One river – many custodians
At Vienna, where the World Water Congress was held last month, I finally got the chance to see the most “international river basin” in the world – The Danube River Basin shared by 19 countries.
After emerging from the Black Forest in Germany, the river physically flows through ten countries – Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine before emptying into the Black Sea.
The Danube is the second longest river in Europe (running for 2850km) and is literally the common thread of water binding together the region’s diverse landscape, people and history.
Despite its highly international route, the Danube is held as one of the finest examples of trans-boundary cooperation between so many nations in the interest of sustainable development. The International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR) has been doing remarkable work in collaboratively approaching all the issues related to the river and its management. Not all the countries of the Danube River Basin are members of the European Union (EU), yet all have agreed to cooperate to meet the strict EU water protection directives.
Last year, the ICPDR won the A$300,000 Thiess Riverprize, which was awarded at a gala in Australia. “The ICPDR project has aimed to combat the terrible environmental problems in the Danube River including toxic waste pollution and destructive farming practices brought about by the 45-year long Soviet era,” said ICPDR Executive Secretary Philip Weller, during the awards ceremony. “Our overarching goal is to witness the rational use of water within the Danube Basin and minimise negative consequences of the Danube on the Black Sea,” he said.
Getting the cooperation of riparian countries or even states within one country, for managing a river basin is not an easy task. In fact, rivers are often seen as subjects of conflict, especially in South Asia where the neighbours largely distrust each other. Bangladesh has been projecting itself as a downstream victim at every international forum. During the recent floods in the Kosi River, both Nepal and India blamed each other. Meanwhile, India and Bangladesh are also worried that China might build a dam across the Tsangpo River which would curtail flows downstream.
Yet, there are positive examples in the Asian context. Some of the Southeast Asian nations through which the Mekong River passes have cooperated to a great degree in managing the river. Bhutan and India also offer a shining example of cooperation for mutual benefit.
However, Asian countries are still a long way off from coming together with the enlightened vision that a river is a precious resource and that all the countries through which it passes are but its custodians. Despite all the traditions around rivers in Asian countries, the reality is that these are treated as easy means of disposal of waste. Sadly, it is the western world which is having to nudge Asian countries to form coalitions to protect their rivers.
“As we move into a world of increasing complexity and uncertainty around water security I am convinced those who develop and refine the knowledge and approaches for protecting, restoring and sustainably managing river systems, will become our water heroes,” said International Riversymposium Chair Professor Paul Greenfield while recognising the efforts in the Danube.