Building Peace and Sustainable Development Through Water Cooperation

By Lucilla Minelli
From Dimensions
January/February 2013

Water is critical for sustainable development and indispensable for human health and well-being. With this in mind, and to accelerate the implementation of internationally agreed goals relating to water, the UN General Assembly declared 2013 the International Year of Water Cooperation (IYWC). The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was appointed by UN-Water to lead preparations for the IYWC, as well as for World Water Day on March 22, 2013, also dedicated to water cooperation. (UN-Water is the UN’s interagency coordination mechanism for all issues related to fresh water. Currently, it has representatives from 30 UN member states.)

“Water cooperation” refers to the peaceful management and mutually beneficial use of water resources among various players (e.g., governments, international organizations, academic institutions, businesses, and the public) and sectors (e.g., agriculture and industry) at local, national, regional, and international levels. Water cooperation encapsulates cultural, educational, and scientific elements, as well as religious, ethical, social, political, legal, institutional, and economic dimensions. Therefore, a multidisciplinary approach is essential in order to grasp an understanding of the many facets implied by the concept and blend them into one holistic vision.

In this article, I present the objectives for the IYWC, the messages we aim to publicize throughout the year, and some ideas for science centers and museums that are interested in being involved.

Objectives for 2013

We know that our planet abounds in freshwater resources—both on its surface and deep beneath its soil—and that most of these resources lie in transboundary basins and aquifers. Therefore, cooperation among sectors and nations is essential. The IYWC will raise awareness of both the potential for increased cooperation and the challenges facing water management in the context of greater demand for water access, allocation, and services.

The objectives for the IYWC are to

  • raise awareness about the importance, benefits, and challenges of water cooperation
  • enhance knowledge and build capacity for water cooperation
  • spark concrete and innovative action toward water cooperation
  • encourage partnerships and dialogue around water cooperation.

Our messages

The key message of both the IYWC and World Water Day is that “water cooperation is a foundation for peace and sustainable development.” Following from this statement are four submessages that we want to emphasize throughout 2013.

1. Water cooperation is key to poverty eradication, social equity, and gender equality. Access to clean water is the foundation for the fulfillment of basic human needs and contributes to the achievement of all eight Millennium Development Goals. Water is also central in the debate for a post-2015 development agenda and the elaboration of a new set of international objectives, the Sustainable Development Goals. The agreement to develop these goals is an outcome of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), which was held in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012.

Inclusive and participatory governance of water and cooperation between different user groups can help to overcome inequity in access to water and thus contribute to poverty alleviation and improve living conditions and educational chances, especially of women and children. For example, an international movement to improve access to water, sanitation, and hygiene in schools in over 100 countries is helping to decrease the number of days children are absent from school due to waterborne illnesses and other sanitation and hygiene issues.

2. Water cooperation creates economic benefits. All economic activities depend on water. Cooperation can lead to more efficient and sustainable use of water resources, creating mutual benefits and better living standards. For example, investing in safe wastewater collection and treatment can mean avoiding the costs of pollution and the use of contaminated water by downstream users.

3. Water cooperation helps preserve water resources and protect the environment. Sharing scientific knowledge and data and exchanging information about management strategies and best practices are fundamental to sustainable development. For example, UNESCO’s International Shared Aquifer Resources Management Initiative contributes to implementing a UN resolution that encourages UN member states to agree on how to manage their transboundary aquifers (Resolution A/RES/66/104: The law of transboundary aquifers). The first international agreement inspired by this UN resolution was signed in 2010 by Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay for management of the shared Guarani Aquifer.

4. Water cooperation builds peace. Access to water can be a source of conflict, but it is also a catalyst for cooperation and peace building. Cooperation on such a practical and vital issue as water management can help overcome cultural, political, and social tensions and can build trust between different groups, such as communities, regions, or states. For example, after the collapse of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, the rise of several new sovereign states introduced complex transboundary issues involving water use and water sharing for power generation, agricultural and domestic uses, and other purposes among bordering countries. In 2010, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Montenegro began working together in a postconflict context to jointly manage shared groundwater resources in the DIKTAS project (Protection and Sustainable Use of the Dinaric Karst Transboundary Aquifer System).

Conveying the messages

To achieve successful and sustainable water cooperation requires a common understanding of the needs and challenges surrounding the issue of water, and this understanding requires a societal mind-shift in the way we respond to a range of global challenges—including climate change, demographic growth, economic crises, poverty, political instability, and social unrest.

Achieving common understanding is no simple undertaking, but many organizations and groups worldwide are involved in the effort. For example, UNESCO has a network of water-related centers, which promote knowledge sharing and education in their area of expertise, such as a center in Iran dedicated to qanats—an ancient technology that taps into underground water resources.

Among the organizations promoting a wide understanding of water issues and other global challenges are science centers and museums. For example, the planned Asia Pacific Water Museum in Thailand aims to promote a wider understanding of water interactions and foster regional cooperation. Science centers and museums are natural partners in the 2013 campaign for water cooperation. Exhibitions, fairs, school programs, workshops, and other events to share knowledge about water are all concrete contributions to the IYWC. We at UNESCO can help with publicizing water-related events and can also provide information and educational materials for various audiences, like children, youth, and teachers.

We are planning several official UN water events during 2013, kicking off with an event in Paris on February 11. World Water Day, celebrated worldwide on March 22, and World Water Week, held in Stockholm, Sweden, from September 1 to 6, will both be dedicated to water cooperation. We invite science centers and museums to participate in these events or organize other events to mark the IYWC. For those interested in promoting the IYWC, our website has campaign materials available, including our official logo in different patterns and languages, posters, and web banners and buttons.

Achieving sustainable development is not a sectoral effort. If we want to succeed in making the world a better place for today and for the future, we need a coordinated, cooperative, and interdisciplinary effort on a global scale. Such an effort will spring from the realization that a mindshift is possible and that development of fair and inclusive societies begins in the minds of men and women. We believe that water can be the common denominator to spark this revolutionary process. The International Year of Water Cooperation 2013 offers 365 days to come together and shape a peaceful future based on the sustainable management of our freshwater resources.

Lucilla Minelli is a consultant at UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme, Paris. For further information about the International Year of Water Cooperation 2013, contact Alice Aureli, and for information about World Water Day, contact Léna Salamé. 

About the image: “Groundwater Resources of the World—Transboundary Aquifers Systems” © BGR, Hannover/UNESCO Paris/2008. The World-wide Hydrogeological Mapping and Assessment Programme (WHYMAP) contributes to worldwide efforts to better understand, manage, and protect aquifer resources, providing information on hidden groundwater resources. The collecting, collation, and visualizing Transboundary Aquifers Systems (locations indicated by circles) was possible only because countries and institutions cooperated by providing and processing data. The map demonstrates the benefits of this cooperation as well as the further cooperation needed to manage these many transboundary aquifers systems.  (Click here to see a larger (3.6 MB) image.)

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