Water Conflict and Cooperation/Basin Management

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This article is based on Water security and peace - A synthesis of studies prepared under the PCCP-Water for Peace process, compiled by William J. Cosgrove, as part of a UNESCO-IHP, PCCP Series Publication (2003).

This text is drawn partly from a chapter prepared by Margaret Catley-Carlson and William Cosgrove for the unpublished Scenarios volume of the World Water Vision.

The Critical Role of Institutions


Institutions are more than organizations. They consist of all the formal and informal practices that determine our behavior. They exist from the community to the national and international level. They reflect the ethics that are shared at each level. Changing institutions means changing value systems and therefore takes time, perhaps generations. Some of the problems we face cry out for faster solutions.

Institutions are everybody’s concern. They determine how society does business. They embody the constraints and incentives that shape opportunities in every sector of society. There are formal and informal institutions. The formal side consists of the organizations and written rules and policies that govern our transactions. These include things as diverse as the structure of government and the private sector, the tax system, the communication and transportation systems, the agricultural extension service, the banking system, law enforcement, school curricula, freedom of speech, property rights, national constitutions, legislation and municipal by-laws.

Institutions go beyond the formal structure, however. Even the way we react to the formal structure may be determined by our cultural heritage. Our religious beliefs and practices, family and societal values and norms, social mobility, homogeneity of language and culture, the perceived transparency and accountability of the formal institutions, even the architecture and functioning of our homes and workplaces are all part of the institutional framework that surrounds us.

Together these formal and informal institutions determine the transaction costs of doing business, and ultimately much of the behavior of society. Institutions differ from country to country and community to community. In turn, what is demanded from institutions and how one responds to them determines how they develop and change.

Water too is everybody’s business. As is discussed elsewhere in this volume, humanity and the ecosystems of which humans are part are already suffering water related crises in many parts of the world. This situation will get worse if society continues doing business as usual.

Most of us think of the management of water as relating to the technology of reservoirs, dams, purification plants, and irrigation systems. Yet, while technology provides us with the tools, our fundamental need for water for human existence and development, and the impact of water on our lives and our environment, have driven us to create institutions to manage water. The types of institutions created in the future will determine what is use made of new technology.

Humankind has been very innovative about directing social organization toward water management for as long as human history has existed. All early settlements were located where water was available. Slavery to construct water reservoirs; payment in kind to the monarch, chief or priest for water withdrawals; centuries of written records of water use; and collective efforts at diversion, flood protection, and water collection are all part of water institution history. Some suggest that these efforts provided the rationale for the organization of some of the first groups of human settlements. See Toolkit section on History of Humanity and Water.

Our water institutions reflect the philosophical, ethical, and religious views of our societies. Many of these are deeply held. For example, because water is essential for life, some see water access as a right. Others see water as a gift of God. If it is a right or a gift of God, can charges be made for it? In particular, is it compatible with the battle against poverty to charge the poor for water? At the other end of the spectrum, some societies believe strongly in the primacy of private property rights and extend this view to ownership of water. Much of Judeo-Christian tradition interpreted the human role as the domination of nature. Until very recently, many societies coupled this with the widespread belief that constant economic growth and expansion was unquestionably good as the precondition for general prosperity. This belief is embedded in the tax structures, land laws, and water rates of these countries. Even now it is widely believed in many places that nature will always restore itself. This assumption too, rather than the imperative to protect our ecosystems, is embedded in laws, regulations, and behavior where this belief dominates. Finally, it must be added that most institutions operate in favor of the interests, positions, and views of those who are more (rather than less) powerful in society.

Our institutional arrangements have in many places been very successful. They bring water to close to five billion people, sanitation to half the world population. They have provided the irrigation that has helped feed the world. Water quite literally powers and sustains industrial processes. Increasingly institutions have put in place the rules and practices that are protecting some parts of the global ecosystem. Some countries have adjusted their institutions to respond to changing situations. But the sharp increases in the magnitude of the current problems and the ever-increasing stresses in freshwater management argue that the pace and direction of institutional adaptation need to change. Our behavior as individuals is included in that, and so is the functioning of national and international parts of the water management system.

