Managing energy and water across borders

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Energy and Water: For what and by whom?

Three major challenges face the water-energy nexus in a cross-border context. First, water and energy needs and priorities differ across communities and countries, and their management can thus require trade-offs and compromise across stakeholder groups to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes. For instance, the needs of upstream users for water for irrigation or industry may threaten the availability of water resources further downstream for other user groups. Needs also differ between rural and urban communities, hilltop and ocean ecosystems, as well as mountain and coastal settlements, noting that mountain communities have often been neglected when considering management schemes aimed at balancing development along a watercourse. Addressing these concerns in an international transboundary context is particularly sensitive, as currently evidenced in the Nile River Basin or Central Asia.

Second, water and energy resources endowments are often not located in the same place. Some users have plentiful freshwater resources, while others enjoy energy surpluses. The situation results in significant transaction costs being spent on securing the water needed for cooling, cleaning or use by the energy sector, and securing the energy needed to pump, treat and transfer water. In China, for example, large amounts of electricity are expended to pump water from the south of the country to the north, although most of the country’s energy resources are originally extracted from its northern areas. In the Arabian Gulf, energy is needed to ensure water security through desalination. Furthermore, there is a need to be mindful that the energy sector is often the biggest and most influential sector in development circles and that the energy sector is managed as an economic good, while the water sector tends to be viewed as a social good.

Third, it is necessary to recognise that the water-energy nexus must also consider the cross-border effects of other nexus-relevant sectors, such as food security. The development of hydro-power, for instance, can have severe effects on food production and food security by affecting fish habitats and fish migration routes along a watercourse. The situation can be further aggravated by climate change.

Energy and Water: Roadblocks and bridges

Due to the large number of actors and interests, a number of challenges arise that affect the management of these resources across borders. These require consideration of technical, developmental and foreign policy perspectives in a more integrated manner.

Water and energy resource managers should move away from the planning of individual dams to a more systems-based approach that examines the siting of dams along a watercourse. This requires reflection of a broader set of outcomes via scenario building that could help to determine which option results in the least possible loss of biodiversity, fisheries and flows, while securing the highest possible level of generated power. This would help to achieve a better set of outcomes for the environment and society in terms of resource conservation, cultural preservation, and satisfaction of the needs of upstream and downstream water users.

Different interests and development priorities of upstream and downstream countries complicate the management of transboundary water resources. Bilateral agreements along a transboundary watercourse are often more easily achieved than comprehensive multilateral approaches that require agreement between all riparian countries, or at least a sub-set of riparian countries. At the same time, basin-wide agreements can ensure more integrated management schemes. For instance, the Mekong River Commission has developed a basin-wide Rapid Sustainability Assessment Tool (RSAT) that allows for assessing the impacts of different developments (including hydropower) on an entire sub-basin or basin, and aims to ensure more beneficial outcomes for all stakeholders while reducing the costs. The International Hydropower Association is also promoting the use of a sustainability assessment tool, which aims to encourage long-term thinking about hydropower development by evaluating social and environmental outcomes of a proposed hydropower project through a set of performance guidelines.

However, investments in large scale technologies have some- times overshadowed the value of indigenous knowledge and hybrid knowledge that can support the transfer of appropriate technologies. Balanced management schemes cognisant of local conditions are thus needed to operationalise the multi-purpose use of a shared resource. This includes consideration of ecosystems in allocation decisions across borders and sectors, as is being pursued through voluntary partnerships fostered by CONAGUA in Mexico.

Ineffective communication and insufficient shared under- standing across these sectors is a further roadblock. Similarly, there is the need to translate science more effectively and clearly to the policy community in order to inform decision-making.

Energy and Water: Way forward

Building trust between communities and countries sharing water resources can foster cooperation in transboundary river basins. Governments’ foreign policies play a central role in conflict prevention and regional integration. Development activities supported by donors should be coordinated, and through their foreign policy, governments should seek to enhance cooperation on shared waters, drawing upon science to provide the options and preferred outcomes based on different scenarios.

Joint monitoring and sharing of data and information can build mutual trust. Finland and Russia jointly monitor water quality along a shared surface water resource. Likewise, the Action Plan for Source to Sea Management in the Danube River aims to support policy coherence and dialogue among the riparian countries on a common vision.

Strengthening legal and institutional frameworks can assist. According to the WWF, 60 countries have signed the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention or the 1992 UNECE Water Convention, but there are still 133 countries that have not signed either. These legal instruments can guide the forging of bilateral agreements and the establishment of basin-level commissions. Priority setting and goal setting related to the management of a shared water resource, however, should take into consideration the local context when applying these international conventions. Building the technical skills of foreign policy officials and relevant stakeholders in hydro-diplomacy and international water law can strengthen the capacity to forge mutually beneficial transboundary water agreements.

Achieving consensus on common goals, while respecting each other’s interests; building a shared knowledge base; establishing a common legal framework; applying integrated planning and management tools; supporting sustainability and the use of appropriate technologies; improving communication; and adopting supportive hydro-diplomacy frameworks are ways to improve the management of water and energy resources across borders. If disagreement continues after applying these measures, stakeholders need to revert to the beginning and re-identify the benefits of cooperation to mitigate the potential for conflict within the context of our planetary boundaries.

Lead Rapporteurs

  •  Ms. Carol Chouchani Cherfane, UN-ESCWA
  •  Dr. Susanne Schmeier, GIZJunior Rapporteurs
  • Ms. Kata Molnar, Lund University, Sweden
  • Ms. Shen-Hui Yang, Asia Pacific Youth Parliament for Water
  • Ms. Maja Hemlin-Söderberg, Stockholm University, Sweden
  • Ms. Aamira Fatima, Stockholm University, Sweden
  • Ms. Emma I Lyngedal, Stockholm University, Sweden

This blog was originally published on SIWI World Water Week. Click here to read the original blog.