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Bridges over troubled waters in Central Asia?

22-Aug-2013

by Jane Madgwick, CEO Wetlands International

It’s thanks to Tajikistan that it’s the UN International Year of Water Cooperation. Through a string of events, the world’s attention is focused on the water crisis and the urgent need for humanity to tackle it through improved cooperation – between nation states, across and between sectors, industry, government and civil society.

Water Challenges for Central Asia

Tajikistan proudly hosted the two day international High Level Conference on the theme “Water for Life” this week in the capital of Dushanbe – and we were all touched by the sincerity and warmth of the Tajik people as well as by the spectacular venue and mountainous backdrop.

Tajikistan amply demonstrates some key water challenges. Despite a great wealth of water resources, less than 50% of the population have access to safe drinking water. The Central Asian states have all had to face the consequences of failed water management following the post-Soviet breakdown of cooperation between upstream and downstream states over water, food and energy. The disappearing Aral Sea is among the best known wetland stories – a tragedy of monumental proportions, with still no sign of a happy ending. I was heartened by the positive and hopeful tone in a session of stakeholders from these same states plus Afghanistan who are involved in a joint scenario development process concerning future water management, which is helping all to see the bigger picture and to find common ground. But surely, we should not wait until there is a deep crisis for such action?

Restoring Ecosystems is Fundamental to Water Security

The two-day Conference started with a reflection on the fact that water issues and risks are often highly complex and views on how best to tackle them are too often confused and/or polarised. The stakes are getting higher and hence cooperation is now an imperative! Then we all got busy with our (sectorally divided) sessions, syntheses and reports back. I pondered the principles of the Aral Sea scenario process and wondered if maybe, most people (including myself) were more interested to make sure that their key messages gained sufficient attention, than to find common ground with those from other sectors? I was quite pleased on this front: there was good recognition that reversing the trend of ecosystem decline is now a fundamental requirement for meeting future water needs – not just an “optional extra” or after-thought - and that wetlands as natural water infrastructure are a significant part of the solution.

In the opening speeches, the Prime Minister of Thailand put it nicely; following a spate of natural disasters, Thailand now considers that their number one priority is to “restore the ecological balance”, as part of a comprehensive set of water management solutions and a basis for sustainable development. In sharp contrast to this, a session dedicated to “Water and Disasters” featuring eight ambassadors from countries and small island states who are suffering from increasing water scarcity, droughts and floods, saw the solution to increasing their resilience primarily in the form of development assistance for new infrastructure and technologies.

There is clearly a long way to go before agendas for water, food, climate and ecosystems are aligned. Somehow we are stuck in patterns of ingrained behaviour. Ultimately it will require a shift in mind-set at the highest level that leads to wholesale institutional reform, new water governance arrangements, innovative finance mechanisms and regulations that incentivise collective action for healthy watersheds. This alignment is an especially tough one for the UN to champion, with 32 different UN institutions holding a mandate for water!

Water Sustainable Development Goal needed

The Conference made a strong case and plea for a post-2015 Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) that calls for “water sustainability for all”, with linked indicators in other SDGs. But it’s not even certain that there will be a Water SDG, due to the limit on numbers and stronger voices from other sectors like health and food. The fact that water security is an essential foundation for achieving most other development goals – and that wetlands are a foundation for water – while simple and evident to all, seems conveniently overlooked.

A lot has changed since I was last in Tajikistan 21 years ago, walking in the mighty Pamir mountains just after the Soviet system collapsed. Today, in the Varzob Gorge, I talked easily in English to Manizha, a conference volunteer from those mountains, now an “international relations” student. We can keep in touch on Facebook, and she has concluded from this conference that water might be a good topic for her, since it links to almost every sector. I’m starting to feel a bit more hopeful!

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