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Friday, April 1, 2016, 12:16

Waterways help to build bridges

By Krishna Kumar VR in New Delhi

Asian nations are showing increasing willingness to share their water for a better future.

As challenges in the region’s water supply grow, a coordinated response is being initiated by countries to work together to secure this vital resource.

One sign of this growing cooperation took place on March 22, when China and five countries along the Lancang-Mekong River — Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar — reached an agreement to improve their water resource cooperation.

The Mekong River, known as Lancang in China, is crucial for the countries on the Indochinese peninsula as it provides water to a population of some 326 million.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang addressed the first Lancang-Mekong Cooperation meeting in Sanya, in South China’s Hainan province. He said that institutionalized cooperation among the six nations will help maintain regional peace and stability, give full play to each country’s resources, industries and markets, and increase support to the region’s social and economic development.

Therese Sjomander Magnusson, director of transboundary water management at Stockholm International Water Institute, said of the meeting: “It’s all about dialogue and negotiation and fostering trust between countries at different levels in order to better make use of the benefits derived from shared waters.”

The riparian, or river-reliant, countries of the Lancang-Mekong can create a platform for sustained dialogue to discuss the various options for sharing water as well as other benefits, in a manner that meets their needs, she added.

In a similar fashion, Central Asian countries are cooperating to use their shared water resources in an efficient, sustainable and fair manner. More than 90 percent of the region’s water is concentrated in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Here the two main rivers — the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya — originate.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan therefore control much of the water needed in Central Asia, where Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are the region’s main water consumers. Uzbekistan alone uses more than half of the region’s water resources, largely for agriculture. These Central Asian states signed an agreement on water distribution as early as 1992.

In South Asia, India and Bangladesh will soon sign the Teesta water-sharing treaty. The two countries share as many as 54 transboundary rivers, including the three major river systems of the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna.

Earlier in March, Beijing announced that it would discharge an emergency water supply along the Lancang-Mekong River to help neighboring countries deal with drought. It will also set up a Lancang-Mekong water resources cooperation center and an environmental cooperation center to promote development in the region.

Catalytic agents

According to a United Nations report, Transboundary Waters: Sharing Benefits, Sharing Responsibilities, international cooperation enables better ecological management, with benefits for all manner of waterways, including rivers, lakes, wetlands and related ecosystems.

Cooperation also underpins other improvements, some of which may not be readily apparent or properly taken advantage of. For instance, efficient management and development of shared waters and floodplains can yield increased food and energy production, while improved irrigation can contribute to poverty reduction and help control migration from rural areas to urban centers. Early-warning systems can minimize loss of life in the event of floods.

The UN report also noted that international waters can be catalytic agents to improve economic integration between countries.

Transboundary water management can thus directly or indirectly contribute to international trade, economic development, food security, political security, poverty alleviation and regional integration, it said.

Such moves toward greater collaboration on waterways come amid increased cooperation between countries in Asia.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, for example, is in the process of creating a single market and production base, which will allow the free flow of goods, services and skilled labor across the region. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation also aims to increase cooperation among its eight member countries.

A regional example of cooperative joint management that is creating sustainable development of shared water resources is the Mekong River Commission. Formed in 1995, it is helping countries to capitalize on the economic potential of the river.

It is this recognition of benefit sharing that triggers most transboundary treaties, said Roy Brouwer, an economics professor and executive director of the Water Institute at the University of Waterloo in Canada.

“Riparian states have to be convinced of the benefits of transboundary cooperation,” Brouwer told China Daily Asia Weekly. “Acknowledgement of the need for international collaboration and benefit sharing in transboundary basins can result in the institutionalization of transboundary river basin authorities.”

In this regard, Europe is quite advanced, he said, with a number of river basin commissions overseeing the continent’s major rivers, such as the Danube, Rhine and Elbe.

These organizations represent the socioeconomic and political interests of the various countries through which the rivers flow. Their role has increased substantially since the introduction of the Water Framework Directive in the European Union in 2000, which requires a coordinated approach to the development and implementation of integrated river basin management plans.

In recent years, however, water sharing has also become a conduit for cooperation among Asian countries. For instance, China and Russia established their first free trade zone in 2006 at the border of the Suifen River, in northeastern China. The Yalu River, which China shares with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, is another notable success story.

Kazakhstan and China have engaged in negotiations on joint use of another major northern river, the Irtysh, since 1999. Both countries signed an agreement on the joint use of 23 transborder rivers in 2002, when they agreed to establish a Joint Committee on Transboundary Rivers.

Many of these efforts are a clear indication for greater regional and international involvement in strengthening river institutions, said Mohammad Monowar Hossain, executive director at the Dhaka-based Institute of Water Modelling.

Water-related development issues can be addressed in an integrated manner with the highest level political will, Hossain said.

Equal access

Another cooperative agreement is the Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan. The dispute resolution built into the treaty, which was negotiated with financial and institutional support from the World Bank, has withstood many security challenges. To guarantee this, the institutions that deal with the rivers’ water and environmental resources are divorced from national security strategies.

Diana Suhardiman, a Laos-based leader at the International Water Management Institute, said that international cooperation, either through bilateral or multilateral channels, would have greater significance if based on mutual respect.

“While this is pretty difficult to achieve given the existing power asymmetry, and that some countries are more powerful than others, mutual respect and equal footing can be envisaged through development of governance mechanisms and institutional arrangements that would encourage equal access to decision-making processes,” said Suhardiman.

Zafar Adeel, director of the Institute for Water, Environment and Health at the United Nations University, said institutional and legal mechanisms are central to finding solutions for tomorrow’s transboundary water challenges, and a few key steps are essential to ensure their success.

There are dozens of river basins for which agreements and commissions exist, Adeel explained.

“The first step is to ensure that the letter and spirit of these agreements are adhered to. This often requires considerable effort from all parties,” he said.

However in the past, he continued, the business community and the private sector have not been included in transboundary water governance approaches and mechanism. This will need to change in the coming years, particularly as effective water management needs the management expertise, the technologies and the financial resources that can be found in the private sector.

“For water-sharing partnerships to be successful, they must be very inclusive and engage all stakeholders,” he concluded.

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