Water resources assessment: environmental institutions

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Protecting and preserving the environment can only be accomplished with effective institutions backed by adequate legislation and policies. The effectiveness of water-related environmental institutions should be examined as part of the country water resources assessment.

Environmental policy articulates principles to ensure that economic development occurs in an environmentally sound and sustainable manner. It could be based on broad principles or on pragmatic concerns recognizing that prevention of adverse effects is less costly than restoring damage. Policy may be implemented through procedures for recognizing environmental consequences of a proposed action (for example a flood control project) early in the planning process and for considering such consequences in decision making.

A policy's success may depend on how well it is articulated and the extent to which is practical and achievable. Addressing the goals of development and environmental sustainability and the trade-offs between them, especially in the context of a nation's social and cultural traditions, will be central to the success of economic development (Ahmad and Sammy, 1985).


1. affect any natural feature, surface water hydrology, surface water quality, soils, erosion, geology, climate or water resource adjacent to the activity area?      
2. affect wildlife or fisheries?      
3. affect natural vegetation?      
4. affect or eliminate land suitable for agricultural or timber production?      
5. affect fisheries or aquaculture resources or production?      
6. affect the quality of water resources or catchment areas within or adjacent to the activity area through change in the water supply downstream of irrigation or through human or animal toxins?      
7. affect air quality in the activity area or adjacent areas ?      
8. require relocating the existing population, community facilities, and housing ?      
9. lead to changes in the supply of, or demand for, infrastructural items ?      
10. cause substantial change in income and traditional source of livelihood of existing population?      
11. include provisions to investigate the impact on regions where resettlement is occurring?      
12. result in potential conflicts or affect physical, demographic or attitude/value cohesion?      
13. affect archaeological sites or structures of historic or cultural significance?      
14. induce or exacerbate erosion in the watershed area?      
15. exacerbate water rights conflicts?      
16. provoke a significant reduction in downstream flow, impairing aquatic life or endangering wetland water supply?      
17. create or exacerbate disease hazards?      
18. be designed without prior consultation or participation of affected populations ?      
19. provoke a shift in crop pattern in the region?      
20. provoke a shift from low-input to high-input farming practices?      
21. ignore provisions for post-project monitoring?      
22. require long-term extension services?      
23. be formulated outside the framework of a global strategy for development?      
24. induce new migration towards the projects area (around reservoirs)?      
25. be implemented in the absence of a training programme on techniques for more efficient water use?      
26. create or exacerbate soil salinity problems?      
27. be designed without adequate drainage facilities?      

Source: A guide to the environmental assessment of irrigation and drainage projects in developing countries (FAO, in preparation)


Legislatively mandated policies are more likely to be implemented successfully than those that are not. The relevant legislation may be enshrined in a Water Act, a Water Pollution Control Act or environmental legislation, and may be supported by codes of practice and public health standards. Direct regulation based on effluent standards, including the issue of permits or licences, is often used to control point-source discharges. Zoning regulations have been used for controlling non-point source pollution in urban areas. Controlling non-point sources from agriculture and forestry management activities may require watershed and catchment area management programmes in which soil and water conservation is an explicit objective. Broad-based environmental legislation can provide a framework for an integrated approach to regulate development activities that affect environmental quality and may require the introduction of EIAs for all major projects and programmes.

Priority institutional issues

Effective environmental management in the water sector will require agencies capable of administering well-defined regulations. Likely recommendations to policy-makers include:

• institutional strengthening by establishing a clear political mandate for environmental protection;
• strengthening existing legislation and agencies involved in monitoring and compliance activities;
• introduction of enforceable penalties and regulatory techniques;
• examination of economic incentives, especially for treatment provided by polluters themselves;
• mandatory EIA for major development projects;
• establishment of appropriate standards; and
• financing of environmental programmes, possibly through pollution tariffs.

Environmental impact assessment

An EIA is a policy instrument that has been used in many countries for fostering sustainable water resources management and which also gives a voice to those who will be affected by a development or change of management practice. Details of EIAs can be found in the World Bank's Sourcebook of 1991, and a sample checklist (FAO, in preparation) of the issues in water development projects is presented in Box 8, opposite.

Water poses particular difficulties in that it is a cross-cutting issue arising in a number of other sectors, hence no single checklist can suffice. In assessing how water will be affected by developments in other sectors, the relevant checklists and assessment guidance for those sectors should be consulted, e.g., in the World Bank's Sourcebook, or the FAO guidelines (FAO, in preparation).

Where information on a potentially important topic is not available, this indicates the need to commission an EIA. Decision-makers should equip themselves with the facts about the type of environmental impacts at stake, their potential seriousness, how they could he mitigated and at what expense, and whether there are alternative ways of achieving the same objectives at less environmental risk. Further guidance is available from FAO (FAO, in preparation) on the conduct and application of environmental assessment in the water sector.

