Why the world better manages water crises like Harvey

As floods hit Texas, world water experts met at a global conference. One theme: How water crises drive cooperation more than conflict.

Interstate highway 45 in Houston, Texas, is submerged from the effects of Hurricane Harvey Aug. 27,

Here’s some unexpected news that may console many rain-drenched Texans:

As hurricane Harvey began to ravage the Gulf coast on Saturday, thousands of water experts gathered in Sweden for World Water Week, the leading annual global event for solving water problems. A major theme of the conference is that crises involving water – whether too much of it or too little – have a long history of being a catalyst for cooperation rather than conflict.

Floods and water scarcity, in other words, have a record of drawing people together – even adversaries – and enhancing the skills of communities in recovery and resilience, according to these experts. Just listen to the current news out of Texas about successful rescue efforts, government preparation for the storm, and plans for rebuilding communities and for better coastal protection.

Such “hydro-cooperation” is hardly new. Ancient civilizations from Cambodia to Rome grew out of a desire for collective irrigation (dikes and ditches) or preserving access to water (aqueducts and reservoirs). Yet in recent centuries, as pressures on water resources have risen or big storms have hit major populations, the world has gained an ability to manage potential conflicts over water and its uneven distribution. The universal need for water has created universal norms about its use, abuse, or excess. And the global trend is to settle disputes over water issues.

In 2012, for example, the United States set up a water partnership of federal agencies and nonprofits to mobilize expertise on water security to help developing countries. In 2014, a United Nations treaty on resolving disputes over “international watercourses” took effect.

Another example is what happened after hurricane Katrina in 2005. Louisiana set up the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, a strong body that has swiftly coordinated several agencies in protecting coastal areas against future storms. The authority, which drew bipartisan support, is now seen as a model, especially for Texas, which does not yet have a comprehensive plan to protect its vulnerable coast.

Scholars note that very few wars have been waged over water throughout history. Instead, political bodies have reached some 3,600 water-related treaties in the past 1,200 years, according to the United Nations. Many water disputes still need resolution, especially in Africa and Asia. The Nile’s waters, for example, remain contested as do water resources shared by Israelis and Palestinians. 

Global success in water cooperation now has its own heroes. A key event at this year’s World Water Week is the granting of a special prize to Stephen McCaffrey from California’s University of the Pacific. His work as both a scholar and mediator in international water law has contributed “to the sustainable and peaceful management of shared waters.” Such efforts may be small comfort to flood-stressed Texans. But at least they mark progress in how the world manages water.

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