World Water Day 2009 "Shared Waters - Shared Opportunities"

25 Mar 2009
Bangkok, Thailand

World Water Day 2009 was celebrated by the United Nations in Bangkok on 25 March 2009. This year’s theme was “Shared Waters – Shared Opportunities”. Through this message, the United Nations aim to draw attention to the cooperation potential for development, presented to people that share surface or ground water. The event was opened by Mr. Shigeru Mochida, the Deputy Executive Secretary of ESCAP. After delivering the message on the World Water Day of 2009 from the United Nations Secretary-General, Mr. Mochida pointed out that the percentage of “shared waters” in the region is over 50%, much higher than the global average of 44%. This suggests that much opportunity exists in our region for collaboration to deal with common problems at the regional level.

“Shared opportunities” are more important than ever, with the global economic downturn affecting socio-economic development across the region. Indeed the crisis may threaten immediate development achievements. However, as demand for energy declines and industrial expansion plans are temporarily shelved, policymakers may pause and look at the environmental and socio-economic impact of existing development plans. As far as water-related projects on are concerned, this crisis may provide an opportunity for Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) principles to be better explored and applied.

In his keynote address, Dr. Siripong Hungspreug, Director General, Department of Water Resources of the Royal Thai Government, pointed out that the Mekong River has incredible potential to help address the food, fuel and financial crises, while preparing to cope with the impacts of Climate Change. Today, less than 10% of hydropower potential has been developed in the Mekong. With Thailand and Viet Nam being the world’s two largest rice exporters, the river water feeds millions of people. The potential of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) as a major regional investment area for infrastructure development is exceptional.

Following the keynote lecture, six prize-winning elementary school pupils of a drawing competition organized by the Asian Institute of Technolocy (AIT) to commemorate the World Water Day 2009 were presented with awards by the Deputy Executive Secretary of ESCAP, Dr. Siripong Hungsapreug and Mr. Siva Thampi, Director of the Environment and Development Division of UNESCAP. Subsequently, Mr. Mochida and Dr Siripong Hungspreug inaugurated the World Water Day 2009 Exhibition at the United Nations Conference Centre.

2008 was a crisis prone year of great uncertainty with a convergence of triple threats to development: finance, fuel/food price shocks and climate change challenges, said Ms. Tiziana Bonapace, Chief, Macroeconomic Policy and Analysis Section at ESCAP. Ms. Bonapace presented the key outcomes of the “Economic and Social Survey of Asia and the Pacific 2009: Addressing Triple Threats to Development.” Ms. Bonapace also pointed out that through multilateral coordination of policies the region can move from crisis resilience to crisis resistance.

Mr. Thierry Facon, Technical Group Leader, Natural Resources and Environment, FAO Regional Office for Asia and Pacific, pointed out the challenges to ensure food security and thus water security in developing countries at the present as well as in the next three or four decades by improving agricultural water productivity. There could be no food security without water security, but also no water security without food security, in the region. He highlighted the importance of coping with the need to address the increasing competition for water between agriculture and other sectors and between urban and rural areas and particularly in transboundary rivers. He drew attention of the participants of the trend of increasing conflicts over waters in many countries of the region, which he expected to be exacerbated by the triple crises and climate change. Cooperation for the management of transboundary basins and aquifers was necessary, but not sufficient. Countries needed to adopt sound policies to improve water productivity while well-functioning, dependable, fair and equitable international trade could ease tension on scarce water resources.

Dr Salmah Zakaria, Economics Affairs Officer, WSS, EDD, ESCAP, speaking on Managing Climate Change in Water: Challenges and Opportunities in Transboundary Rivers, emphasized the importance of managing water resources within each river basin. The complexity increases when the river basin is trans-boundary, requiring more elaborate co-operation. She further emphasized that Climate Change will affect basic elements of life, with the poorest countries being the most vulnerable. Further impact of water in the forms of floods and droughts are already occurring in many river basins, transboundary basin being not an exception.

