These different bodies practice water cooperation by facilitating exchange of knowledge and experience, and common understanding on different issues.

A review of case studies where international law has been a part of resolving conflict has shown that successful achievement of cooperative solutions is facilitated by:

  • the legal framework in place (series of treaties);
  • the relatively good neighborly relations between the parties;
  • the creation of joint commissions to address the problems;
  • agreement to submit the matter to arbitration;
  • absence of significant adverse impact on the quantity or quality of waters flowing into the neighboring country.
  • At national level. A national framework of laws, legal conventions, treaties, and regulations is ultimately built to codify accepted standards of behavior in society.
    • Guidelines and standards created at the national level, then to be applied most appropriately at the regional and local level;
    • Regulations for industrial and agriculture withdrawals of surface and groundwater extraction are needed to regulate use and prevent contamination;
    • Upstream and downstream uses and provisions must be addressed
  • At local and basin level. National guidelines and standards should be incorporated into binding regulations. At both the local and basin level, a major challenge will often involve overcoming the notion that water rights are embedded within land rights, as they historically have been, but are now becoming outdated due to changing circumstances. Bringing parties to the table, raising awareness of the new challenges to be faced, and changing attitudes will be necessary if new agreements are to be reached and accepted.

River Basin and Local Frameworks for cooperation

Regional and national bodies, such as water resource ministries and River Basin Organizations (RBOs), should be responsible for managing upstream-downstream issues as they are often larger in nature, and may arise between countries, cities, or where concentrated sectoral uses of one kind effect those of another. In these case, the appropriate administrative bodies will be responsible for bringing the major players to the table to solve problems and work out agreements.

At the regional scale, RBOs will be tasked with the job of understanding the large scale sectoral and economic needs within basins, as well as the geographical landscape as to properly manage and allocate water basin-wide. Water commissions, water juries and irrigation cooperatives play important roles to help resolve disputes and manage water between local stakeholders. These local organizations are indispensable where, for instance in some cases, competition for scarce water resources and lack of adequate infrastructure can lead users within different sectors to resort to illegal water withdrawals and wastewater disposal, which in turn compromise the resource and may instigate conflict.

Addressing the issues arising within citiesand the possible tools, instruments and programs to solve them requires specific attention. By bringing together urban planners, water service providers, consultants and civil society organizations to form stakeholder platforms, dynamic integrated approaches can be developed and effectiveness enhanced.

Exchange of information, joint monitoring and assessment

Information based on well-organized measurement networks and monitoring programmes is a prerequisite for accurate assessments of water resources and problems. Assessment is essential for making informed decisions and formulating policy at the local, national and transboundary levels. Moreover, basin management by two or more countries calls for comparable information. A common basis for decision-making requires harmonized (if not standardized), compatible assessment methods and data management systems as well as uniform reporting procedures.

Exchange of information – including on pollution caused by accidents, on infrastructure projects that could affect downstream countries, on extreme events (floods and droughts) as well as on operations such as for hydropower, navigation and irrigation – is vital to building trust and a shared vision among riparian countries.

Key factors of water resources requiring monitoring and data collection include flow, quantity, quality, sector use, price, peak periods, etc.

Instruments that can be used include water meters, meteorological stations, watershed management plans, assessment reports, water scorecards, etc.

At transboundary level. Watershed organizations and government agencies overseeing transboundary watersheds must have clear and open communication and comparable data. International agencies, with representatives from each country/region involved, can help facilitate cooperation and ensure that both sides have more complete information and allow for knowledge exchange. Indeed, it is difficult to begin a dialogue and work towards specific quantitative goals and targets if initially there is no basic agreement on the preliminary conditions of the resource with regards to quantity and quality and overall demographic needs.

At basin level. Watershed organizations can help develop assessment reports and watershed management plans which help identify the major water users, key issues, and prioritize where improvements can be made.

At local level. Within cities, water delivery and purification networks are a top priority. Cost recovery is important where network services are provided, however water tariffs are often unpopular among users therefore transparency by providers is necessary, as well as awareness campaigns to inform users of the cost of providing water services. Mediation most likely is necessary between service providers and users, as well as between the different sectors.

In many cases water networks do not reach certain populations, especially those in slums and settlements. Here small scale local initiatives to provide local planning for access and sanitation are important.

Incentives for Cooperation

At the international, national and local level, participation is important to ensure that planned investments are used accordingly, respond to the basic needs, promote sustainability and strengthen collaboration within communities/watersheds. However, improving stakeholder participation can be a challenge, resulting in a need to find innovative incentive programs (keeping in mind that people participate for altruistic and non-altruistic motives).

An example of altruistic reasons for participation is the recognition of the human right to drinking water and basic sanitation.

Non-altruistic reasons for participation include: monetary, obligatory, improve public image, meet legal requirements, and even manipulative

Mediation and dispute resolution mechanisms

Given the cross cutting nature of water resources, it is inevitable that there will be competing demands for its use between sectors, nations, communities, urban and rural environments. The largest quantitative studies on water conflicts – carried out by the Oregon State University - demonstrated that cooperative interactions outweigh conflictive interactions. This underscores the capability of water users and stakeholder to overcome differences and disagreements and to come together to find cooperative solutions. Undoubtedly, in every situation it is preferable to avoid conflict if possible and this can be done by taking effective forward-looking and preventative measures. Resource planning and management, policy and regulation development can help guide the sustainable use and allocation of water resources. However, despite taking preventative measures and implementing the best laid plans, conflicts may arise for reasons inside or outside anyone’s control.

An increasing number of States are experiencing occasional or lasting water stress, yet in most cases mechanisms and institutions to manage disputes over water resources are either absent or inadequate. Competition over this precious resource could increasingly become a source of tension - an even conflict – between States and sectors. History has often shown that the need for freshwater can cause different users to cooperate, rather than allow confrontations that could jeopardize the water supplies. Competition may arise between different groups or sectors (agriculture and cities), between countries (upstream-downstream), and over allocation and use of water between urban development and the environment.

Tensions, disputes and conflicts can take on a variety of forms and may be acute or mild, arising due to a lack of preventative measures to avoid conflict or even during the process to develop treaties and agreements. The key is to be able to cope with each in turn and with the appropriate strategy. Dispute resolutions techniques include: participation, consensus-building, negotiation, facilitation, mediation, arbitration, and adjudication. The challenge today is to strengthen measures and the capacity of institutions to properly deal with disputes.

Cost and Benefit Sharing

Cooperation enables better ecological management, providing benefits to river, aquifer, lake, wetland and related ecosystems as well as adjacent estuaries, coastal areas and seas. It also underpins important further types of benefits, some of which are not readily apparent or properly taken advantage of. For example, efficient, cooperative management and development of shared waters and adjacent flood plains can yield increased food and energy production, improved irrigation can contribute to poverty reduction and help control migration from rural areas to urban centers and early-warning systems can minimize loss of life in the event of floods. A third (political) benefit derives from the easing of tensions due to cooperation. Finally, as international waters can be catalytic agents, a fourth benefit is improved economic integration between States. Transboundary water management can thus directly or indirectly contribute to international trade, economic development, food security, political security, poverty alleviation and regional integration