The Environment, Conflict and Cooperation team talked to Eileen Hofstetter from the Swiss Agency for Development and Co-operation. She is co-author of the 'Inventory of Shared Water Resources in Western Asia’ released at this year’s World Water Week in Stockholm. The Inventory was prepared by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) and the German Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR).
ECC: Please tell us a bit about the approach and the main purpose of this Inventory.
Hofstetter: The initial idea to compile the Inventory came from watching numerous discussions on transboundary water resources in the Middle East in which people debated about conflict and cooperation without being able to specify shared water resources in the region. While there is extensive literature on a few surface water basins like the Jordan River Basin, very little has been written on shared water resources in Western Asia as a whole. And, although a wealth of literature exists on these disputed surface water basins, it does not necessarily cover all relevant aspects. For example, the literature on the Jordan River Basin and, to a lesser extent, on the Euphrates and Tigris River Basins, is dominated by a focus on political relations, occupation and power asymmetry. The underlying scientific base is often limited and data is not publicly available, resulting in the republication of outdated maps, incomplete hydrological records and unreliable water use estimates. At the same time, the focus on disputed rivers has diverted attention from smaller shared rivers and tributaries that often play an important role at local level and that may already have been affected by upstream water development projects.
Even less is known about groundwater resources hidden deep underground. Governments, scholars and international organisations have generally focused much less on shared groundwater resources in the region, and literature on the topic is limited and rarely publicly available. The overwhelming majority of groundwater studies is undertaken by or on behalf of national governments, and rarely transcends political borders. Most groundwater maps delineate aquifers only up to the national borders and disregard the transboundary extent of the resource.
Having said this, the main purpose of the Inventory is to provide a sound scientific basis to inform discussions and foster dialogue on these precious resources that have become increasingly important to sustain development in an era of growing demand and dwindling supply. To do so, the Inventory identifies all shared water resource systems within the region and provides a comprehensive, descriptive analysis of each basin. The aim was to present the resource in all its aspects: hydrology, hydrogeology, water resources development and use, international water agreements and transboundary water management efforts in a descriptive and impartial way.
The Inventory started as a desk study based on available reports and publications on shared water resources in the region, and then followed an integrated and iterative process of development, review, consolidation and consultation with regional and international experts and most importantly country representatives. This process enhanced the study updating it with recent, previously unpublished data.
ECC: In a nutshell, what are the main findings of the report?
Hofstetter: We came up with several interesting findings about shared water resources in the Middle East but before I list them, I would like to highlight that the Inventory is actually the first systematic effort to catalogue and characterise transboundary surface and groundwater resources across the Middle East. As such it provides detailed information on 7 shared river basins including numerous shared tributaries and it identifies 22 shared aquifer systems in the region. That means that for every single one of these shared resources, we do not only have a detailed description on the features I mentioned above, but also new maps providing information on dams, irrigated areas, hydrological stations etc. The main finding of this work is the identification of all major shared surface water basins and aquifer systems in Western Asia.
Now, there are about ten main findings that synthesise and consolidate some of the main issues regarding the identification, state, use and management of shared water resources. It is difficult to pick some findings over others, because they are all important and give an outlook on shared water management in the region. For instance, one finding states that there are more shared water resources in Western Asia than is generally assumed. More than 70% of the study area is part of a shared surface or groundwater basin. A quick look at a map of the region shows that most surface water is shared and originates from outside the region. Another finding points out that water quality is deteriorating across the region, an issue, which is widely eclipsed by concerns over quantity. However, increasing levels of pollution and salinity of both surface and groundwater resources are increasingly affecting the ability to use the scarce water resources available in the region, and are heightening tensions between riparian countries.
Our last finding draws on the fact that it is already too late to save some shared water. This sounds hard but is sadly true. Man-made diversions of upstream surface waters, the over-exploitation of some groundwater resources and intensive irrigated agriculture have already led to the disappearance of intermittent streams, the drying up of wadis, and have rendered some groundwater resources too polluted or saline to use. This has fuelled tensions along international borders, affected health and livelihoods in rural communities, and increased costs to industry. Therefore, more cooperative action and constructive dialogue is needed to sustain the shared water resources that remain.
ECC: What recommendations do you derive for future water cooperation, also with a view to further research?
Hofstetter: There are two important discoveries about water cooperation. First, there is not a single agreement on shared groundwater resources in the region. Cooperation over shared groundwater is rare because resources are often not clearly delineated and may therefore not be recognised as shared by riparian countries. Thus, and in terms of further research, additional conceptual work is needed in dealing with shared aquifer systems. Particularly in dealing with large regional aquifer systems, closer cooperation over these resources will require the delineation of more manageable units where cross-border impacts can occur. Another angle could be the joint exercise of riparian countries to complete, validate and update the baseline information. The Inventory has set the stage for an informed exchange on shared groundwater resources in the region and shows how much work is still ahead of us. It is now to carry on momentum within and beyond the Working Group.
The second discovery the Inventory makes is about water cooperation over shared surface water. Interestingly, water cooperation exists in many cases. It takes place through technical committees and local projects.
However, it is never basin-wide due to long-standing political instability. Existing bilateral agreements tend to be narrow as they centre on water allocation, with an emphasis on infrastructure development and use. Water quality issues are not addressed in these agreements. The problem is that the riparian countries are more intent on dividing the region’s water resources than on sharing them. Both on the level of discourse and agreements, the focus lies on the quantity of available water rather than on the potential benefits derived from its shared use.
This is where we need a shift and further research can help to carve out the potential benefits for cooperation and show ways to move beyond water allocation.
Outcomes of the Stockholm World Water Week 2013: This year, the Stockholm World Water Week took place from 1-6 September 2013. There is extensive event coverage available. The Stockholm Statement makes a case for water as a cross-cutting challenge (not a limited sector) that has to be comprehensively considered on the post-2015 agenda and worked upon using cooperative approaches. Increasing water productivity, guaranteeing access to safe drinking water and sanitation as well as decreasing vulnerability, including water-related disasters, are pressing issues brought forward by the event participants.