Global Policy Forum

World Water Day: Transboundary Waters


By Dr Summaiya Syed-Tariq

March 23, 2009

For urban dwellers, the phrase 'water shortage' is nothing less than doom's day scenario. To them it spells saving every single drop of water, running after the water tanker mafia (and getting a big dent in the pocket) and the worst of all carrying out day-to-day water related activities from a bucket.

Focusing on those poor souls who may live in the big cities yet have the misfortune of hailing from the lower socio-economic stratum, they perpetually live in water crises, having to fill up their numerous cans, bottles and everything under the sun that can possibly be used to store water from the community tap which runs as per the whims of the authorities.

The rural scenario is even worse- the women folk sometimes have to travel as far as six kilometres for a pot or two full of water. Taking a shower may very well be considered a luxury there. With the world population (6.76 billion) set to reach the nine billion mark by 2050 and our fast dwindling natural resources, it is time to sit up, take notice and do something constructive about our water reserves.

In 1993, the United Nations declared March 22 as the World Day for Water. The decade 2005-2015 is the second 'UN International decade for Action for Water' also called the 'Water for Life Decade 2005-2015.'

Each year has a specific theme which aims to increase awareness and perhaps convince the general public about the importance of judicious use of water. There are approximately a billion people without access to safe water. The World Water Day is also used as a time to focus public attention on the critical water issues of our era, promoting clean water and sustainable aquatic habitats. People around the world are encouraged to celebrate the day to draw attention to the challenge of sharing water and opportunities.

The theme for 2009 is Transboundary Waters, the rivers and lakes that transcend boundaries, serving several countries whether upstream or downstream. There are 263 Transboundary Lake and River basins which cover nearly half of the earth's land surface, crossing through the territories of 145 countries.

So, far 274 underground aquifers of fresh water have been identified, moving silently below our borders, they lie under 15 per cent of the Earth's surface. Some prophets of doom may foresee a future filled with conflict as every country seeks to satisfy its water needs from increasingly limited water resources. But history bears witness to the fact that cooperation, not conflict is the most logical response to trans-boundary water management issues.

The history of international water treaties dates as far back as 2500 BC, when the two Sumerian states of Lagash and Umma signed an agreement to end a water dispute along the Tigris. In recent history, some 3,600 treaties relating to international water resources have been signed dating from AD 805 to 1984. India and Pakistan signed the Indus Water Treaty in 1960.

Violence over water, though not uncommon, is not a strategically rational, effective or economically viable option for countries. There have been 507 conflict-related events as opposed to 1228 cooperative ones, majority being weighted towards the latter in the total number of water-related interactions between nations.

The Global UN Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses was adopted in May, 1997. It sets out the basic rights and obligations between the states, emphasising that 'states must utilise their international watercourses in an equitable and reasonable way and without causing significant harm to their neighbours.' The truth remains that only 16 countries have ratified the convention whereas 35 are needed for the Convention to enter into force.

Our planet's fresh water reserves present a grim picture, especially for the developing nations. With the ever increasing demands of expanding human populations, horrifying effects of climate change and irresponsible use of water we head towards extremely testing times.

The UN's third 'World water development report', presented ahead of the fifth World Water Forum warns of increased regional rivalry over water-related issues which will threaten fragile states by mounting security challenges.

Water is at the centre of everything. From climate change to decreasing energy and food supplies to economic meltdowns, water remains at the heart of it all. It's a vicious cycle that warns of local water crises going global if these links are not addressed and resolved.

The picture is bleaker for countries like Pakistan, where economy is primarily based on agriculture. It does not need a rocket scientist to comprehend what shortage of water can do to our crop yield. The devaluation of the rupee and effects of inflation in cohorts with decreasing produce can have devastating impacts on all levels of the society. The need of the hour is to think in global terms. Whether upstream or downstream, we are all in the same boat.


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