This week, when the Cancun negotiations are supposed to move into top gear, I feel it is relevant to give some thoughts to how climate change (or even the perception of it) may affect transboundary water management. While this is certainly not the focus of discussions or negotiations in Mexico, it is an important area that needs to be further understood.
Much of the knowledge we have, as well as existing agreements/regimes over transboundary water are increasingly volatile because of increased water use. Also, they are becoming unworkable due to the perception that climate change is altering the basic parameters for water governance. Whether correct or not, perceptions of climate change are undermining existing agreements.
According to the Oregon State Database on transboundary water agreements over the period of the last 200 years, riparian countries have signed nearly 400 water-sharing agreements. While that is a positive sign one key question is, however, dual: to what extent are these agreements actually contributing to meaningful cooperation, and how can they be kept functioning particularly in the face of climate change induced uncertainty? Many of these agreements are essentially rigid instruments that are modifiable only under certain limited conditions. Thus, it is not only that we need functional agreements on transboundary waters; we also need the agreements to be sustainable, lasting and progressive Unfortunately, more than 40% of present agreements do not even mention ‘uncertainty’ in their texts.
Transboundary waters need to be dealt with. However, this is not an easy process. The increasing competition and the difficulties emanating from the altering parameters caused (or so claimed) by climate change are creating further uncertainties. Agreements on transboundary waters are in general not adapted to deal with uncertainties and a changing world, but are often characterised by rigid volumetric allocations of the resource, based on averages of a historical pattern. The keyword that is lacking is flexibility. States are not prone to sign agreements with uncertain consequences for them in the future. So even though we may know now that agreements should be more focused on sharing waters in percentage terms rather than in cubic metres, it does not mean it will be easy to get there.
To address these issues the Uppsala Centre for Sustainable Development, Stockholm International Water Institute (www.siwi.org) and Peace and Development Research at School of Global Studies at Gothenburg University have joined forces to research this important area. The basic thrust of the research (funded by Sida-SAREC) will focus on the question: how are Transboundary Waters to be governed given the increasing demands on global water resources and the increasing perceptions of a Global Climate Change?
The research, which starts in 2011, will draw upon cases from Africa (Nile and Niger), Middle East (Jordan Basin and Asia (Mekong and Ganges-Brahmaputra).
While some countries recently have called for the water issues to be more prominent in the Cancun meeting it is receiving less attention than it should. Knock on effects of climate change (or the mere perception of it) such as the one described above merits more attention in the future. It is important also to address future scenarios and adaptation options at river basin level . Sweden is currently financing a UNEP led project to address such questions in the Nile Basin. Such regional analysis coupled with political and governance research will equip us better for the challenges that are coming.
by Dr Anders Jägerskog, Associate Professor of Peace and Development, School of Global Studies, Göteborg University and;
Senior Programme Manager, Water Resources
Regional Team for Economic and Environmental Development (REED), Sida
Embassy of Sweden, Nairobi, Kenya