New Partnership to Ward off Potential Water Wars

PARIS, France, January 8, 2002 (ENS) - To help to avert potential conflicts between nations over the world's scarce freshwater resources, a former Soviet president who is now an environmental leader has pledged to cooperate with the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, currently president of the non-governmental environmental organization Green Cross International and UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura have signed a two year cooperative agreement to pool their complementary approaches to water conservation.

"We have the same objectives and aims," said Matsuura, "but we can reach different audiences."

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Mikhail Gorbachev (left) and Koichiro Matsuura agree to avert water wars. (Photo courtesy UNESCO)
While UNESCO will continue to develop educational tools aimed at decision makers and governments, Green Cross International will raise awareness at grassroots level.

Unofficially announced in early December at the International Conference on Freshwater in Bonn, Germany, the new Water for Peace initiative was formally signed December 12 at UNESCO headquaters in Paris. The new initiative is called "From Potential Conflict to Cooperation Potential : Water for Peace."

There is increasing evidence, the new partners acknowledge, that the conflicts of the 21st century will be provoked by water. Global demand for drinking water has multiplied seven times during the 20th century.

"The lack of commitment of nations on the question of water has led us to an explosive situation, and no time must be wasted in acting to prevent water related conflicts in regions where water is the scarcest of resources," Green Cross International said in a statement.

Some 261 river basins worldwide extend over more than one country and, as demand for water continues to rise and supplies of clean water are limited by drought and pollution, the potential for disputes over this shared resource is a threat to peace.

The new initiative will involve case studies on major shared river basins.

UNESCO will focus its attention on the Rhine, Aral Sea Basin, Incomati, the Mekong, Jordan, Danube and Columbia Rivers. These case studies will analyze the existing co-operation mechanisms developed by the states involved.

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Lower Granite Dam on the Columbia River in Washington state. The Columbia is shared by the U.S. and Canada. (Photo courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
Green Cross International (GCI) will cover the Jordan, Volga, Okawango, Danube, Volta and Parana-Plata river basins. GCI field workers will use questionnaires in local languages to gather information on water issues, and in some cases, such as the Danube, will produce handbooks and leaflets to raise awareness of the potential for conflict.

The joint initiative will contribute to the World Water Assessment Programme's (WWAP)first World Water Development Report, due to come out in time for the Third World Water Forum set for Kyoto, Japan in 2003. WWAP is a joint response by 23 United Nations agencies to address key challenges defined by ministers at last year's Second World Water Forum in the Hague. UNESCO acts as host for the WWAP Secretariat.

"Despite the potential for wars over shared rivers," said Matsuura, "history shows that conflicts over water do not escalate. Rather, they bring people together to find solutions." The last war over water was 4,500 years ago.