Water for Food

15th World Water Congress highlights water as a resource for global development

June 25nd, 2015

By Sandra Zellmer, Robert B. Daugherty Professor, University of Nebraska College of Law


The World Water Congress, organized by the International Water Resources Association (IWRA), is one of the most important global events in the water field. Held every three years since 1973, the Congress provides a single forum for experts in water-related fields from around the world. It allows participants to share experiences and to present new knowledge, research and developments related to water resources. In this way, the Congress places water-related issues at the forefront of international policy and management.

The 15th World Water Congress, held May 25-29 in Edinburgh, Scotland, focused on the opportunities, challenges and constraints facing global water resources. We call upon our freshwater resources to promote development, reduce poverty and conserve the environment and hundreds of thousands of plant and animal species, but at both the national and sub-national levels, water is often scarce, polluted, mismanaged and misallocated. According to Congress organizers, water management has often been considered an end by itself, and not as a means to an end, the end being to achieve overall development, economic prosperity, quality of life improvement and environmental conservation. In spite of its relevance, water is often not regarded as a key determinant for development, absent from many political agendas.

The University of Nebraska College of Law and Water for Food Institute enabled me to participate as a delegate at the Congress, where I explored an array of issues related to water as a global resource for economic, social and environmental development and conservation.

The Congress invited me to participate as a speaker on the Global Challenges in Water Governance: Vulnerability Assessments panel. Dr. Roy Middleton of Scottish Water, the publicly owned drinking water supplier in Scotland, served as our moderator and also spoke about sustainable urban drainage systems in the built environment. Mark Wilkinson of the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland, turned our attention to the rural landscape, where intensive farming practices often increase local runoff rates, resulting in water quality issues and local flooding. Dr. Wilkinson explained the potential for agriculture to become part of the solution, rather than being part of the problem, with the support of European Union policies that attempt to reduce flooding and improve water quality through preserving, enhancing or reinstating natural processes and features. He demonstrated how agricultural runoff attenuation features (RAFs), such as edge of field disconnection bunds, offline ponds, and wetlands, promote the storage, slowing and infiltration of runoff at the source by targeting surface flow pathways in fields and ditches to achieve multiple environmental benefits.

I addressed floods, coastal losses and the role of law in disaster management, drawing from my book with co-author Christine A. Klein, Mississippi River Tragedies: A Century of Unnatural Disaster (NYU Press 2014). Storms may well be natural phenomenon, but humans have demonstrated an uncanny ability to exacerbate their own vulnerability to them by shortsighted engineering projects, undue faith in technology, improvident development activities that cause the loss of coastal wetlands and barrier islands and poor decision-making processes that encourage development in the floodplain. These are often compounded by an array of government incentives, such as subsidized crop and flood insurance. The acknowledgement of our own responsibility for unnatural disasters can lead to blame and finger-pointing, but it can also prod us to confront the consequences of our actions, leading to the knowledge necessary to avoid future disasters. This, in turn, can lead to a liberating sense of possibility and opportunity–melding our own social and economic aspirations with the environmental imperatives of water and waterbodies. If we acknowledge that at least some disasters are unnatural, not uncontrollable “acts of God,” then we have a fighting chance at making better laws and better decisions in the future. Potential legal reforms include fine-tuning or eliminating subsidies that create perverse development incentives, redefining landowners’ expectations and property rights in coastal zones and floodplains, adjusting our approaches to navigation and channelization of flood-prone rivers, preserving wetlands and barrier islands and restoring degraded riparian and coastal ecosystems.

I also participated in Water Allocation Among Competing Urban and Agricultural Uses. This session addressed the topic of water markets and the allocation of agricultural and urban water rights, with an eye toward the question: will agricultural production be reshaped in the future by the demand for and supply of scarce water resources? Laura Schroeder and Therese Ure, of Portland, Ore., assessed several case studies in the western United States where water was moved out of agriculture production to urban uses. First, California’s Imperial Irrigation District faced the problem of water scarcity in drought head-on by negotiating contracts with its agricultural producers to fallow certain fields, thus leaving water available for urban uses. By contrast, in Nevada, a movement to take water from agriculture and restructure river systems modifying federal decrees was seen through federal litigation and modification of delivery contracts. The speakers recognized a clear and present trend in the western United States to move water out of agriculture to urban and municipal uses, with a definite impact on food and fiber production. They posed the question: at what point will we prioritize agriculture to ensure sustainable food production without increased reliance on imports? They emphasized that cooperation must be prioritized in lieu of spending resources in litigation.

The third event in which I participated was Getting the Best Out of Global Water Conventions. The entry into force of the UN Watercourses Convention in August 2014 and the opening up of the UNECE Water Convention to all UN member states mark two major milestones in the evolution of international law relating to transboundary watercourses. This panel assessed how these two global framework instruments can play a critical role in strengthening the equitable and sustainable management of the world’s transboundary waters. It aimed to deepen our understanding of the role and relevance of these conventions, and the benefits of having them both in operation and alongside other existing global legal instruments. Speakers included Ms. Zaki Shubber of UNESCO-IHE Delft; Dr. Marian Patrick, Stockholm International Water Institute; Dr. Christina Leb, World Bank; Prof. Gabriel Eckstein, Texas A&M University; and, Dr. Salman Salman, IWRA Fellow and former Legal Counsel, World Bank.

For those who would like further information, a short video of the 15th World Water Congress is available at: http://worldwatercongress.com/video/.

Sandra Zellmer is a professor in the University of Nebraska College of Law and a Water for Food Institute Faculty Fellow.



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