With water scarcity one of the biggest looming challenges of the 21st century, freshwater management will be crucial in coming years. Nations must agree on frameworks to protect and manage water resources that span borders. South America’s Guaraní aquifer offers a good example of an attempt to strengthen transnational governance of a water resource and the difficulties of such a process.
By Claire Biason – Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay share the Guaraní Aquifer, a large underground supply of water, yet the current regional management of this resource remains insufficient. Dealing with the future risks of pollution and over-exploitation will present a major governance challenge for the region.
The management of aquifers is crucial. Aquifers are underground cavities of water, sometimes formed over millions of years. They provide 97% of the freshwater that is potentially available for human use and mostly transcend national borders. Management of these resources between nations will represent a major challenge and could be a source of political conflict.
The Guaraní Aquifer System (GAS) is one of the largest in the world with a total volume exceeding 37,000 km3. UNESCO estimates that the Guaraní aquifer has the potential to “supply a population of 5.5 billion people for 200 years at a rate of 100 liters per day per person.” Securing and maintaining the water resources of the aquifer is a priority for the social and economic growth and development of these countries.
Concerned about preventing any environmental degradation, the World Bank created the Environmental Protection and Sustainable Development of the Guaraní Aquifer System (GAS) Project in 2003 with the support of the four countries. It was the first international groundwater project supported by the Bank, costing $31.5 million. The World Bank considered the project a success when it closed in 2009. It managed to reduce and/or control pollution and overdraft risks, and diminish risks of future inter-country groundwater conflicts. But the project did not reach its long-term objective: the sustainable management and use of the GAS through an adequate and functional management framework. The four countries, nonetheless, are now more aware of their resources thanks to the project. Each country made significant advances in institutional development relative to groundwater management these past few years.
But regional initiatives still face various challenges. First, these states are hiding behind the principle of sovereignty over natural resources and are cautious not to loosen territorial control over their portions of the aquifer. Second, they have not found a way to get around the persistent debate regarding whether water should be publicly or privately controlled. (Argentina already privatized some of its water systems, while Uruguayans voted a referendum constitutionally outlawing the outsourcing of water to the private sector in 2004.) Third, the transition from the Guaraní Aquifer Project to some sort of successor entity will require additional funding, cooperation, adjustments, and evaluation.
It is difficult to see when, or if, a solid regional framework will finally arise. For now, some joint agreements have been signed. In November 2008, the four countries agreed on a Strategic Action Program. They signed the Agreement on the Guaraní Aquifer in August 2010, within the framework of MERCOSUR (also known as the “Common Market of the South”), as a new commitment toward the sustainable management of the aquifer and one of the very few cross-border groundwater treaties. But according to the Director of the International Water Law Project, Gabriel Eckstein, the new treaty is a “bare-bones agreement that contained less than ideal cooperative mechanisms.” He particularly criticized the fact that it “places great emphasis on individual states’ right while limiting obligations to cooperate and jointly management the aquifer.”
This experience offers lessons. These frameworks are the only current option for the long-term protection of transboundary water resources, as international groundwater law is a very young field. Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay do not have water scarcity issues and routinely collaborate with each other through other regional organizations such as MERCOSUR. And yet they did not manage to agree on a GAS governance system. This failure, even between countries that have close ties, shows the challenges in preserving aquifers. The implementation of a framework for the GAS would be a groundbreaking evolution and could facilitate other transboundary agreements worldwide. However, aquifer governance requires not just technical information, but political will.
Photo Credit: Azure Hole, Brazil (Sylvain Bourdos, 2009): http://www.flickr.com/photos/sylvainbourdos/3972266223/