Water in foreign policy

The global community is slowly waking up to the growing paucity of water

Published: Sunday 31 May 1998

Water in foreign policy

-- The gravity of the problem of freshwater scarcity on a global scale was recognised as far back as 1977, when the un Water Conference took place at Mar del Plata, Argentina. The action plan drawn up at Mar del Plata is considered by many as "an excellent road map", much of which is valid two decades down the road. The Mar del Plata conference succeeded in putting water firmly on the international political agenda, making governments aware of the urgency of the water crisis facing humankind, so that they were forced to take immediate and concrete actions. It changed the perceptions of water as an unlimited resource, and encou-raged the concept of water as an economic good reflecting the real economic cost of water.

In May 1997, the Convention on Non-navigable Uses of International Water Courses was signed after "years of rambling along", as a un official put it. A framework agreement, it has been drawn up because there is no such convention to assist nations at times of disagreement over a watercourse. It takes into account surface water as well as groundwater. This was drafted in 1977 by the International Law Commission and adopted by the un General Assembly 20 years later. As of date, seven countries have signed the convention, and two have ratified it.

Water was listed in Agenda 21 at the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, recommending that all countries should develop water policies and continually review these according to changing circumstances. The 19th Special Session of the un General Assembly ( ungass ) at New York in June 1997 called for highest priority to be given to freshwater problems facing many regions, especially in the developing world. It also said that the sixth session of the csd would focus on water.

A flurry of activities preceded csd-6. In order to prepare for the session, an expert group on strategic approaches to freshwater management met in Harare from January 27 to 30, 1998. It adopted an ecosystem-based water management approach. The group pointed out that as the ecosystem itself was a user of water (for example, wetlands need water for their survival), it was necessary to promote an ecosystem-based approach in integrated water resources planning. In India, for example, river waters have been exploited to a point that there is no water in these rivers during the dry season.

In the first week of March 1998, Germany organised a meeting at Bonn to develop its intervention for csd-6. This multi-ministerial meeting was organised to harmonise positions of different ministries of the German government: the ministries of environment, foreign affairs, and development cooperation. The meeting had political overtones, observers had noted. Vying for a seat in the un Security Council, Germany was keen to improve its profile in foreign policy by showing initiative in a vital issue such as river basin management, which is marked by international conflicts in many cases.

In March 1998, the French Commission on Sustainable Development held the Paris Conference in preparation of csd-6. The conference highlighted the economic costs of freshwater. One of its conclusions was that a price signal needed to be sent to the consumers so that they could modify their behaviour. The conference also took into account consumer participation in management of their water.

Meanwhile, Global Water Partnership ( gwp ), a network of donor agencies and water professionals, has been created by the World Bank ( wb ), the United Nations Development Programme ( undp ) and the Swedish International Development Agency ( sida ) to formulate new perspectives in water management. Johan Holmberg, the network's executive secretary, had pointed out that the gwp met "almost once every week", which reflects the importance of water issues in today's context.

With such a history of increasing focus on freshwater problems, the agenda at csd -6 was quite clear. However, as prepared as the North was for csd-6, the same could not be said about the representatives of the South.

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