Project-specific EIAs should be required for most investments in water supply, flood control, irrigation and drainage, sewage treatment and power generation. Regional EIAs can be used for multiple projects, such as a series of dams, planned or proposed in a localized geographic area, or for river basin planning. They may also be useful for identifying conflicting demands on resources imposed by different projects (for example, the cumulative effect on water quality of several municipal and treated industrial discharges) and for designing mitigation measures (World Bank, 1991). In this way the EIA process can be used to (a) incorporate cross-sectorial actions needed to properly manage the water environment, (b) spur consultation and coordination among sectorial ministries, and (c) achieve restoration and protection of the water environment.

Sectorial EIAs may be suitable for reviewing investment options and for evaluating new policies, for example water conservation programmes. They may also be used for assessing the institutional requirements for performing environmental reviews, environmental management and developing monitoring programmes (World Bank, 1991).


The effective management of water resources will depend on the ability of the government to bring together diverse interests and integrate them in decision making. Such integration should begin with strategy formulation and continue to project planning, design and implementation. Coordination will be especially vital for integrating the complex cross-sectorial environmental issues. The principles and techniques outlined in the section on stakeholder participation and human resources development can be readily applied to the environmental aspects of water strategy formulation.


International issues

International aspects of water resources strategy
International water law
Objectives of collaboration
Accessing the data base
Water sharing and allocation
International river basin organizations

This chapter suggests how international considerations can be included in the process of formulating a national water resources strategy, and presents some of the main considerations that arise in the setting up of collaborative arrangements between basin states. It draws on experience in international law concerning the use of transnational water resources. Finally, the chapter discusses pertinent aspects of river basin organizations (RBOs) and the concept of joint commissions for managing water resources. Many of the suggestions and principles in this chapter apply not only to international waters but also to national waters that flow between provinces or regions.



Water does not respect borders, and the formulation of a water resources strategy must explicitly recognize any international issues that may exist in surface waters or groundwater management. Over 200 river basins are shared by two or more countries and the increasing importance attributed to river basin management (as stated in 1992 at ICWE and at UNCED) requires formal collaboration in addition to co-operation and good-will. For example, the principal surface water resources of practically all countries in continental sub-Saharan Africa are international. In the former Soviet Union, several major rivers have become international with the partition of that country into numerous independent states. Cooperation and goodwill among states sharing a drainage basin are both of them essential for efficient development and utilization of international rivers and groundwater aquifers. In order to fulfil their own economic development goals, it is important that such states formally collaborate to exchange data, share waters, preserve the environment and generate development programmes that are of joint interest and benefit.


International aspects of water resources strategy

If the international aspects of the resource deserve significant attention, it should be immediately obvious to the group charged with formulating a national water resources management strategy. In general, the process of assessing water resources (Phase 1) should be similar in most countries; for some, dependence on international sources will be a major issue and therefore the chief question in developing and choosing options (Phase 2) is how to most efficiently (and equitably) manage such resources.

It may be that formulating a national water resources strategy without directly involving neighbouring riparian countries would be fruitless and thus some countries may engage in joint strategy formulation from the outset. At minimum, the strategy team may wish to review existing international treaties and institutional arrangements and suggest realistic options if change is required. The strategic plan might suggest areas of further collaboration among riparian states.


International water law

The main initiatives in international water law have been taken by the International Law Association (ILA, an NGO) and the International Law Commission (ILC, a subsidiary organ of the General Assembly of the UN). The ILA became engaged in water resources in 1954 which led, in 1966, to the formulation of the well-known Helsinki Rules on the Uses of the Waters of International Rivers. The ILA has since published a number of corollaries to and clarifications or completions of the Helsinki Rules, including some modifications to their application to groundwater. The ILC was initially oriented toward navigation, and took up the study of non-navigational use of international watercourses in 1970.

The Helsinki Rules are widely adopted as a basis for international negotiations and collaboration on river basin development. They embrace the concept of the international watercourse, for which water resources, whether passing international boundaries or entirely within one country, are treated as the common property of all basin states. Furthermore, they rest on the principle that each basin state is entitled to equitable utilization while not causing appreciable harm. Among the relevant factors determining 'equitable utilization', the Rules list the geography, hydrology and climate of the basin in each state; past and existing water users; social needs of each state; costs of development; and the degree to which the needs of a basin state may be satisfied without causing substantial injury to another.

There has been little serious criticism of the value of the Helsinki Rules as a basis for negotiation. Some feel, however, that the 'drainage basin' is not always the appropriate spatial unit and others have suggested that the full application of the Rules can detract unduly from the autonomy of a basin state. The ILC: has adopted the terminology of 'international watercourse,' which designates rivers, lakes, glaciers and underground waters and is founded on the idea of 'international watercourse systems', which constitute a unitary whole and a shared natural resource.

There are two substantive principles that emerge strongly from the Helsinki Rules and from the work of the ILC and that now receive general acceptance in international rules. They are:


Objectives of collaboration

The primary objective of international collaboration between basin states is often perceived to be the resolution of conflicts. This should be a position of last resort. The primary objective must be to develop the resources of a drainage basin for the mutual benefit of its several connected states. If that objective is achieved, potential conflicts can be avoided or they may resolve themselves.