In short, institutions provide the rules of the game in our different societies. They don’t change quickly. Most organizations, practices, laws, and beliefs that impact on our water habits today derive from a period before the population of the world began to double within a human life span, and before humans realized that they were doing significant damage to the ecosystem.

The Problem with Status Quo 2002

National Level

Every country to some extent has formal institutional structures that are ill suited to managing water to meet the challenges of this century and the future. To a greater or lesser degree, they are fragmented. Policy making and the management of different uses of water (e.g. for drinking, irrigation, hydropower) and the protection of the environment are done separately and with little, if any, consultation. The current jurisdictions of institutions are, in many cases, too small to deal with system-wide issues. While it is obvious that the natural disposition and flow of water is in surface and groundwater basins, the political and administrative boundaries of the institutions responsible for their management rarely follow the same patterns. Governments take decisions about allocation, often without involving or informing users. In fact, there is generally a lack of transparency and availability of information concerning such decisions. Legal arrangements inhibit the reallocation of water among various users because historic water allotment, now locked into legal rights, does not reflect today’s changing needs. In the absence of enforced sanctions, water quality is in decline in most of the world and still threatened even in the world’s richest countries.[1]

The principle of subsidiarity, or the management of resources at the level closest to the user, is increasingly widely accepted, but still a challenge to democracy. User committees with management powers can be found in many places. Yet participation of citizens in planning and decision making at the local level is still uncommon.

It seems to be a characteristic of human nature that access to resources – whether it be jobs, capital or services – depends on whom you know. This for the poor generally leaves them dependent on their family members, neighbors, and close friends: people also without economic status or political power. They have almost no links to people in positions of influence in formal institutions. Thus discrimination or lack of resources usually excludes them from the places where major decisions regarding their welfare are made. This accounts for their lack of access to water and sanitation and their vulnerability to floods and droughts. Gender biases accentuate this problem for women.

Unsuitable water pricing policies induce wasteful consumption of water. There is usually not enough money in water management systems to provide for system upkeep. Public funding is in decline, including official development assistance. The requirement for capital is enormous, especially if the needs of the underserved and unserved are to be met. However, traditional capital sources from public funding are in ever-shorter supply as globalization pushes public spending down and competition for public funding increases.

Regional Water-Related Conventions

Regional cooperation in Europe provides a prime example of how transboundary water issues may be dealt with at that level. The founders of ECE already saw economic collaboration among all the countries of Europe in 1947 as making an important contribution to the political unity of the major powers. Although that contribution was severely constrained in the early years of the cold war, all members of the Commission agreed on its importance as an instrument of consultation and a “bridge” between east and west. Cooperation among governments in ECE has focused on a large number of narrowly defined technical problems, on which the interested parties could negotiate without raising larger questions about their economic and social systems. The latter constraint has now diminished, but in fact this type of “grassroots” or bottom-up cooperation has proved to be very successful in the fields of environment, transport, trade, energy, and standardization. The larger significance of this technical work is that it helped to create a framework in which the habits of cooperation to overcome differences and seek common ground have become deeply entrenched over the course of nearly fifty years.

The first international environment-related agreement that came into existence under the auspices of ECE was the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution, signed in 1979, and in force since 1983. The development of similar international agreements for other environmental areas was a topic of discussion at various seminars held during the 1980s. In the light of relevant provisions of the Final Act of the CSCE, ECE started paying increased attention to environmental impact assessment, and started developing an international framework agreement to regulate the application of EIA in a transboundary context.

As regards water-related agreements, the main breakthrough occurred during the Meeting on the Protection of the Environment of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) in 1989. The participating States recommended inter alia:

  • that the ECE elaborate an international convention, code of practice or other appropriate legal instruments on the prevention and control of the transboundary effects of industrial accidents
  • that the ECE elaborate a framework convention on the protection and use of transboundary watercourses and international lakes.

Three new UNECE conventions were indeed adopted by 1992. In view of the role played by CSCE in the initiation phase, it is not surprising that the UNECE conventions have a considerable potential to prevent conflicts and settle transboundary environmental disputes.

