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Interview: regional cooperation in water resources management

Water resources management is increasingly dependent on international cooperation at the regional level. In this short interview, Matthew McCartney, theme leader for Ecosystem Services at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), discusses water resources management and private sector involvement.

Photograph of Matthew McCartney, theme leader for Ecosystem Services at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI)What is the current thinking on the sustainable management of water resources?

Today, there are some widely promoted principles that are brought to bear in water management. Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) is the idea that we need to develop land, water and other natural resources in a coordinated manner.

We know that, because of the interconnectedness of hydrologic systems, interventions to improve conditions at one location will usually have knock-on effects downstream.

Achieving sustainable development means that we should meet the development needs of our current generation without constraining those of future generations.

Increasingly, water security is also taken very seriously. We need to build the resilience of communities today so that they are able to cope with future changes. We can expect huge changes and increasing uncertainty in terms of the climate, but also economic shifts which will drive higher demand and likely lead to increased scarcity of water resources.

With these three overarching principles in mind, we can see that there is a clear need for increased cooperation in the international management of our shared water resources.

What are the challenges in managing water resources in an integrated fashion?

In international river basins there are often huge challenges relating to the divergent priorities of different countries. There are also issues around sectorial fragmentation, both at the national and international level.

For example, the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an inter-governmental organisation, has a set of guiding principles and objectives, but each of the member countries has its own objectives and needs which do not always align with those of the MRC.

Then within the countries themselves, each of the different sectors have their own priorities – irrigation, hydropower, drinking water etc., - and they do not always communicate very effectively with each other. These multi-layered levels of disconnection greatly complicate how water resources are managed. There is also insufficient data and understanding in many regions of the world.

Public-private partnerships require strong regional cooperation to provide confidence to investors."

In certain developing countries, we are faced with data scarcity – a full understanding of the river’s hydrology is not available, which further complicates water management. It can be difficult to make good decisions in the face of this uncertainty.

What contribution can the private sector make to sustainable water management?

There can be a lot of challenges, all of which are greatly complicated in situations where there are weak regulatory frameworks, or in locations where there’s no regional planning. Governments with insufficient capacity may take on more risk than they should really shoulder, and provide guarantees that perhaps they shouldn’t.

Because these situations can be so complex, a range of environmental and socio-economic issues can be overlooked. Business norms often impede project transparency and participatory processes. Public-private partnerships also require strong regional cooperation to provide confidence to investors.

But the private sector also has a lot to contribute. One advantage of increased private sector involvement is that companies can leverage finances that are often difficult for governments to access. Public-private partnerships also provide the opportunity to transfer and share risks with private investors.

The competitive process can encourage innovation and efficiency, both in project finance and project management.

You can read more about water resources management on the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) website here.

You can read more about international and regional cooperation in managing water resources here.