This image from International Rivers demonstrates the vital need for international cooperation for dealing with the world water crisisSharing water across international boundaries is a complex international challenge that requires coordinated water policy formulation and responsible governance. To meet global water requirements governments at all levels need to work together to craft clear policies and enact enforceable laws. To address the world water crisis, governments, corporations and other concerned parties need an ambitious mission, long term vision, strategic goals and specific detailed planning.

Water is important for all living organisms. Without water, there will be no life. Entire civilizations have collapsed due to water shortages, therefore the pressing importance of finding international water solutions cannot be overstated.

People have been controlling water for more than four thousand years. The issue we face today is not about whether we should manage water resources, the issue is how this can best be achieved.

Water does not pay heed to national boundaries, as water systems commonly wind their way through many countries. Successfully addressing the problems associated with water, demands local, national, and regional cooperation.

To enable the available water resources to benefit the largest number of people, we need to see more responsible water harvesting, conservation and management. Because water is essential for all life and all sectors of society, we need widespread inclusive involvement to develop workable solutions. Water harvesting and watershed management is everyone’s business from the individual right up to national governments from the local organizations to multinational corporations.

There are examples of responsible water management that improve livelihoods, but more commonly, water is exploited in ways that do not benefit everyone. Historically, powerful actors have used water in ways that are harmful to others and the environment. Downstream users are routinely affected by users upstream due to things like diversion and pollution.

When water is inappropriately allocated, there are widespread deleterious consequences that impact the most fundamental elements of modern society including food, energy, business and governments.

Water and food

Drinking water is essential for life and the key to food security. We are already facing water shortages alongside growing agricultural demands. Burgeoning populations will further tax dwindling water resources. Over the next 40 years, agricultural production will need to increase by 60 percent to meet rising demand for food.

Water and energy

Water is essential for all forms of energy production. The connection between water and energy takes several forms including generating hydropower, agricultural applications to grow biofuels and the cooling of energy generating machines. The absence of water can cause power outages and force some very difficult decisions related to water allocation. Water is also vital to renewable sources of energy like biomass, hydropower, wind-power and even solar.

The natural gas extraction method known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is another major source of water usage and a source of contamination. A 2009 report on modern shale gas by the Groundwater Protection Council, “Modern Shale Gas Development in the United States: A Primer,” stated that “[t]he amount of water needed to drill and fracture a horizontal shale gas well generally ranges from about 2 million to 4 million gallons.” The water used for fracking is contaminated with acids and other chemical additives. This extraction technique also releases naturally occurring radioactive elements and carcinogens like benzene.

Responsible energy development requires extensive water management planning, however, this is often absent in national energy infrastructure strategies. A report from the World Resources Institute illustrates the point. This report notes that nearly 80 percent of India’s planned power plants will be located in areas with very poor access to water.

The business case for pursuing water sustainability

Water scarcity and declining quality are widely acknowledged as growing problems that affect businesses globally. In response to this growing awareness, water sustainability is emerging as a strategic priority. Year after year water has climbed the corporate agenda. Corporations are realizing that they need to reduce their water footprint, address water related business risks and opportunities, and ultimately craft water sustainability strategies. Water management is one of the greatest challenges faced by the business community and it is emerging as a critical success factor.

The business community is not doing enough

Water is the new sustainability frontier and while businesses are beginning to understand the issue, they are not acting fast enough. A 2012 Carbon Trust study of 475 senior executives of large companies in Brazil, China, South Korea, the UK and the US, found that only one in seven firms has set a target for water reduction, or publicly reported their water performance. According to an October 2012 analysis by KPMG, 60 percent of the world’s 250 largest companies lack a long-term water strategy.

Mandating responsible water use

As the Earth’s most valuable single resource, governments must mandate responsible usage. This is precisely the conclusion of the Indian state of Maharashtra which is suffering from the ravages of long term drought. According to the business publication Livemint, Maharashtra state government is planning to make it compulsory for companies to adopt measures that include water recycling and rain water harvesting.

UN Water Convention

The UN convention for water provides useful policy recommendations and legal frameworks for the protection and management of local and transboundary water.

In 1992, the UN Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (Water Convention) offered guidelines intended to strengthen national measures for the protection and ecologically sound management of transboundary surface waters and groundwaters.

The Convention obliges parties to prevent, control and reduce transboundary impact, use transboundary waters in a reasonable and equitable way and ensure their sustainable management. Under the Convention parties bordering transboundary waters must cooperate by entering into specific agreements and establishing joint bodies. The Convention includes provisions for monitoring, research and development, consultations, warning and alarm systems, mutual assistance, and exchange of information, as well as access to information by the public.

In 1999, the Protocol on Water and Health sought to protect human health through better water management, including the protection of water ecosystems, and by preventing, controlling and reducing water-related diseases. It is the first international agreement of its kind adopted specifically to attain an adequate supply of safe drinking water and adequate sanitation for everyone. Parties to the Protocol commit to set targets in relation to the entire water cycle.

Initially the Water Convention was negotiated as a regional instrument, but in 2003 the Convention was amended to allow accession by all the UN Member States. The amendments entered into force on 6 February 2013, turning the Convention into a global legal framework for transboundary water cooperation. (It is expected that non-ECE countries will be able to join the Convention as of the end of 2013).

The 2003 Protocol on Civil Liability provides a comprehensive regime for adequate and prompt compensation for damage resulting from transboundary effects of industrial accidents on transboundary waters.

A global water agreement is an ambitious undertaking. While the UN Water Convention has provided valuable frameworks, there are numerous obstacles that are impeding implementation.

To succeed governments must coordinate policy and table effective legislation. March 22nd is World Water Day and the theme for 2013 is appropriately, “cooperation.” This year’s theme could not be more prescient. The diverse array of concerned parties must work together to find solutions and agree on implementation strategies. In the absence of global cooperation we will face devastating water shortages and far reaching civilization altering affects.

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Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

Image credit:Alison M.Jones for NoWater-NoLife.org and International Rivers (under creative commons license), courtesy flickr