Whatever objectives are set, they should fit into a carefully constructed strategic framework that includes realistic priorities from the standpoint of all participating basin states. Several international endeavours have failed to achieve their aims because their specific objectives were either too ambitious in the first place or they did not represent true priorities for the member state, or simply because there was no workable water sector policy in place in one or more of the basin countries. There is evidence that the most successful endeavours in international collaboration are those that

Although integrated water resources planning is even more important at an international scale, the technical and physical aspects assume considerable significance in the need to:

Until recent years, little attention was given to groundwater and its conjunctive use with surface water, although it is very much an active issue in the development of water resources agreements in the Near East. International law on transboundary water pollution (such as salinity) is weak and poorly codified. The resolution of pollution problems depends very much on negotiation of agreements between countries or autonomous provinces. One good example is the Murray-Darling Basin Treaty between four States in [Federal] Australia. Both parties to the Indus Treaty developed separate water resources assessments and preferred options at a national level, which were then rationalized into the final agreement. This process was thought to result in a stronger sense of ownership by both parties, although it involved considerable time and negotiation.


Accessing the data base

A good data base, including hydrology, land resources, demand projections, inventories of potential development projects and environmental conditions, is essential to any international dialogue on water affairs. Equally important is that there should be compatible information sharing and planning procedures between riparian neighbours.

Most principles governing data measurement, retrieval, and processing (as discussed in Chapter 7) apply equally to national and international drainage basins. The important difference for international rivers is that there is a distinct need for frequent exchange of data between basin states so that apparent discrepancies in either the raw data or its processing can be identified at an early stage. In several international river basins, there has been an unwillingness to exchange data and information unless such an exchange is established by formal agreement. Article XXIX of the Helsinki Rules recommends that

"... each basin State furnish relevant and reasonably available information to the other basin States concerning the waters of a drainage basin within its territory and its use of, and activities with respect to, such waters."

Data is generally collected on a national basis by each basin state. In some cases, specific data is collected regionally by a jointly formed RBO or other agency. The choice depends on local conditions and the nature of the data. Thus navigation data on the Mekong River was collected by the Mekong Secretariat, an RBO, and boundary surveys in Lake Chad have been carried out under the auspices of the Lake Chad Commission (an RBO), whereas hydrological data in the Lake Chad basin are collected as a national activity by the basin states.


Water sharing and allocation

Water allocations are made in various ways according to circumstances In some situations, like the Indus basin, water may be shared by the allocation of the complete flow of a sub-basin. More usually such 'block' allocations are not feasible and water sharing is on a proportional basis. This is the case with the Nile between Egypt and Sudan and with the Komati River between Swaziland and South Africa.

For the purpose of international agreement there is a strong case to be made for measuring water allocations at a specific point (for example at Aswan for the Nile) and to adjust, by an agreed formula, for transmission and operational loss to the point of abstraction. It is important to take into account all significant water uses and return flows in preparing the balance sheet that will form the basis of a treaty. These include not only the main direct uses of water for rural, urban, industrial, recreational and irrigation purposes, but also evaporation losses from reservoirs and return flows from irrigation and from urban and industrial uses.

Water allocations to different sectors are assigned different assurance levels. For example, urban supply may be 98% or even 100%, against 65 to 75% for irrigation. The right to convert one allocation to another by a predetermined conversion factor is often formally included in agreements.

General rules for water rationing during extreme droughts need to be incorporated in treaties, but the responsibility for detailed operations during such events may be more appropriately assigned to an RBO established specifically for the operation and maintenance of any common works.


International river basin organizations

The scope of the terms of reference of a RBO can cover all or any of the following activities:

• data collection;
• planning;
• water allocations;
• raising funds for studies and project implementations;
• project cost sharing;
• implementation of projects;
• O&M of projects; and
• monitoring water use, control of pollution and preservation of environmental conditions.

RBOs vary from joint commissions concerned with little more than water sharing to organizations that have major executive functions. Examples of the former are the India

Pakistan and Sudan-Egypt joint water commissions, and, of the latter, the Senegal basin's OMVS, which performs almost all the functions listed above. It is desirable, if not essential, that an RBO operate continuously so that any issue between basin states can receive immediate attention. It may be more expedient and logical to separate the policy- and strategy-level responsibilities from the executive actions and implementation programmes. For example, a joint water commission might be formed as the main policy body with a wide brief that may encompass all drainage basins shared by the member states. An RBO might then be established in the form of a corporation with a full legal status with specific responsibilities to execute, operate and manage specific projects.

Experience worldwide indicates four key requirements for the establishment of an effective RBO:

• political and financial commitment on the part of the member states;
• clear definition of what the member states require of the RBO;
• defined procedures for interaction between the RBO and the national agencies; and
• an organization, incentive structure and staff that are compatible with its responsibilities and its legal status.

International water resource issues remain an area of great challenge and are a focus of continued hard work and innovation.

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