Water Cooperation to Cope with Twenty-First Century Challenges

The twenty-first century, part of the Anthropocene, will leave us with tremendous environmental changes. Unprecedented population growth, a changing climate, rapid urbanization, expansion of infrastructure, migration, land conversion and pollution translate into changes in the fluxes, pathways and stores of water—from rapidly melting glaciers to the decline of groundwater due to overexploitation. Population density and per capita resource use have increased dramatically over the past century, and watersheds, aquifers and the associated ecosystems have undergone significant modifications that affect the vitality, quality and availability of the resource. Current United Nations predictions estimate that the world population will reach 9 billion in 2050. The exponential growth in population and the more intensive use of water per capita are among the leading key drivers behind hydrologic change and its impact. It is a huge challenge on an already resource-limited planet to meet the various needs of the people, especially of those who already lack access to clean water.1 The variability, vulnerability and uncertainty of global water resources will be further exacerbated by increasingly erratic weather events, including droughts, floods and storms. Such disasters seriously impede efforts to meet the Millennium Development Goals. Water scarcity due to drought, land degradation and desertification already affects 1.5 billion people in the world and is closely associated with poverty, food insecurity and malnutrition.

Under these circumstances, water resources management in river basins must be significantly more efficient in order to ensure continued adequate water availability and environmental sustainability for present and future needs. This is certainly the most complex challenge for water professionals and managers of this century.2 It is true that a great deal of effort has gone into the development of a set of indicators and policies to meet the water resource requirements of human beings and societies, but more work is still required on steps to be taken towards better water management. Furthermore, water problems extend across all dimensions from local to global, with the adequacy of governance being one of the major imponderables.3

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), as the only United Nations specialized agency with a specific mandate to promote water science, continues to play a pivotal role, through its International Hydrological Programme (IHP), in assisting and guiding Member States in water-related scientific, conservation, protection, managerial and policy issues. IHP has evolved from an internationally coordinated hydrological research programme into an all encompassing, holistic programme whose aim is to facilitate education and capacity-building, as well as enhance water resources management and governance. IHP facilitates an interdisciplinary and integrated approach to watershed management, which incorporates the social dimension of water resources and promotes and develops international research in hydrological and fresh water sciences. The programme facilitates dialogue among a new generation of scientists working together and sharing data, scientific knowledge and techniques across political borders, particularly from developing countries, through its centres and water chairs.

UNESCO is hosting and leading the World Water Assessment Programme, a flagship programme of UN-Water. IHP is also supported by a network of 18 water-related centres, the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education, located in Delft, the Netherlands, and 29 water-related UNESCO Chairs and the University Twinning and Networking Programme. IHP, together with its Member States, will implement the eighth phase of IHP (IHP-VIII, 2014-2021) entitled "Water Security: Responses to Local, Regional, and Global Challenges", a programme that will address the challenges of sustainable development. The International Year of Water Cooperation, 2013, is an ideal opportunity for raising awareness of the role of water in sustainable development. This can be achieved by ensuring that the Year's activities address international as well as national cooperation among various water actors, stakeholders and decision makers.


The state of water resources is constantly changing as a result of the natural variability of the Earth's climate system and the anthropogenic alteration of that climate system. The land surface through which the hydrological cycle is modulated is also influenced by human activities that affect demand, such as population growth, economic development and the need to control the resources.4 According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2007, the number of people living in severely stressed river basins is projected to increase significantly. Furthermore, semi-arid and arid areas are particularly exposed to the impacts of climate change on fresh water. IPCC further indicates that by 2020 between 75 and 250 million people in Africa may be exposed to increased water stress due to climate change. If added with increased demand, this will adversely affect livelihoods and exacerbate water-related problems. The most serious potential threat arising from climate change in Asia is water scarcity, particularly in large river basins in South, East and Southeast Asia. By 2020, increases in winter floods in maritime regions and flash floods are also likely throughout Europe. Warmer, drier conditions will lead to more frequent and prolonged droughts. By the 2070s, today's 100-year droughts will return every 50 years or less in Southern and South-Eastern Europe. By the 2020s, in Latin America the net increase in the number of people experiencing water stress due to climate change is estimated to be between 7 and 77 million. Furthermore, climate change is very likely to constrain North America's already intensively utilized water resources, interacting with other stresses.5


