Recent news on the management of water has not been very uplifting. Disagreements between countries that share water resources are leading to increasing conflicts over control of and access to this vital resource.
For example, the ongoing dispute between Nicaragua and Costa Rica over the San Juan River has reached such levels of discord that Nicaragua has suggested bringing the case to the International Court of Justice at The Hague for resolution. This is just one of the many global disagreements over water, which are bound to escalate as water availability continues to be on the decline. But long-term planning and cooperation can help prevent future conflicts.
Everyday, one in three people around the world are affected by water scarcity. While populations grow worldwide, the demand for water increases twice as fast. Conflict should then not come as a surprise. Fresh, clean water is need not only for drinking, but also for agriculture, recreation, energy generation, and many other uses.
Aquifers—renewable underground sources of water—may present an untapped resource to help satisfy our water demands.
Nearly 99 percent of all accessible fresh water on the planet is found in aquifers and many are used as fresh water resources. But some aquifers are already drying up due to climate change, pollution, overexploitation, and their inefficient use. At the same time, their potential as a source of water is still not fully known. In 2009 a UNESC- led initiative published a global inventory of cross-border aquifers, finding 275 such aquifers worldwide shared by 145 countries.
So the good news is that water is broadly available, but the challenge remains how to preserve it and avoid future conflicts. Still, even with this UNESCO study, aquifers are not yet fully understood.
But the key to the sustainability of aquifers is prevention.
One of the largest transboundary aquifers in the world is the Guaraní Aquifer System (GAS), which lies beneath Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay. The water present in the GAS could provide enough drinking water for a population of 5.5 billion people for the next 200 years.
On August 2, 2010, the four countries sharing the GAS signed a treaty on its management—one of the few such agreements globally. Further this was the first agreement to be signed after the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 63/124 in 2008, which encourages member states that share aquifers to enter into appropriate arrangements.
These types of agreements show how cooperation is the key to avoiding conflict.
Aquifers, and all natural resources, are most at risk when they are shared. Cooperation leads to more responsible management, incentivizes the exchange of data among countries, and fosters an overall spirit of collaboration.
Water scarcity and conflict over water resources can be prevented in many ways. These include: developing appropriate infrastructure, adopting science-based policies, drafting new laws regarding natural resources, generating policies for sustainable water use, and increasing research. Granted, taking action it’s not an easy task. The ability of states to do it largely depends on the strength of their institutions and democracies, their economies and the will of the people. But it is worth giving it a try.
Policymakers and governments should be aware that aquifers offer us another chance, and a huge one at that. We are already struggling with cleaning surface polluted water and with little success. We cannot take the same approach with aquifers.
* Nias Vahdat is a guest blogger to Americas Quarterly.org. She is a former reporter for Galería Magazine in Uruguay and currently a master’s degree student at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs.