Water Cooperation on World Water Day

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22nd March is officially World Water Day! 2013 is the International Year of Water Cooperation, which for a lot of people is not happening nearly enough on this planet.

World Water Day is held on this date every year as a means of focusing attention on the importance of freshwater and advocating for the sustainable management of freshwater resources. And as Albert Szent-Gyorgi, the famous Nobel-prize winner so aptly said ‘Water is life’s mater and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.’

As we know, water is not confined to political borders. An estimated 148 states have international basins within their territory and 21 countries lie entirely within them.  There are 276 transboundary river basins in the world and 20 of these are shared by 5 or more countries!

Number of transboundary river basins in the world

Number of transboundary river basins in the world

On top of this 46% of the world’s (terrestrial) surface is covered by these transboundary river basins. That’s a lot of water which needs to be shared! Unfortunately pollution knows no borders either and up to 90% of wastewater in developing countries flows untreated into rivers, lakes and highly productive coastal zones, threatening health, food security and access to safe drinking and bathing water.


  • 85% of the world population lives in the driest half of the planet.
  • 783 million people do not have access to clean water and almost 2.5 billion do not have access to adequate sanitation
  • Water availability is expected to decrease in many regions with increasing demand. Yet future global agricultural water consumption alone is estimated to increase by ~19% by 2050, and will be even greater in the absence of any technological progress or policy intervention.


  • There ARE examples where transboundary waters have proved to be a source of cooperation rather than conflict: nearly 450 agreements on international waters were signed between 1820 and 2007
  • Even through war, legal agreements on water sharing have been negotiated and maintained: Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam have been able to cooperate since 1957 within the framework of the Mekong River Commission, and even had technical exchanges throughout the Vietnam War; Since 1955 Israel and Jordan, have held regular talks on the sharing of the Jordan River, even as they were until recently in a legal state of war. The Indus River Commission survived two wars between India and Pakistan!
  • Penguins have this incredible gland which converts saltwater to freshwater (although not directly) thus allowing them to survive without access to freshwater! If only us humans could do the same….
"We don't need no fresh water!" - Emperor penguin chicks in Antarctica (Source: Ian Duffy, http://www.flickr.com/photos/ianduffy/4871825092/sizes/z/in/photostream/)

“We don’t need no fresh water!”
(Source: Ian Duffy, http://www.flickr.com/photos/ianduffy/4871825092/sizes/z/in/photostream/)

While our own national transboundary Murray-Darling basin has been a source of frustration for those living in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia (some more than others), the Murray Darling Basin Authority has managed to finally coordinate agreement amongst the states through the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, an undoubtedly significant political achievement.  The plan was signed into law in November 2012 and was developed to recover and return water currently used for human purposes in the Murray-Darling Basin back to the environment. However, debate is still ongoing regarding the the implementation of this plan and managing existing irrigated agriculture industries and the health of the Murray-Darling basin is still an ongoing challenge in cooperation.

In Western Australia we have a number of examples of successful water cooperation, the most obvious being C. Y. O’Connor’s historic Goldfields Water Supply Scheme , which transports water from Mundaring Weir uphill 500 km inland to Kalgoorlie.

Goldfields pipelines (Source: Water Corporation, http://www.watercorporation.com.au/S/supply_yourwater.cfm)

Goldfields pipeline (Source: Water Corporation, http://www.watercorporation.com.au/S/supply_yourwater.cfm)

However, sharing water in our state is still contentious.  The sensitive issue of tapping into groundwater from the Yarragadee aquifer in the southwest, for use by the metropolitan people of Perth was met with a significant amount of dismay.  Local opposition argued that maintaining the biodiversity ‘hot spot’ of the southwest should be prioritised and that the poorly managed Gnangara Mound aquifer was an example of water sharing gone wrong. The development of desalination projects by the Water Corporation has meant that dealing with the difficulties of water cooperation between people and environment has largely been avoided in Perth, but not many cities have this luxury.

The right to claim water is a difficult issue on any level, be it on a local, state or international scale. And this is just between humans. The right to water by the environment itself is often overlooked, and understandably so when access to water is a matter of survival for so many people. The privitisation of water in some countries where environmental laws do not exist to protect local needs and ecological water requirements can be disastrous, as exmplified by the ‘water war’ in Cochabama, Bolivia in 2000.

At a time of increasing demand and changing rainfall patterns, a focus on successful water cooperation is critical to meet both human and environmental water needs. Essential Environmental encourages you to raise awareness on water issues and the need to improve the management of our water resources this World Water Day!

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