International Level

As reflected at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in September 2002, the international community seems to have accepted that protecting Earth and meeting humanity’s basic needs on an enduring, intergenerational basis are two of the three “vital” planetary interests.[2] Yet there is little immediate prospect of finding a way to give legitimacy to processes for decision making and management at the planetary level. In the meantime, nations will continue to act in their own selfinterest, even though their decisions may adversely affect the lives of others on the planet, and thus ultimately be wrong for their own citizens.

In the meantime, one must work through the institutions one has. International organization in water management is as fragmented as its domestic counterpart. There are at least as many international agencies involved in the water and environment sectors as there are at the national level. The former Subcommittee on Water Resources of the United Nations Agency Coordinating Committee (ACC-SCWR) had no role in policy making and could not be effective in ensuring an integrated coordinated approach to management of water and protection of the environment. In October 2002 it was restructured as UN-Water. The mechanisms now proposed seem to address these weaknesses. Using their World Water Assessment Programme they are committed to producing every three years a World Water Development Report. The first report was released at the third World Water Forum with subsequent issues released at future Forums. This is a major step in the right direction.

As demonstrated in the Toolkit section on Legal and Institutional Approaches, international law on shared waters is weak. It is remarkable that even the limited and relatively weak United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses has taken twenty years to negotiate and is still not ratified.

Some issues that have enormous impact on water are outside the reach of institutions directly concerned with water. Let us take just two examples. Agricultural subsidies to wealthy sectors in industrialized countries determine the flow and quantity of international agricultural trade, a trade in “virtual water.” The agricultural lobbies have tremendous clout and present high resistance to increased water pricing. Second, there has been too little positive national or international response to the emergence of cities as separate systems of governance. Yet cities, often without their own power to tax or raise funds, will have the main responsibilities for the provision of new water and sanitation services in an increasingly urban world. These two issues will have a great effect on water resource management, but are outside the scope of the regulatory power of the water sector institutions.

Good Institutional Frameworks: Establishing the Direction of Change

Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM)

To ensure their sustainability, water resources must be viewed holistically, both in their natural state and in balancing competing demands on them: domestic, agricultural, industrial (including energy), and environmental. Sustainable management of water resources requires systemic, integrated decision making that recognizes the interdependence of three areas. First, decisions on land use also affect water, and decisions on water affect the environment and land use. Second, decisions on our economic and social future, currently organized by socioeconomic sectors and fragmented, affect the hydrology and ecosystems in which humans live. Third, decisions at the international, national, and local levels are interrelated.

At the operational level the challenge is to translate agreed principles into concrete action. The response to this is often referred to as integrated water resources management (IWRM). The concept of IWRM is widely debated. Hence, regional and national institutions must develop their own IWRM practices using the collaborative framework emerging globally and regionally.

The Global Water Partnership (GWP) has defined IWRM as “a process which promotes the coordinated development and management of water, land and related resources to maximize the resultant economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems.”

The concept of integrated water resources management – in contrast to “traditional,” fragmented water resources management – at its most fundamental level is as concerned with the management of water demand as with its supply. Thus, integration can be considered in two basic categories:

  • The natural system, with its critical importance for resource availability and quality, and the wide range of environmental services that it provides.
  • The human system, which fundamentally determines the resource use, waste production, and pollution of the resource, and which must also set the development priorities. Integration has to occur both within and between these categories, taking into account variability in time and space.

Historically, water managers have tended to see themselves in a “neutral role,” managing the natural system to provide supplies to meet externally determined needs. IWRM approaches should assist them in recognizing that their behavior also affects water demands. In effect, if integrated water resources management were adopted as a standard approach everywhere, it would help to foresee, and contribute to avoiding, issues that arise that could create conflicts.

River Basin Organizations (RBOs)[3]

Institutional mechanisms and options
Institutional mechanisms and options

The key to IWRM and RBO institution building is to facilitate dialogue and bargaining on the interests driven by values that underlie organizational positions. The value changes described earlier are driving both the substance and the process by which society does its business.

The Figure above describes a variety of institutional mechanisms and a simple range of options ranging from low power/authority to high power/authority to allocate water. To the left of the spectrum is represented power to allocate based solely on individual sovereign right. To the right, one finds regional, comprehensive authority for decisions in the water resources field. Moving from individual autonomy towards regional authority, a variety of approaches are noted: individual studies, regional study centers, treaties, conventions, and river basin authorities, up to comprehensive regional authority.

