OSU This Week: Volume 41, Number 32, May 23, 2002

New consortium to address global water conflicts

Oregon State University is coordinating an effort with nine other universities across five continents to direct the expertise, educational and technical potential of academia towards conflicts and environmental degradation in the world’s shared river basins. Representatives of this new group, which will be called the Universities Partnership for Transboundary Waters, met on campus last week in hopes of drafting work plans and creating a curriculum for graduate instruction in transboundary water resources management. The long-term goal of the partnership is to bring the capabilities of some leading institutions of higher education to bear on water issues and conflicts all over the world.

"About 60 percent of the renewable fresh water in the world has its origin in 261 international basins," said OSU’s Marcia Macomber, the director of program development for the partnership. "This means most of the world’s water is shared water." Shared water, Macomber said, sets the stage for conflict between countries and between user groups within countries. That conflict can interfere with progress in managing water resources sustainably and equitably, she said. There are three billion people in the world without access to sanitation and more than a billion people without safe drinking water. Land degradation and rapid urbanization add increasing urgency to these problems, and social and political tensions are becoming more the rule than the exception. As the global population increases, the potential for conflicts will only become more intense, requiring a better understanding of the dynamics of shared, or transboundary water resources, Macomber said.

Familiar examples of water disputes, Macomber said, include the Klamath Basin of Oregon, tensions between India and Pakistan in the Indus Basin, between the U.S. and Mexico over Colorado River and Rio Grande water, and between Israel and her neighbors over water in the arid Jordan River Basin. OSU, however, has for years been a leader in the area of water conflict analysis and dispute resolution through the work of Aaron Wolf, an associate professor of geosciences and creator of the "Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database," which can be found on the web at www.transboundarywaters.orst.edu and represents a working compilation of water conflicts that date back 5,000 years.

The university is taking a lead role in organizing the new consortium. This universities partnership, officials say, will help expand traditional training for water resource professionals. It will provide an interdisciplinary understanding of water conflicts and promote creative approaches to avert and resolve conflicts before they become costly and counterproductive.

Academic representatives in the partnership have expertise in science, engineering and the social sciences, and activities will include collaborative research, professional and graduate education, and information technology programs. The graduate training, a key program of the new partnership, will aim to help 20 students every two years, from OSU and other partnership universities, to attain certification in transboundary water resources management. This should eventually form a cadre of well-trained professionals to help resolve conflicts at local, regional and international levels.

"It’s clear that global demands on limited water resources will cause increased ecological problems along with social and political tensions in the coming decades," Macomber said. "What we’re trying to do here is make sure we have professionals in place to help the technicians, decision makers, diplomats and leaders resolve these conflicts peacefully."

This week’s meetings included a field trip to the Columbia River gorge, working sessions, and an afternoon seminar on local and international water conflicts. The nations participating in the group include the U.S., South Africa, Zimbabwe, Thailand, China, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Argentina and Costa Rica. Funding to organize the new consortium is being provided by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

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