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Hydrology for the Environment, Life and Policy

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  • Home > Water and Conflict - Updated: 09-09-2004 7:43 am
    Expanding demands for water are certain to increase the competition among uses and users at the local, national and international levels, and thus the potential for conflicts.    
    In the developing world, agriculture is an important component of national economies and the social fabric. Two-thirds or more of total water consumption (and sometimes as much as 90 per cent) is used for agriculture, but farmers cannot pay the full cost of water and are often charged much less than the cost. In many developing countries water is thus almost fully subsidised, and provided by the state to farmers essentially as a free good. In developed countries, where agriculture is less important in the national economy, it has become more a business and less a way of life. The percentage of people living off farming has dropped below 5 per cent, usually to 2-3 per cent, but water use for agriculture is often still between 50 and 65 per cent of the total, which means competition for water between agriculture and all other sectors.

    Water for irrigation is almost always subsidised. Most nations thus subsidise water for agriculture, which leads to inefficient use. As urban water needs rise, so does public concern that more water should be allocated to maintaining environmental quality. The competition with agriculture thus becomes more acute, and the inefficient use of water for irrigation becomes a national concern.

    Efficient utilisation of water in agriculture, on the one hand, and the national attitude to water for agriculture, on the other, should therefore be cornerstones of water policy and management. Another cornerstone of water policy must be attitudes towards the environment. Developed countries are placing greater value on the environment and are allocating more water to it than before. This is creating many conflicts with the urban, industrial and agricultural consumer sectors. Developing countries claim they cannot afford the luxury of allocating water for environmental quality, as they are still faced with poverty and inadequate water supply and sanitation for much of the population. While developed nations cannot impose their environmental standards on developing nations, they can, and should, indicate to those nations how to avoid the mistakes they made when they themselves were in the development phase.

    Competition among user sectors – agriculture, urban, industrial, environment – is therefore widespread, and increasing. This often leads to conflict among the sectors, and also feeds into the positions taken by political entities (cities, counties, provinces, nations) towards co-operation with their neighbours. Competition also arises among districts within the same country, as with objections to water-transfer schemes. Political entities are reluctant to give up sovereign control over water, and are not convinced by the argument that expanding the geographical horizon of joint management can yield significant economic advantages to all parties. This stems from the attitude that water is a strategic resource, and that its allocation is linked with the internal competition among sectors.

    Conflict, water policy and management

    The key challenge for water policy and management is to move from competition and conflict to co-operation. Water knows no political boundaries, and its optimal management is best achieved when done at the basin level, across political boundaries where necessary. Co-operation is thus a critical element in regional water management, when inter-basin water transfers may in certain cases be a preferred option. Quantity and quality must be considered simultaneously and jointly when thinking about co-operative or co-ordinated management of water among users and across political boundaries.

    Avoiding conflicts over water, and resolving them when they do arise, is much more likely with the provision of sound data and interpretation of hydrology and water quality, as well as the uses, social dimensions, institutions and politics. These data and their interpretation must be cast in forms usable in the decision-making arena. HELP has a unique opportunity to contribute in this respect, by providing indicators that assist with determining legal entitlement, facilitation of dispute avoidance, and monitoring compliance.

    International law provides a normative framework for water allocation and management. National laws are expressions of national goals and policies, and therefore differ between countries; they should be compatible with the principles of international law. Laws are one component of a whole system necessary for management of water, but in themselves do not provide the basis for conflict management.

    Water and conflict within HELP

    For HELP to serve society, it must consider not only the formal decision makers but the entire public as well. HELP will therefore include a component of public education: casting the results in forms and formats that make them accessible to those members of the public who need this information.

    HELP will include a distinct component that examines the cross-cutting aspects of water policy and management, as they emerge from the study of the selected experimental basins. We should pay particular attention to the role that hydrology can and should play in evolving management strategies, institutions, and policies.

    A strong component of communication with the public and the decision makers will be included in HELP; this will be conducted jointly with social and political scientists, so that scientific insights will be more likely to form the basis for public opinion and political decision making.

    HELP will also include a component on the role of hydrological data, information and process understanding in management of water resources, as well as in co-operation on water management and avoidance and resolution of conflicts.

    In establishing experimental basins for HELP, the guidelines should include present and forecast future water users and uses, as well as cultural, social, legal, political, and institutional dimensions. From the beginning, the study of the basin should include observation and analysis of these dimensions, and how they interact with all physical aspects of the basin’s water, to result in water policy and management, existing or potential conflicts, and how they might be managed.

    The hydrological science contribution

    Management of water resources is hindered by lack of adequate understanding and information about the temporal and spatial variation of water quantity and quality. The role of hydrology is to provide a solid basis for decision making by:

    • assessment of the water inventory, and its variability over short (hours, days), intermediate (seasons, year) and long (decades) time periods;
    • assessment of water quality and its relation to quantity.

    An established discipline of conflict analysis and management already exists, both in theory and practice. This is referred to by terms such as alternative dispute resolution (ADR), negotiations, mediation, consensus building, partnering. One area of interest in this discipline is resource management, with some specific activities on water. HELP will make links with professional and international efforts that develop and implement ADR techniques, especially on water management, with a view to bringing these considerations into its programmes. The components of a programme on development and application of ADR techniques to water management that should be promoted and supported include:

    • studying the role of hydrological information in creating the basis for rational management of water by a nation and among neighbouring countries;
    • encouraging basic studies of conflict management integrated with a research programme that has the necessary databases linked with process hydrology. This can be achieved, for example, through co-operation with the Program on Negotiations (PON) at IIASA;
    • supporting studies of specific cases in selected river basins;
    • conducting real-world simulations in support of joint management.

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