Individuals and their networks are informal institutions that can be imagined as mechanisms functioning at the left-hand end of the scale. Moving to the right, institutions become more and more formalized. For their effective functioning they should still include the informal institutions in their processes.

The power/authority of water resources agencies to allocate resources in quantity and time can also be thought of as moving from low planning levels to higher levels of operations. Regional and comprehensive water basin authorities, while they exist, tend to be for planning rather than for operations, construction, or legal oversight. Those empowered with higher levels of power/authority tend to focus on single purposes such as navigation. Few comprehensive authorities that cross jurisdictional boundaries exist for allocation of water resources and operation of water systems. The TVA is one outstanding and almost unique example. Still, as described earlier a variety of river basin authorities have existed and do exist, along with treaties and numerous regional centers. Such regional and international transboundary basin authorities are still mostly concerned with planning.

Conditions for Successful RBOs

Successful RBOs help us work toward better integration of demand and supply, encourage effective participatory processes, and help create incentives for cooperation by helping people to see interdependencies. They are a means for water managers and stakeholders to manage water efficiently across the basin instead of focusing on individual system efficiencies. For example, the return flow from irrigation may be managed to meet other uses downstream and to recharge groundwater, thus enhancing water use efficiency at the basin level while meeting ecosystem needs. By managing the flow of water in space and time as well as ensuring its quality, water managers at the basin level can also better align demand with supply.

Several conditions have been identified for successful RBO design. [4] These include high-level ministerial (political) commitment, meaningful community input, high knowledge levels, clear accountability among participants, and flexibility and creativity in the organization. Structures should be designed based on the functions or missions needed, fostering and/or using existing perceptions of the basin as a whole and as a shared resource among many users and using process orientations. Good design will separate the administrative and the larger policy issues, separate regulations and construction functions, and establish mechanisms for conflict management and resolution.

Participatory processes can help level the playing field and incorporate a wider range of values into management decisions. They can facilitate new partnerships among stakeholders. They encourage public access to data and information. In all of this they affect the civic culture or governance culture. They help stakeholders understand how the water is a shared resource and recognize effects that flow up and downstream.

Designing RBOs

Experience and studies are beginning to show that the most important dimensions to consider in designing transboundary water institutions are: functions and responsibilities; membership and participation; operating rules, authorities, legal basis, and structures; financing methods; and consideration of a broad range of issues.

1. Functions can be thought of as soft (support roles) or hard (decision making with authority). The soft would include responsibilities such as research, monitoring, advising or advocacy, and regional focused data and information generation. Harder functions include power to modify and integrate policies of others, the power to allocate waters, and the authority and procedures to mediate conflicts. Most transboundary organizations start with softer functions and some expand into harder ones.
2. Membership relates to what jurisdiction and agencies and interest must be represented. Realistic power sharing and the relative balance of agencies and jurisdiction must be achieved. Also the type of leadership, technical versus political versus administrative, must be decided. This would include defining the roles of NGOs and interest groups as well as those of the technical staff and what they will do.
3. The operating rules must first confront the issue of whether the decision rule is unanimity/consensus versus majority rule or some other system. Consensus relies on negotiations, while majority rule supports coalition building. The nature of the decision rule will affect political aspects of creating the organization. Authorities and resources must be so deployed as to assure the rules are not bypassed. Parties must be assured equal access to information. Most importantly, it must be clear whether those responsible will be deciding actual allocations or advising others.
4. It must be clear what authority is needed to accomplish functions. Existing jurisdictions are reluctant to delegate authority to new organizations. Lack of formal authority means organizations will perform only soft functions. One should generally avoid appealing to negative powers such as taxation or regulation. The designers should try to appeal to positive powers such as creating new markets, resolving disputes, implementing agreements, responding to emergencies, and streamlining permissions. Care must be taken to recognize how much power can be delegated in the political environment.
5. The legal basis can range from informal to the formal. It can be based on agreements, treaties, compacts, or other instruments that ensure the required authority. At the same time, the social realities of fragmentation must be considered. Solid support must be identified or developed within society for the new organization. Existing systems of rights must be recognized. Another critical element in all successful cases is the emergence of competent and trusted technical staff. Finally, overall the design must allow for evolution and change.
6. The financial independence of institutions is critical. Probably the most important dimension to longevity is financing. It is necessary to assess how much is needed and how funding sources relate to the way the money is spent. Funds are raised in various ways, depending on particular situations. They may be direct appropriations. However, reliance on one or a few outside sources can make the organization vulnerable. Contributions, voluntary or mandated, personal and from agencies, can also be sought. These help build a sense of accountability but are really ancillary. The most fruitful avenue is to be self-supporting through collection of abstraction fees, fines, user fees, bonds, and taxes on users and polluters. This is the most stable but politically the most difficult. It also tends to bias the organization functions toward services that are most easily sold such as hydropower and away from an integrated approach.
7. The range of issues under the purview of the RBO is important. Can the RBO deal with the cross cutting issues of water uses? Can it be a place where irrigation flow issues and hydropower interests meet?

