This year, World Water Day (March 22) highlights the importance of international efforts to preserve and protect the world’s shared water resources.
The United Nations has declared 2013 the International Year of Water Cooperation. According to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon: ‘Water is central to the well-being of people and the planet, we must work together to protect and carefully manage this fragile, finite resource.’
Improving global cooperation on water issues was a key outcome at the UN Rio+20 sustainable development summit last year. At the summit, Prime Minister Gillard committed Australia to a number of targets for worldwide water resource management. These included halving the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015; adopting measures to address floods, droughts and water scarcity; and addressing the balance between water supply and demand.
Water is a natural resource close to the heart of most Australians—muddy clean-ups after flooding rain and water restrictions during drought are things we have become used to. We are all too familiar with the cycles of flood and drought and working together to try and better prepare for these events.
Australia has developed particular expertise, technology and skills in the field of water management. Now Australia’s aid program is sharing this expertise with the developing world, where water issues can be so extreme they threaten to destabilize the peace and security of entire regions.
A source of conflict
According to an OECD report [PDF, external website] by 2030, nearly half the world’s population will be living in areas of high water stress. As we have seen in recent years, water scarcity can intensify existing conflict and be a direct cause of conflict itself, where there are local, national and trans-national disputes over access and allocation. The poorest and most vulnerable people in the community are often disproportionately impacted by conflicts that can arise over the use of water resources.
Like other island nations, all of Australia’s water issues can be managed within our national borders. For most countries, however, rivers and lakes are shared across borders. This can increase the complexity of managing water resources sustainably. Effective water cooperation can avoid conflicts that arise over water scarcity and provide a catalyst for sustainable economic development.
Mekong Water Resources Program
Around 60 million people live in the lower Mekong Basin, with more than 330 million in the Greater Mekong Subregion, which encompasses Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, and parts of southern China.
Australia’s Mekong Water Resources Program has been supporting water governance since 2007. The goal of the program is to assist countries of the Mekong Subregion to reduce poverty and achieve sustainable development through the equitable and efficient use and management of water resources.
During 2012–13 Australia provided $8.5 million to continue this important work, in partnership with the Mekong River Commission, Mekong governments, civil society and research organisations. Some of the program’s achievements to date include:
helping communities in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam adapt to the impacts climate change will have on their water resources bringing together government, civil society and private sector stakeholders to share ideas on what sustainable water development means for the Mekong region supporting stakeholder collaboration through events such as Mekong Forum on Water, Food and Energy, held in Cambodia in 2011 and Hanoi in 2012.
More than 750 million of the world’s poorest people depend on three major river basins fed by the monsoons and the Himalayan glaciers (the Ganges, Indus and Brahmaputra) for their livelihoods and food production. Climate change is affecting the timing and intensity of the monsoon and the rate of glacial melt in the Himalayas. Poor people, particularly women, are most vulnerable to climate related water challenges, including floods, drought, water shortages and pollution.
Australia is providing $12 million over four years to address water issues in India and South Asia under the Australia–India Water Science and Technology Partnership. Key technology that was developed to manage the waters of the Murray Darling Basin is now being transferred by CSIRO to India and South Asia under this program.
Australia also partners with the World Bank, the UK and Norway in the South Asia Water Initiative targeting improved management of the Ganges, Indus and Brahmaputra Rivers.
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) region comprises 15 major river basins, all of which are shared by two or more countries. Australia has committed $17.5 million to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Transboundary Water Management Program working with member countries to develop water management plans for this scarce and shared resource. The program is expected to directly benefit up to five million people across southern Africa by providing access to safe water, through more efficient disaster management in the face of floods and climate change and improved irrigation for poor farmers.
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