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

Challenges for Water Cooperation

Action is needed to improve water resources planning, evaluate availability and needs within watersheds, reallocate or expand existing storage facilities where necessary, emphasize the importance of managing water demand, develop a better balance between equity and efficiency in water use, and overcome inadequate legislative and institutional frameworks and the rising financial burdens of ageing infrastructure.

At each level there are a variety of issues that require water cooperation. Dealing with increasing water scarcity, water abstraction and decision on water allocation, dam construction, and chronic and accidental water pollution by industry, as well as implementation of existing treaty provisions, often require water cooperation. Water cooperation among stakeholders is often the key for effective and appropriate local level decisions both in cities and in agriculture. As growing populations, urbanization and economic development all require more water for agricultural, municipal and industrial uses, there are greater risks. This said, it is usually factors outside the water domain that are decisive in creating situations that require mutually acceptable decisions and agreements.

Indeed, history has often shown that the vital nature of freshwater is a powerful incentive for cooperation compelling stakeholders to reconcile even the most divergent views. Water more often unites than divides peoples and societies. Since 1948, history shows only 37 incidents of acute conflict over water, while during the same period, approximately 295 international water agreements were negotiated and signed. Clearly, averting disputes is often a strong political driver for initiating cooperation on transboundary waters, as riparian States recognize that they must safeguard their greater common interests.

Equitable sharing of water resources is a complex issue that has only become more so in recent years due to population growth, development pressures, and changing needs and values. The unequal distribution of water is heightened by political changes, resource mismanagement, and climatic anomalies. Inadequate legislative and institutional frameworks coupled with the rising financial burden of aging infrastructures add to this stress. These factors can trigger upheavals as well as demographic and developmental transformations, all of which, in turn, contribute to significant socio-economic differentiations. Growing competition between different sectors and groups has placed increasing strain on the quality and quantity of freshwater supplies. Competition for water also manifests in the demands for different uses – urban versus rural, quantity versus quality, present use versus future demand, and sanitation versus other social priorities. Competition among uses and users has increased in almost all countries, as have the links connecting them, calling for more effective negotiation and allocation mechanisms.

Water demand

Among sectoral uses, agriculture is predominant in its water use and consequently management strategies to improve water-use efficiency, especially for irrigated lands, will require specific attention. Production of crops and livestock is water‐intensive, and agriculture alone accounts for 70% of all water withdrawn by the combined agriculture, municipal and industrial (including energy) sectors. The booming demand for livestock products in particular is increasing the demand for water. The global demand for food is expected to increase by 70% by 2050. Best estimates of future global agricultural water consumption (including both rain-fed and irrigated agriculture), are of an increase of about 19% by 2050, but this could be much higher if crop yields and the efficiency of agricultural production do not improve dramatically. Much of the increase in irrigation will be in regions already suffering from scarcity of water. Responsible agricultural water management will make a major contribution to future global water security

As regards direct human consumption, the main source of demand comes from urban communities requiring water for drinking, sanitation and drainage. The urban population of the world is forecast to grow to 6.3 billion people in 2050 from 3.4 billion in 2009, representing both population growth and net migration from countryside to city. There is already a backlog of un-served urban populations, and the number of people in cities who lack access to improved water supply and sanitation is estimated to have grown some 20% since the Millennium Development Goals were established. And while 64% of those who gained access to improved sanitation during the period 1990-2008 lived in urban areas, urban areas are struggling to keep up with urban population growth.

Water quality and quantity

The geographical nature of rivers and watershed basins is another dimension which can affect the relations between countries and communities. As rivers and tributaries run from highlands to lowlands, the upstream use and treatment of water can have consequences for downstream users. Water quality and quantity are at the center of upstream-downstream disputes.

Factors effecting water quality and leading to contamination include agricultural runoff, industrial discharges, residential sewage disposal and land-use changes. These types of contamination can have deleterious impacts on drinking water supplies, the health of ecosystems and fish habitat on which humans depend, and on agricultural and industrial production systems that require high-quality and uncontaminated water supplies. Upstream and downstream water treatment is possible but costly.

Upstream users –who control sources - can significantly impact the quantity and flows of water to downstream users (e.g the Nile, Sudan and Egypt). Extensive and increasing upstream withdrawals may lead to limited water supplies for downstream uses. In some extreme cases, even large rivers fail to meet the ocean now due to over-extraction, large water diversions and climate change (e.g. The Yellow River, Murray-Darling, Colorado River).

Dams’ construction can particularly impact upstream-downstream relations. Dams may provide significant benefits for society as a stable source of renewable energy, drinking water storage and sources of water for irrigation and other production uses. Best practices for dam development have also improved significantly over the years (e.g. natural flow regimes, fish stairways). But as demand for water increases globally, dam construction can be a particularly contentious and complex issue, with the ability to effect both allocation and upstream-downstream uses given their potential to effect the timing and flows to downstream reaches, flood upstream reaches, displace populations, affect surrounding ecosystems and fish migration routes and habitat. Therefore, they deserve special consideration when discussing conflict mediation and identifying possibilities for cooperation by sharing the benefits that dams provide.

Climate change

Adding to the already complex nature of water resource management are the uncertainty and compounding factors related to climate change. These will magnify regional differences in the world’s natural resources and assets and lead to an increased risk of inland flash floods and more frequent coastal flooding, droughts, etc. Relying on static models for forecasting water events is no longer feasible and this requires solutions and management plans to be adaptive and resilient by including provisions that account for climate change. The necessity to adapt to climate change, however, will also offer new opportunities for cooperation in developing adaptation strategies.


Improving financingat all levels and strengthening financial institutions and their policies to help support the water sector is necessary to help create an attractive investment environment for actors and stakeholders in the water sector. In a recent UN-Water survey, for a majority of participating countries, obtaining finance was reported as being of ‘high’ or ‘highest’ priority. The availability of grants and funds; opportunities for private enterprise; and strong legal and administrative frameworks surrounding the water sector can help in this area. Financing means mobilizing funds for water resource management (for improving water committees, capacity building development-consensus building, basin organizations, monitoring, data collection) and water infrastructure (water and sewage treatment plants, distribution networks, sanitation facilities, dams, etc).

A mixture of financing mechanisms and various sources of financial resources is typically used for transboundary water management: from national budgets and external bilateral or multilateral donors funded projects to more strategic programmes and funds or private public partnerships (e.g. the Mekong River Basin Development and Management).

Investment needs in most cases exceed the resources available to riparian countries; therefore various financing mechanisms are being developed and employed. International development banks or specialized development funds are successfully testing a number of innovative approaches such as strategic partnerships comprising regional funds, leveraging significant additional investment through these funds. Other innovative financing schemes, e.g. regional revolving funds, payment for ecosystem services, inter-riparian financing and cost recovery of water services, could be considered as options for sustainable financing of transboundary water management institutions. However, these require strong political support, good governance and appropriate institutional structures.