Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Water and Peace: How can UNESCO protect it even better?


UNESCO does not only help protect cultural heritage. It also has a large Science Sector that deals with water, both salt and freshwater. The idea is simple: both our oceans and our drinking & irrigation water are facing unprecedented challenges that no country can solve on its own. So it’s in the interest of the countries to bundle their research capacity to design a common scientific agenda. By sharing our scientific capacity we can better understand and address water challenges that we share too: sealevel rise, drought, pollution, floods, etc. A simple example: if you want to protect transboundary groundwater reservoirs from pollution and depletion, you first need to know where they are. So UNESCO maps them with help of UNESCO’s groundwater center IGRAC in the Netherlands.

Water is UNESCO’s scientific top priority
It might surprise you but UNESCO’s freshwater programme is one of UNESCO’s largest intergovernmental programmes. And did you know that Member States decided last year that water is UNESCO’s top priority in the Science Sector? The freshwater programme is called the International Hydrological Programme (IHP). It’s about 40 years old and it gathers 36 Member States in the so called IHP Council of which the Netherlands is a member since 1996. To effectively address global water challenges it designed a scientific and educational water strategy divided into 6 themes. But how does UNESCO actually implement this paper strategy in the field?

How UNESCO implement its IHP Water Strategy
One of its implementation instruments is the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education in the Netherlands which delivers more than 700 alumni each year. Thanks to the experience the students acquire they can help concretely improve water management in their home countries when they return. You can find their stories here.

Another implementation instrument is UNESCO’s World Water Assessment Programme that produces the World Water Development Report (WWDR). This flagship report is not just one of these big books nobody has time to read, but a focused 100 page overview of the state of the world’s freshwater resources. This year’s WWDR focuses on water and energy because the global water withdrawal is projected to increase by some 55% by 2050, and a significant part of this water is used for (energy) production. The international water community needs this report to implement the new Sustainable Development Agenda because the 6th goal of this agenda is to ensure sustainable water management for future generations. Don’t forget: the same water that flows out of your tap today was drunk more than 200 million years ago by the Dinosaurs. It needs to remain drinkeable for at least another 200 million years.

IHP: what are the challenges?
In the upcoming UNESCO Executive Board Session, Member States will discuss how effective UNESCO’s water programme is and how it can be improved [1]. The relevant Board document concludes that IHP “effectively promotes leading edge research” but also lists 5 challenges:
  1. Lack of resources;
  2. Insufficient involvement of IHP’s extensive global network comprising more than 160 national IHP-Committees, around 30 water centers, UNESCO-IHE in Delft (Netherlands), the World Water Assessment Programme Secretariat (Italy) and 35 water chairs;
  3. Lack of transparent decision-making;
  4. Lack of focus; and
  5. Lack of visibility.

How can these challenges be addressed?
Therefore my hopes are respectively that Member States take the following 5 initiatives to address these challenges:
  1. By helping UNESCO financially to translate its water priorities into concrete actions in the field;
  2. By motivating the members of UNESCO’s global water network located on their territory to actively contribute to the implementation of UNESCO’s water strategy;
  3. By supporting UNESCO’s transition to a results-based organization that works on the basis of these two simple questions: (i) did activities meet targets and do they have impact? (ii) how do we go forward given their (lack of) impact? [2];
  4. By making choices and by better defining IHP’s niche instead of continuing business-as-usual; and
  5. By helping to make IHP more visible by providing UNESCO with success stories related to UNESCO’s water strategy (like on UNESCO-IHE’s website).
I hope this advice will be heard because – and I quote the Board document – “unless some quite drastic changes are implemented, IHP will continue to cede ground to competitors and lose its global prestige”.

UNESCO’s niche: Water and Peace and data collection
The reason why I think it’s worth supporting IHP is that UNESCO has a niche with regard to water and peace. A good example is the programme From Potential Conflict to Cooperation Potential (PCCP). This programme helps avoiding or solving conflicts not by asking governments to discuss the (potential) conflict, but by enabling water experts to analyse scientific and practical solutions to the problem. By bringing together managers of transboundary water ressources, PCCP creates the scientific foundation for better understanding and eventually the material basis for political solutations. In our jargon this is called Track II Diplomacy.

Another niche of the scientific programme IHP is its capacity to provide the international community with scientific methods to measure development progress. You can’t drive a development process towards more sustainable water management if you can’t measure “improved sustainable water management". UNESCO shares this niche with the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), which is also a platform for hydrological research.

The key is visibility
If you want UNESCO to continue to grow and strengthen its peace promoting work via water cooperation, you can help in several ways. Let me just mention the easiest way: start directly with point 5 on the list above by spreading this message. Because UNESCO can only be effective as a platform for and multiplyer of best practices in Member States, which requires visibility. To quote former Spanish Director-General of UNESCO Federico Major: UNESCO cannot bake all the bread in the world, but it can provide the yeast to make it happen.

Twitter: @Oosterenvan


[1] See p. 4-47 of this document and also p. 19-20 of this document. 
[2] As was requested on p. 62 of this document.

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