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International thinking on water: the consensus

A number of concerns, in addition to those surfacing as a consequence of the Water Decade, have subsequently exerted a significant influence on international thinking about water. Some - such as environmental stresses, water scarcity and potential conflict - have already been touched upon. Others also need to be mentioned as part of the context of the new international consensus on water. 

The end of the Cold War has provided lasting reverberations in international affairs, including changes in the climate surrounding development co-operation. Economic, environmental and ‘common good’ arguments have come to assume more importance, both in the justification of development co­operation per se, and in the nature of the development approaches favoured by donors. Concern with poverty reduction, democracy and human rights have also increased the emphasis on equity and participatory approaches. The expression of concern has not however been translated into increased levels of ODA, which has been subject to budgetary pressures and undergone a decline.

At the same time, the disappointing results of much development co­operation, coupled with similar disappointments associated with structural adjustment programmes, has led to systemic analysis of the context and modalities of development co­operation. The need for efficacy and cost-effectiveness in the application of ODA resources, both from the perspective of intended beneficiaries and from that of donors, has become compelling for pragmatic reasons, independently of the changing geopolitical and ideological framework.

Although the overall purpose of development co-operation remains the same - to redress imbalances and create opportunities in favour of the world’s underprivileged and underserved - a number of new concerns have emerged. Without engagement with these, the overall purpose of co-operation in development is regarded by key international donors as unattainable. These include the need for good governance, institutional reform, administrative decentralisation, participation and involvement of civil society and the private sector. Conditionalities associated with development co-operation today relate to this new paradigm. Its parameters are as pertinent for water-related development co-operation as for other areas, and the new international thinking on water has taken them on board; respect for them is an integral part of these Guidelines.

While the debate on water in the 1980s was largely focused on water and sanitation as adjuncts to public health, in the 1990s the scope of the debate dramatically expanded and the wider focus became the management and use of water as part of environmental protection and sustainable development. The lessons concerning water for meeting basic needs learned during the 1980s, especially the public health lessons, were still prominent. But the consensus surrounding those lessons began to merge with a wider consensus embracing water resources management generally, and reflecting environmental and economic concerns as well as good governance and the other elements of the post-Cold War development paradigm.

Thus a number of overlapping and complementary trends have prompted a search for a new and holistic approach for water resources management. The approach needs to encompass environmentally-sound water management; food security especially among the poor; appropriate technology; private sector involvement; reduction of subsidies; decentralisation of decision-making to the lowest appropriate administrative level; user participation in services; reform of institutions and regulatory frameworks; and cost recovery and pricing.

The backbone of the consensus

The backbone of this consensus is expressed in the key principles articulated at international meetings held in Copenhagen (the Copenhagen Informal Consultation on Integrated Water Resources Development and Management, November 1991), and Dublin (the International Conference on Water and the Environment, January 1992), in the run-up to the Earth Summit. Their expression at Dublin was as described in the box below. The Dublin principles formed the basis of Chapter 18 (on freshwater resources) of the Earth Summit’s key discussion document, Agenda 21. Chapter 18 identified seven focus areas for action (see box).

These principles were subsequently endorsed and an Action Plan prepared at the post-Rio Ministerial meeting on water and sanitation at Noordwijk in the Netherlands (1994). They have been consistently cited by all the major international organisations involved in water-related development policy, including the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the OECD. Although there is continuing debate on some - for example, whether water should be regarded as an ‘economic good’ - there is broad consensus around them, and a stated determination to identify actions consistent with their implementation within a framework of integrated water resources management.

The drive to operationalise these principles was given new force by the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) in June 1997, which called for urgent action in the field of freshwater. EU member states and the EC supported a freshwater initiative whose first manifestation was an Expert Group Meeting in Harare, Zimbabwe, in January 1998. In March 1998, an International Conference on Water and Sustainable Development held in Paris developed a Programme for Priority Actions. In April 1998, the 6th session of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) held in New York made recommendations on comprehensive strategic approaches to freshwater management.

These recent discussions at the macro level indicate that water is indeed gaining international political ground. However, much more effort is needed before the consensus can be said to have been widely translated into practical action on the ground. In particular, as was pointed out by UNGASS in 1997, intergovernmental statements of intent regarding freshwater will only yield fruit in terms of the necessary policy and institutional restructuring at national level if the international community is willing to provide additional financial resources to support its recommendations.

Nonetheless, the international unanimity of vision concerning water is an important feature of the policy-making environment. It gives force and recognition to the view that ‘more of the same’ approaches applied in the past are unsustainable. Not only do such approaches fail to address water scarcity and environmental issues; they lead to a wider gap between served and unserved populations. The challenge now is to translate the consensus within the international community concerning water from a rhetorical to a practical existence.

There is still a gap between ideas and actions endorsed in the macro-level debate, and their translation into policy-making structures and programmes in developing country settings. Some projects stand out as beacons illuminating potential new directions. But many programmatic activities and projects are only just beginning to address the new list of concerns or have implemented only a handful. These Guidelines are intended to help the process along where it matters most, in locations where absence of services, or service inefficiency, unsuitability, or unsustainability have had damaging effects on people and communities.

The promotion of river basin co­operation

The theme of integrated water resources management has led to the promotion of the river basin as the logical geographical unit for its practical realisation, notably by the EU, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. The river basin offers many advantages for strategic planning, particularly at higher levels of government, though difficulties should not be underestimated. Groundwater aquifers frequently cross catchment boundaries, and more problematically, river basins rarely conform to existing administrative entities or structures. Although river basin organisations should not be seen as a panacea, they do provide a sound geographical basis for integrated water management.

In many parts of the developing world, major rivers run through two or more countries and their transboundary character complicates the practicalities of river basin management. Water sharing between states through which run such major rivers as the Ganges, Nile, Jordan and Mekong is self-evidently an important political and strategic issue for the states concerned. There have been in the past too many instances of projects designed to meet national objectives which ignore their impacts on the river basin as a whole and neglect the potentially conflicting needs of downstream users in other national or - in federal countries - sub-national states. The recent Convention on the Non-navigational Use of International Water Courses (April 1997) provides a basis for establishing common rights in transboundary rivers and a framework for the management of international river systems.

In March 1998, a Round Table was held in Petersberg, Germany, on Co­operation for Transboundary Water Management, which produced the Petersberg Declaration. The Round Table focused on instruments to support the use of water as a catalyst for regional co­operation rather than as a source of potential conflict. The importance of mechanisms for promoting river basin co-operation is becoming more widely recognised, and is reflected in support for the International Network of River Basin Organisations (INBO).


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