There is a tendency when discussing institutions to begin with structures. If one were to do this when talking of water, one might think that the way to achieve more integrated water resource management would be to have one ministry dealing with all aspects of water and the environment, and everything having a major impact on them. Even if this were done, such an organization would still split up into functional units. Society needs, if anything, stronger functional units dealing with irrigation, drinking water, the relationship between the ecosystem and hydrology, and other issues. Comprehensive and coherent national water policies and strategies are the only means of ensuring strong and flexible coordination between sector agencies. A supportive resource mobilization strategy will demonstrate the political will required for implementing the policy. Formal institutions are discussed below in that order: policies, organizations, and resources.

Improving Institutions at the National Level

Creating strong institutions at the national level is almost essential to the creation of institutions to manage water across international boundaries.

National Policy is a Prerequisite

Clearly, no single model of institutional arrangement can suit all countries on all continents. But there is growing agreement on the essential characteristics that will create the conditions for improved water management. All countries need to work toward a statement of water management principles either through a water law or a national policy declaration, from which all subsequent actions are derived. The top priorities should be both the qualities of human existence and ecological protection. All other concerns must be incorporated, but remain subsidiary to these two priorities.

All national (and international) policies must recognize that water can only be managed holistically, taking into account its natural state, the impacts of the socioeconomic activities of humans, and other variables such as climate change.

Every individual is a stakeholder when it comes to the management of water. The act of establishing policies for the planning and management of land and water resources should involve participation of women and men stakeholders representing the economic, environmental, and social interests of the community. Participants should fully share all related information. The process should make productive use of the collective knowledge and wisdom of formal and traditional sciences (indigenous knowledge).

It is the responsibility of states to create an information system that depicts the trade-offs being made in decision making. Transparency includes information related to risk of droughts on the one hand and floods on the other. Populations need to be informed in order to assess and share the risk or vulnerability to hazards and disasters, as well as the need to take measures to prevent and mitigate these. It is a national responsibility to set standards that are realistic and can be monitored. There must be provision for review of those standards at regular intervals.

Since the balance between water as an economic good and water as a social good must change constantly to reflect environmental, income, and usage shifts, the institutional system that governs these changes also needs to be capable of change. Legislation should require periodic reviews of national policy based on an assessment of changes that have occurred in the interval.


National management accountability needs to be vested in the ministry that will give it the broadest cooperative framework to mitigate the fragmentation of water management. Governments should establish apex bodies such as national environmental or water resources councils to coordinate and negotiate between sector, regional, and local concerns through systemic management agencies at the basin and aquifer levels.

Ultimately, at least some aspects of water management during the next twenty five years need to be at the level of river basins and aquifers. This process can begin today with something as simple as Water Use Committees but must be extended over time. Planning, designing, implementation, operation, monitoring, decommissioning, and financing should all be conducted at that level; all systematic change could reflect this as an ultimate, even if not currently achievable, goal. Whether this involves national or transnational activity, such integrated water management can build social stability and provide an opportunity for conciliation to resolve larger issues.