Against this background, water resource challenges to attain water security are taking on a global dimension among governments, due to an increase in water scarcity and its associated effects on people, energy, food and ecosystems. When inadequate in quantity and quality, water can have a negative impact on poverty alleviation and economic recovery, resulting in poor health and low productivity, food insecurity, and constrained economic development. Even though the total amount of global water is sufficient to cover average global and annual water needs, regional and temporal variations in the availability of water are causing serious challenges for many people living in severely water-stressed areas. Alongside the natural factors affecting water resources, human activities have become the primary drivers of the pressures on our planet's water resource systems. Human development and economic growth tripled the world's population in the twentieth century, thereby increasing pressures on local and regional water supplies and undermining the adequacy of water and sanitation developments. These pressures are, in turn, affected by a range of factors such as technological growth, institutional and financial conditions and global change.

In the next 50 years, the world's population is expected to increase by approximately 30 per cent, with most of the population expansion concentrated in urban areas. More than 60 per cent of the world's population growth between 2008 and 2100 will be in sub-Saharan Africa, comprising 32 per cent and South Asia by 30 per cent. Together, these regions are expected to account for half of the world's population in 2100. These factors call for more innovative ways of managing water resources, especially where the consideration of socio-economic systems have key importance for the development of adaptive and sustainable water management strategies to reduce human and ecological vulnerability.6 Furthermore, worldwide there are 276 international river basins—23 per cent in Africa, 22 per cent in Asia, 25 per cent in Europe, 17 per cent in North America and 13 per cent in South America. Overall, 148 countries have territories that include at least one shared basin.

Although these challenges are global, no institution or country can face the challenges alone. International scientific cooperation is needed to bring all players together, such as research institutions, universities, national authorities, UN agencies, non-governmental organizations and national or international associations. The gap between science and society is profound, and there is a need to scale up international collaboration on scientific research and international cooperation to provide solutions and transformations towards water security. The great challenge for the hydrological community is to jointly identify appropriate and timely adaptation measures in a continuously changing environment.


In December 2010, the United Nations General Assembly declared 2013 as the United Nations International Year of Water Cooperation. It also decided that World Water Day 2013, celebrated on 22 March, will focus on the theme of water cooperation to further highlight the subject's importance, lending particular importance to this twentieth World Water Day. UN-Water, the United Nations mechanism that strengthens coordination and coherence on water issues among UN agencies, subsequently tasked UNESCO to take the lead to coordinate the activities of both the Year and World Water Day in cooperation with other UN agencies. On 11 February 2013, a high-level event held at UNESCO launched the International Year of Water Cooperation. The Year will be a worldwide celebration on water cooperation, aiming to raise awareness and increase cooperation on water issues, and to highlight the challenges facing water resource management in light of the increasing demand for access to water. It also will focus on major issues regarding water security for all, as well as on the sound and effective management of transboundary waters. Among many other aims and objectives, the Year is expected to strengthen dialogue and cooperation on water issues at all levels with key stakeholders.


1 International Institute for Applied System Analysis (2013), Water Futures and Solutions: World Water Scenarios, available at http://www.iiasa.ac.at/web/home/research/MeetingReport.pdf, 4 February 2013.

2 Gupta, A. (2001), Challenges and Opportunities for Water Resources Management in Southeast Asia, Hydrological Sciences Journal 46(6).

3 Varady, Robert G., Katherine Meehan, John Rodda, Matthew Iles-Shih, and Emily McGovern (2008), Strengthening Global Water Initiatives to Sustain world Water Governance.

4 World Water Development Report 2012, State of the Resource Chapter.

5 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2007), Climate Change 2007, Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability: Working Group II Contribution to the Fourth Assessment report of the Intergovernmental panel on climate change summary for policymakers and technical summary.

6 International Hydrological Programme VIII, 2014-2021 (2012), Water Security: Responses to Local, Regional, and Global Challenges. UNESCO-IHP, Division of Water Sciences.