WHILE world attention in the last few decades has been more focused on implementing the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, other international laws governing the efficient and harmonious use of existing resources have been neglected.
One such law, the Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, has been ratified by just 36 countries. Vietnam is the only South-East Asian country that has ratified the convention.
The document requires participatory UN member states to consider the impact of their actions on other states with an interest in a water resource (like the Mekong River, for instance), and to equitably share the resource.
Member states are required to provide information to other states about the condition of their shared watercourse and about their planned uses for it, allowing sufficient time for consideration and objection if the use is perceived to be harmful.
The convention also requires member states to negotiate a mutually acceptable solution if a use is perceived to be harmful, or seek arbitration at international organisations.
There are also provisions on reasonable damage control, with states obligated to take remedial steps and/or compensate for losses caused to other states..
The threat of vulnerable fresh water resources being overexploited, polluted or depleted is even more imminent than global warming.
Reports presented last month at the Global Water Conference 2016 said 780 million people in developing countries lack access to clean water and 3.4 million people die each year from water-related diseases. Every 20 seconds, a child dies from a water-related disease.
It is also projected that by 2025, the proportion of the world’s population living in water-stressed countries will increase by two thirds.
A World Bank report, “High and Dry: Climate Change, Water and the Economy,” concludes that limited and erratic water availability reduces economic growth, induces migration, and ignites civil conflict.
In South-East Asia, drought and salination caused by harsh weather and alleged water storage at dozens of upstream dams on the Mekong River bankrupted about 1.5 million farmers in Vietnam.
For five years now, Mekong Delta farmers have suffered from the absence of regular flooding that helps fertilise the delta, killing pests and bringing an abundance of seafood.
Increasing seawater intrusion as an effect of climate change has destroyed millions of hectares of crops and permanently altered the nature of many land areas.
Experts worry that the diversion of Mekong waters by Thailand and Cambodia to other regions is also changing the ecosystem in the delta.
They also say that the development or diversion of major trans-boundary rivers originating in Tibet, China, can cause tensions in relations with China’s neighbours.
Forest destruction in catchment areas and uncontrolled and overexploitation of groundwater for cash-crop cultivation, domestic and industrial use have also caused ground water levels to fall dramatically. Deforestation also results in more flash floods in lower regions.
Last month, the chairman of Lao Cai, a province on the Vietnam - China border, reported increasing levels of pollution in the Red River waters flowing in from China.
The Mekong River Commission (MRC), that works with the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, and engages Myanmar and China as dialogue partners, has tried to facilitate joint management of shared water resources and sustainable development of the Mekong River.
However, emerging controversial issues such as dam building or river water diversion seem to have gone beyond its capacity.
The MRC has adopted a series of procedures for water quality, data and information exchange and sharing, water use monitoring, consultation and for maintenance of flows on the mainstream, but it lacks an effective dispute settling mechanism. Furthermore, the procedures do not cover partners.
To cope with fresh water shortage, a series of measures have been applied recently by the Lower Mekong countries, including water diversion, building reservoirs, drip irrigation and digging wells to collect water at hill foot or sandy areas. However all these investments can go to waste if the downstream nations have no control over the source of water supply.
Apart from revisiting the Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, concerned nations could discuss several measures including a sustainable regime for shared water resources, an agreement on what is a fair share of the water resources, sanitary/water quality standards of cross-border sources, and codes of conduct and other means of settling disputes.
Riparian nations can even consider compensating people in catchment areas to ensure they benefit from the preservation of forest and water sources.
An interesting example is the compromise reached by Russia, China and Mongolia for preserving the ecosystem of Baikal, the largest fresh water lake in the world.
Russia had been protesting this issue since 2014, when China pledged US$1bil (RM4.11bil) in credit to the Mongolian Government for building a hydropower plant on Selenga, one of the 300 rivers flowing into Baikal.
It feared the project would negatively affect the lake’s ecosystem, a view supported by Unesco, which said a number of rare species of birds and fish could disappear.
Last June the three countries agreed to temporarily freeze the project to build an eco-corridor in the area. Earlier this year, President Putin wrote off Mongolia’s US$174mil (RM715.5mil) debt and promised to consider reducing future tariffs charged on power sold to Mongolia, which amounts to US$25mil (RM102.8mil) a year.
The Paris agreement has shown that world nations can reach consensus on common threats to humanity. It also shows that major powers wield decisive influence. They should, therefore, take the initiative on preserving and sustainably using one of our most valuable and vital natural resources, fresh water.
- Trinh Thanh Thuy is Editor-in-Chief of Vietnam News. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.