Multi-use arbitration and multi-use participation need to be incorporated into the overall management strategy. Environmental information and environmental advocates must be included in this process from the outset. Sensing and monitoring agencies need to be linked in for disaster preparedness. Drinking water, health, agriculture, environment, industry, and recreation interests have to be represented around the planning table. Such nascent water “parliaments” will respond to growing stakeholder demand to be part of allocation decisions.

Governments should encourage the establishment of such management agencies at the basin and aquifer levels. As the World Commission on Water has pointed out, to make this operational it is necessary to recognize a hierarchy in space of catchments, sub-basins and basins. Each is nested within the larger one. They are part of an organic whole. The functions of the basin agencies must also reflect that hierarchy, with decision making pushed down to the lowest appropriate level: the principle of subsidiarity. But clarification is needed for how a geographic-based agency relates to the mandate of the sector agencies and the administrative/political units that do not generally correspond to the basin boundaries. This clarification will be needed and codified in each case for effective action to flow from the institutional arrangements, and to avoid these new agencies becoming only another bureaucratic layer that contributes to the current fragmentation of decision making in water.

At the water services delivery level, it will very often work best if there is a conversion of water management organizations to service business, responsive to a multi-sector clientele.

The Role of the Private Sector

Private–public partnerships are emerging in a number of countries, and there is a growing separation of policy-making bodies and administrative entities. With decentralization, the fundamental rethinking of water policy is taking some communities back to remembering first principles.

Officials accountable to the citizens must retain the responsibility and have the authority to oversee the management of water services. In the foreseeable future most consumers will still get their water services from public companies. These public companies are typically subject to no regulation and have no accountability to or contract with their users. Improving performance of these companies is a vital policy challenge. Emerging experience in several countries shows that a major stimulus to improving performance of public service companies is the introduction of private companies. It is the insertions of the private sector that catalyze a demand for regulation, for information on comparative performance, and for transparency and accountability. Such regulatory frameworks should apply to both the public and private sectors.

Although international water companies can and will play a vital role, mainly for large cities in creditworthy countries, local companies and local entrepreneurs also have a positive role to play. There is little disagreement that the local private sector can play very useful roles in improving the efficiency of water distribution systems. From billing and bookkeeping to maintenance and use monitoring, the local private sector can often improve the technical and financial performance that characterizes many public utilities in developing countries. Work of this nature depends on good contractual arrangements, and the system must generate enough revenues to pay for the services provided.

Beyond this type of service contract arrangement, in some places the private sector has invested in improved delivery services with claims on the revenue from new or improved system functioning as the return on investment. For such investment to be publicly acceptable, investment needs to be accompanied by transparent arrangements, which extend to performance criteria. These include consulting with local communities to determine their needs, providing public information at regular intervals, and observing appropriate environmental considerations and monitoring. By ensuring transparency good regulatory frameworks can provide, among other benefits, the means to discourage corruption that too often exists. Of course, they must be backed up by a strong independent judicial system that can enforce the application of contracts.

A major issue is how to encourage private sector profit-motivated organizations to respond to environmental and social needs. The environmental movement is increasingly organized with resources to make sure that it is represented whenever true participatory processes make it possible. But this is not so for the poor.

Empowering the Poor

The state can play a vital role in helping the poor gain access to places where decisions are made concerning water that have a direct impact on them. First, governments should frame their policies and legislative and administrative systems so that no citizen is excluded. Second, services should be provided using client-centered, problem solving approaches. This should apply to all government services, but also be a requirement of the regulatory framework and contractual arrangements with private sector suppliers of public services. Finally, to the extent that it is necessary, affirmative action programs may be used, requiring service providers to meet targets or quotas for the poor and disadvantaged.

Governments can also help by creating an understanding of the need for enlightened self-interest among the elite in their societies. A number of forces and movements at work in society make this more politically acceptable than in the past. These include the proliferation of NGOs and the human rights movement; democratic transitions underway in many countries; and new forms of organization of indigenous peoples and claims for ancestral domain and worldwide interest in their cause. If national elites come to a better understanding of poverty in their countries, they may engage in better policy making to ensure access to processes that enable the poor to meet their basic water needs.

