UNESCO creates 'Water Cooperation Facility' to mediate water disputesKyoto (Japan), March 21 – A new facility to help nations prevent and resolve freshwater disputes will be created at UNESCO in Paris with the World Water Council and the Permanent Court of Arbitration, UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura announced at the Third World Water Forum in Kyoto today.
Based at UNESCO, the new facility will “react to crises, assist or intervene in crises – when requested by the parties – and anticipate and prevent water conflicts,” said Mr Matsuura. States, private parties and intergovernmental organizations will be able to turn to the facility to help resolve conflicts or problems over international water resources or local disputes with international ramifications – be it a dispute over a new dam project on a shared river or the pollution of an international aquifer.
Depending on the nature of the conflict and the requests of the parties involved, the facility will provide a range of services, including technical and legal advice, training in water negotiations, conciliation, fact-finding missions and the provision of “good offices” or favourable conditions for high-level negotiations.
“UNESCO will provide the ‘water community’ with the necessary resources, the favourable environment, political backing, professional support and judiciary mechanisms to anticipate, prevent and resolve water conflicts,” said Mr Matsuura. UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme (IHP) will use its networks of experts around the world to help facilitate discussions and coordinate research between countries, while helping these governments improve their institutional and technical capacities to manage water resources better.
The new facility will be a joint initiative between UNESCO and the World Water Council, the foremost international think-tank on water policy. The Council will help to mobilize political backing for the facility while providing policy advice to the parties in dispute.
In addition, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, based in The Hague (The Netherlands), will provide legal advice and a neutral forum for parties seeking conciliation, fact-finding missions over international water disputes and other forms of assistance upon request.
“The facility opens a new dimension in the efforts of the Permanent Court of Arbitration to peacefully resolve disputes pertaining to natural resources,” said Tjaco van den Hout, Secretary-General of the Permanent Court of Arbitration.
The Universities Partnership for Transboundary Waters, which involves ten universities on five continents, will help develop educational tools and training programmes on water negotiation.
“We do not need any more declarations, what we need now is action,” said Mr Matsuura. About one third of the 263 international river basins are shared by more than two countries, and 19 involve five or more. A good part of Africa and the Middle East depend on “foreign” water resources (originating from other countries) for more than half their own water, as does the southern tip of Latin America.
It is generally assumed that growing water demand will lead to rising conflicts or even wars over the resource. Yet according to several studies published by UNESCO, scarcity need not mean catastrophe or conflict. The World Water Development Report (published by UNESCO and produced by the World Water Assessment Programme) highlights a study analyzing every single water-related interaction between two countries or more over the past 50 years. Of the total of 1,831 interactions, the overwhelming majority, 1,228, were cooperative. They involved the signing of about 200 water-sharing treaties or the construction of new dams. Turning to the 507 conflictive events, 37 involved violence, 21 of them with military action.
Although water scarcity obviously increases tension among states, the real source of conflict or destabilization stems from the lack of treaties or institutional structures to manage shared resources jointly. There are three danger signs for international river basins: the “internationalization” of basins, or the creation of newly independent states (as was the case after the break-up of the Soviet Union); unilateral development projects, such as the construction of dams in basins lacking bilateral legal agreements and structures for negotiation; general hostility over issues other than water.
According to these findings, the following basins have “potential for dispute in the coming five to ten years”: the Ganges-Brahmaputra, Han, Incomati, Kunene, Kura-Araks, Lake Chad, La Plata, Lempa, Limpopo, Mekong, Ob (Ertis), Okavango, Orange, Salween, Senegal, Tumen and Zambezi. In addition, there are four basins “currently in conflict or in the midst of active negotiations: Aral, Jordan, Nile and Tigris-Euphrates.
Mr Matsuura made the formal announcement on March 21 in Shiga, during the closing plenary on “Water for Peace”, organized by UNESCO at the Third World Water Forum.