In her address, Ms. Pham Thanh Hang, Coordinator of Basin Development Plan, Mekong River Commission (MRC) Secretariat emphasized how opportunities presented by shared water across borders with the existing legal and institutional infrastructure, especially in terms of joint planning, could be further developed. The Mekong River Comission is working with its Member Countries to ensure that national plans and projects will be assessed from an integrated basin perspective in terms of how they would achieve the triple bottom lines of economic growth, environmental protection and social just, maximizing cooperation opportunities provided by the 1995 Mekong Agreement. The assessment of different basin-wide development scenarios, complemented by strategic environmental assessment of hydropower development in the mainstream of Lower Mekong Basin to identify potential gains and losses, for example, on fisheries due to dam blockage is a case in point. The role of the Mekong River Commission and the Basin Development plan is therefore to look at the “acceptable development space” and work within its boundaries.

The 1995 Mekong Agreement on “The Cooperation for The Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin” was the result of tough and long negotiations, said Dr. George Radosevich, former Law Professor at the Colorado State University. Although critics may suggest possible areas for improvement, the agreement provides an excellent comprehensive framework, fundamental tools and adaptation flexibility to take on the numerous crisis conditions facing us today. Like any agreement, however, it is only as enforceable and effective as its drafters, the member-countries, want it to be.

The benefits of cooperation at the Mekong expand beyond water. In fact, water can be the entry point for larger cooperation. Opportunities can be explored initially through capacity development and staff exchange programmes. Some of the existing projects and cooperation tools were presented by Mr. Hal Howard, from the Embassy of the United States of America. Mr. Howard also highlighted the renewed emphasis placed by the US government on water security and access to water and sanitation for all, as well as the need for better data monitoring and improved educational programmes.

In turning challenges to opportunities, Mr. Mukand Babel, Associate Professor and Coordinator of the Water Resources Engineering Program at the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) emphasized that benefits should flow both to and from the river. Improved water quality, river flow characteristics, soil conservation and biodiversity should be combined with improved hydropower & agricultural production, flood-drought management, environmental conservation and water quality. Mr. Babel called for a policy shift from dispute to cooperation and development and from food and energy self-sufficiency to security that reduces conflict risk.

Water quality was singled out as a particular threat to transboundary water management. Controlling pollution, however, can also turn into an opportunity to address future water shortages, especially given the competing demands for water from various actors, said Ms. Salmah Zakaria of the Water Security Section at ESCAP. The issue of water-related investment was also raised. Policymakers will have to make decisions on the types of investment to undertake in the near future. Existing studies provide some guidance, but the uncertainty surrounding climate change has to be addressed. Downscaling of global climate change models has already started in the region. Most of the results indicated distinct changes in quantity and timing of precipitation. This will have profound impact on the performance of existing hydraulic structures like dams, bridges, floods, agriculture and water supply systems as well as impact future design. There is need for wider dissemination of these results and for clear understanding of the uncertainties that downscaling models entail, which definitely will require close co-operations within trans-boundary rivers.

The issue of biofuels was briefly addressed. Mr. Thierry Facon expressed satisfaction that the biofuel debate has finally been framed properly in international debates. He also pointed out that a sound knowledge base and understanding of water balances was needed for the possible impact of upstream countries’ efforts in water conservation to be properly anticipated and assessed. Actions upstream for water conservation, if based on misguided notions of “irrigation efficiency”, might harm downstream countries. Regarding the future of agriculture and the increasing rural-urban divide, it was pointed out that food prices are likely to remain at higher than pre-2002 levels. Although the short-term function of the governments is to stabilize the economy, their long-term goal should remain socio-economic development and what that means for rural development, Ms. Bonapace pointed out. Lastly, the role of illicit crops was raised as a question by the audience. Concerns that higher opium prices are encouraging poppy cultivation and trade were expressed.

In the above context, the United Nations and other international organizations, like the Mekong River Commission, have an important role to play in assisting countries and engaging governments to revisit their development plans. The need to design guidelines for more eco-efficient water infrastructure development is urgent. Strong political will is also required to enforce these rules and guidelines. Policies for more equitable growth and inclusive and sustainable development should be placed at the center of public spending, particularly as the global economic downturn hits the poor worst. The role of the private sector in adopting sustainable and eco-efficient development paths cannot be overemphasized, particularly in a region where private entrepreneurship has been the main driver of growth and development.

The panel discussion was coordinated by Mr. Le-Huu Ti, Chief of the Water Security Section at ESCAP. In organizing World Water Day 2009, ESCAP enlisted help and in-kind contributions from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of the Royal Thai Government; other UN agencies and international organisations including FAO, UNESCO, UNDP, the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), as well as the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT). ESCAP is grateful for their strong support and active participation in the organization of this annual event.