Rivers pay no mind to political boundaries.
If unimpeded by dams and diversions, they flow naturally from mountain headwaters to the sea, crossing borders both within and between countries as if political maps did not exist.
If the world is to meet growing food, energy, and consumer demands over the coming years while sustaining the ecosystems that support life on the planet, we will need to think more like watersheds and less like states or nations. Only in this way can we get more benefit out of every drop of Earth’s finite water.
As a river flows toward the sea, it can generate hydroelectric power in its upper reaches, irrigate crops in the valleys, supply drinking water to cities and towns, and sustain recreation and fisheries from headwaters to the coastal zones. But we can only optimize the benefits that rivers provide if we work together – and across borders – to secure and share them.
This is not easy to do. It requires both a new mindset about water and a quantum leap in cooperation, the theme of this year’s World Water Day.
Worldwide there are now 276 river basins encompassing two or more countries. Europe’s Danube is shared by eighteen nations, Africa’s Nile by eleven, Asia’s Indus by five, and North America’s Colorado by two.
Rarely are there treaties that set out how the flows of these international rivers should be shared by all the parties in the basin. A 1959 treaty between Egypt and Sudan, for example, divvies up the entire flow of the Nile, but doesn’t allot any water to the other basin countries – including Ethiopia, which contributes 84 percent of the Nile’s total flow. Far from solving water disputes, such a treaty can fuel them.
Even more rare are agreements among nations to cooperate in maximizing the benefits a river provides and then creatively sharing those benefits. The Nile Basin nations, for example, might do better by trading the benefits produced with Nile water – including electricity, food, fisheries, wetlands and wildlife habitat – than by simply dividing up the water itself.
It makes more sense, for example, to store Nile water in the Ethiopian highlands, where evaporation rates are about a third as great as at Egypt’s Lake Nasser, the vast reservoir behind the Aswan Dam. The water saved in this way could benefit all nations in the watershed. Regional investment in efficient water use, small-scale irrigation and food-sharing could also make sense, and provide Ethiopia with an alternative to selling vast tracts of its land and associated water to Saudi, Chinese, and other foreign interests, while its own people suffer from malnourishment.
For sure, such cooperation requires trust and a degree of political stability not yet present in many river basins. But with more and more of the world’s rivers running dry even as food and energy demands continue to rise, creative solutions to build this new brand of international cooperation are urgently needed.
Late last year, the United States and Mexico took an important and historic step toward greater cooperation around the Colorado River, the lifeline of the American Southwest.
After years of negotiations, the two nations signed an addendum to their 1944 water-sharing agreement that allows Mexico to use a U.S. reservoir – giant Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam – to store some of its share of the Colorado River, giving more flexibility to both nations. It also establishes new formulas for sharing the gains of surplus water as well as the pain of droughts. And it commits both nations to return flows to the Colorado Delta – a joint effort to revive one of the greatest desert aquatic ecosystems on the planet.
As water scarcity spreads, the ability to get multiple benefits from every drop will be the key to both healthy economies and healthy ecosystems.
And it’s not just up to governments. We can all do our part.
This World Water Day, consider joining our Change the Course community. Make a pledge to conserve water in some aspect of your life, and on your behalf we’ll return 1,000 gallons of water to a depleted stretch of river in the Colorado Basin.
Working together, we can change the course.
Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society. She is the author of several acclaimed books, including the award-winning Last Oasis, a Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment, and one of the “Scientific American 50.” She is co-creator of Change the Course, the national freshwater conservation and restoration campaign being piloted in the Colorado River Basin.