Resource Availability

The requirement for capital is enormous, especially if the needs of the under-served and unserved are to be met. However, traditional capital sources from public funding are in ever shorter supply as globalization pushes public spending down and competition for public funding increases.

Current users, not taxpayers, should pay the full costs of delivery as consumers, with a compensation system for poor people. For conservation and demand reduction, as well as to raise revenue, everybody should pay something, with the ultimate goal being full cost payment in water supply and sanitation. These funds must be made available to the water system managers together with a clear understanding of the equity and efficiency goals expected in the delivery systems.

Proven social mobilization approaches that have worked to engage the resources of those not served by current water and sanitation systems must be implemented now. These may need subsidies, but primarily they need the recognition that traditional central finance has simply not provided water and sanitation to all people. Especially where public funds cannot be found, and private funds cannot be attracted, new partners must now be engaged to allow new forms of organization to flourish. There are dozens of examples that this works; public authorities must cease to see such approaches as threatening or competitive to their own efforts.

Public funds are in scarce supply and there is no indication that they will be any less scarce in the future; demands on them will continue to increase. It is imperative that public funds be used only for those purposes for which it would be impossible to attract other source of funds:

  • subsidies for poor people
  • water resource studies
  • some forms of research and monitoring
  • the establishment and institution of regulatory systems
  • ecological zone preservation and restoration
  • flood protection.

Subsidies should be paid directly to poor people to help them out of poverty, not the water departments to administer social welfare. The level of such subsidies will be high, and may require governments to maintain their budgets at current levels even though they transfer much of their previous investment plans to the private sector. Unless countries deal internally with the issue of poverty to create social harmony, international cooperation in basins they share will not be sustainable.

For money to be available from the private sector for the development of urban water, irrigation, and hydropower generation services requires a predictable, transparent regulatory framework that simultaneously protects the interests of investors and consumers alike. International investment in the water sector could add to the estimated $250 billion a year of private capital that now flows to developing countries (and which is now five times the size of official development assistance).

The Role of International Agencies

Official development assistance cannot be the source of financing for the massive investments required. However, it can play a useful role in assuring the financing of complementary services such as research, reforms of governance, and setting up subsidy systems for the poor that must accompany private sector participation. International institutions that are a source of capital should set guidelines on accountability by incorporating management norms in their loan criteria and devising output performance measurements.

They can help with institutional reform as well by providing expertise on the techniques to create transparency and provide for public consultation, and the enabling environment for community participation, especially enhancing the role of women. However, they should be required to demonstrate their comparative advantage in providing these services. One important way to demonstrate this would be by applying the relevant practices to their own functioning. Another would be by demonstrating that they can compete with the private sector to provide these services.

The international system should promote information exchange, and serve as a source of data and best practices in water management and private sector participation. It should gather and regularly report data on water quantity, quality, withdrawals, and consumption. It should continue monitoring environmental performance criteria and encourage research into the links between ecosystems and the hydrologic cycle. This research, in turn, will help the state and local level implement sound water management policies. The international information disseminated by the international system would help create an international climate of opinion on water management, so that general awareness of water issues increases, allowing for better water management. Public education that begins at the international level will later be transmitted to the national and local levels.

The international system can also help empower the poor and disadvantaged by collecting information on participatory systems that successfully involve them. It could stimulate a reinforcing worldwide movement by bringing those responsible for these successes into contact with each other, and with others still coming to grips with the problem of access to water services by the poor. It can also help by spreading at the international level an understanding of the need for enlightened self-interest in governments and within the population of countries who are rich in water and other resources.

The World Trade Organisation should help address the question of the supply of food to countries without adequate water resources to produce their own by placing this issue on the agenda for the next round of trade negotiations. Of course, representatives of these nations will need to play an active role in such negotiations. Two observations and corollaries are important. First, whereas official development assistance was a dominant form of capital ten years ago, it is now recognized that in many ways it created perverse incentives. Official flows will now be dwarfed by private sector flows, domestic and international. The corollary is that official flows must be seen as instruments facilitating the capture of private flows and complementing them. Second, it is clear that development assistance can play an enormous positive role when countries themselves have the right policies and priorities, but that conditionality does little to correct policy distortions. The corollary is that international agencies should increasingly be directing their limited resources first to those countries that have embarked on paths of equitable and sustainable reform, including cooperative approaches to managing water resources shared with other nations. This will encourage those who have started such action and demonstrate to those who have not that the international community does reward such behavior.

