Cooperation – the key to future water management


Photo: Panos Pictures

Demand for access to ever-scarcer resources such as fresh water often creates conflict. But this need not be the case, with effective communication and cooperation so often providing vital steps in unlocking water’s potential for supporting life, livelihoods and development for all.

Emphasising this, the UN has designated 2013 as the International Year of Water Cooperation. Since its inception in 1996, the Global Water Partnership has played a significant role in promoting water cooperation, and is delighted that this vital social and political activity is now receiving the recognition it deserves. World Water Day on March 22nd has the same theme, and aims to attract the attention of policy makers, the public and private sectors, and water users, to highlight how to improve water management, as well as the many challenges that still remain.

Of the three principal uses of water worldwide, irrigation for agriculture still uses most of the world’s fresh water supply (over 70%), where small farmers and agri-business may also compete against each other. Then comes industry, with mining and tourism often big users in water-scarce areas, and finally domestic use, though 783 million people still do not have access to safe drinking water.

GWP’s focus over the years has been to provide a neutral ‘table’ around which people with a vested interest can sit. Here they can express their water use needs, and discuss how they can be best met while also considering the needs of all the others who depend upon the same water resource. Such partnership-building has turned mistrust into mutual understanding, laying the foundation for compromise and sustainable solutions. A key issue has been how to involve all the myriad stakeholders who may feel it is their ‘right’ to use as much water as they want, despite the fact that demand is increasing and supply is limited.

Dr Ursula Schaefer-Preuss, GWP Chair, explains how the process can work. “Cooperation on water often starts out with people getting together around a specific issue, such as pollution of a river or how to share water among towns. This, in time, can lead to wider cooperation on other issues related to water, such as navigation, flood control, fisheries, agriculture, hydropower and environmental protection. As cooperation expands and more people get involved, community groups and agreements transform into more formal organisations.”

For example, in 2006 there was trouble in the lower Nilwala river valley in Sri Lanka. The government wanted to build a dam in order to prevent seawater infiltrating groundwater supplies, but the local people did not like the idea at all. For six years distrust was rife, views were polarised and resolution seemed impossible. In 2012, GWP assisted in establishing the Area Water Partnership, and held a meeting where farmers, government staff and university scientists exchanged their views. More meetings and visits to other dam sites were arranged. Discussion continued, mistrust subsided, farmers saw the need for a dam, and finally the site was agreed and construction could begin.

At a different scale, many large rivers and lakes do not sit within a single country. In Europe’s western Balkans, 1.5 million people depend on the Drin river for household, agriculture, hydropower and industrial uses. They are divided between five countries, each with its own national priorities, and a history of conflict. Transnational water management was fostered thanks to efforts by the UN, the EU and GWP, and a formal Drin Dialogue was established in 2009. Cooperation improved, and ministers signed a memorandum two years later that laid out the issues and put into motion an integrated management plan, with GWP Mediterranean providing a secretariat for the new coordinating basin authority.

Regional cooperation has also proved beneficial even when the resources are not shared. Small Caribbean islands each have to depend on their own water resources, but share similar issues and problems. GWP Caribbean was a joint organiser of the first high-level ministerial meeting on water management in the region. Participation has increased year after year, and it is now the main regional forum for sharing knowledge and potential solutions to water-related issues in the Caribbean.

Water is fundamental to all life. Our food production, energy, and social and economic development all depend on it. And water cooperation at different levels is essential to guarantee equitable access and ensure sustainable management. GWP provides a middle ground and promotes dialogue that foster effective cooperation. Let us use World Water Day wisely to further the debate.

Dr Ania Grobicki, Executive Secretary, Global Water Partnership

Join us for World Water Day:

Download new publication “Water: catalyst for cooperation”

See examples of GWPs success stories at



About globalwaterpartnership

The Global Water Partnership's vision is for a water secure world. Our mission is to advance governance and management of water resources for sustainable and equitable development.
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