As noted earlier, the UN agencies that have water-related issues as part of their mandate have recently reorganized themselves under the title UN-Water. New operating procedures are being put in place. If supported with adequate resources, the international system will be in position to ensure continuity through UN-Water in programs and policies across governments, despite frequent regime changes.

International Waters and National Sovereignty

Two or more countries share some 263 rivers. The management of water resources across natural boundaries strains the capabilities of institutions. Rarely do the boundaries of watersheds correspond to the existing administrative boundaries, be they local, national, or international. Regional politics can exacerbate the already formidable task of understanding and managing complex natural systems, and disparities between riparian states – whether in the level of economic development, infrastructure capacity, political orientation or cultural values – can complicate the development of joint management structures.

Since the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, management of international freshwater resources has become a major concern of the international political and professional community. Actions taken have included the pronouncement of non-binding declarations, the creation of global water institutions, and the codification of international water principles. While clearly more work is required, these initiatives have not only raised awareness of the myriad issues related to international water resource management, but have also led to the creation of frameworks in which the issues can be addressed.

The challenge is to facilitate integrated water resources management in international basins and aquifers and to minimize conflicts between states that share them. Actually, many of these rivers have brought countries together and promoted collaboration between them, though not always on issues of water. Transport, trade, and many other issues have been actively managed by various institutions. The experiences of the United States and Canada through the International Joint Commission, the countries of the Rhine Basin, and the Southern African countries show that riparian states do not have to define their relationships exclusively around the sharing of water. General political cooperation and agreements facilitate the resolution of water issues. Yet the effective management of water also could become a vehicle for collaboration as much as its absence could be a potential source of conflict. International institutions could help manage water conflicts across countries, and provide mediation within countries when possible. For example, they could initially facilitate consensus on the process techniques of shared basins, then move on to assist in development of regional conventions.

Institutional Reform Rainbows: Is There a Pot of Gold at the End?

The good news is that change is underway in many countries and regions of the world. And there is very good news where these changes have begun:

  • Incentives work: those who pay more for water use less.
  • Readiness to pay more for better service has been proven in many places.
  • Crop-per-drop irrigation promises more yield and less water use.
  • Significant transformations have been brought about through water harvesting.
  • Gains in water conservation have been made while levels of economic growth and development have increased.
  • Communities of the poor can organize to produce rich results.
  • Shared water has led more often to collaboration than conflict, even between traditional adversaries.

The stage is set for even greater benefits through expanding institutional reform through the measures described above. Where these improvements have occurred, they will facilitate cooperation in the management of water across international borders as well. They will be essential to achieving the Vision for Water, Life and the Environment in the twenty-first century. The challenge is to multiply and accelerate the process.


  1. Almost 30 percent of the largest industrial, municipal and federal facilities in the United States were in serious violation of the Clean Water Act at least once during a recent 15- month period, according to a report by the US Public Interest Research Group. Nearly 270 million pounds of toxic pollution were released into US waters in 1997. (Poisoning Our Water: How the Government Permits Pollution, February, 2000).
  2. The third is global strategic security: avoiding self destruction. See Kennedy, Graham, The Planetary Interest, London, UCL Press, 1999.
  3. This section is drawn largely from the PCCP Series Volume Participation, Consensus Building and Conflict Management: Training course, prepared by Jerome delli Priscoli of the Institute for Water Resources, US Army Corps of Engineers.
  4. Jerome Delli Priscoli in the UNESCO-IHP Technical Document PCCP Series Participation, Consensus Building and Conflict Management: Training Course, Institute for Water Resources, US Army Corps of Engineers. Also discussed in Conflict and Cooperation in the Management of International Freshwater Resources: A Global Review, Erik Mostert, RBA Centre Delft University of Technology; and Institutions for International Freshwater Management by Melvin Spreij and Stefan Burchi (FAO).

See also

External Resources


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