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Throughout history the management of water resources has always been the preserve of local and regional planners, managers and end-users. However, a growing body of research suggests that future sustainable water use will benefit from a broader global response. In a recently published article in 'Science', a group of international researchers, including UvA professor Joyeeta Gupta, explains why a shift from local to global is needed now more than ever.

Photo: Flickr (Creative Commons)

Supporting local stewardship through global governance

Although water problems come best into focus at a local level, recent progress in Earth-system simulation, remote sensing and analysis of water governance is providing novel perspectives on some of the challenges and constraints facing fresh water management. According to the authors, these perspectives show that the current sources of local water problems are not as local as they seem and are directly influenced by transnational mechanisms, primarily the climate, which controls the geography of water availability and the world economy, which drives patterns of water use.

The influence of these global triggers, however, continue to be largely overlooked by governments across the world, which treat water management as a sovereign affair. ‘For too long countries have seen water issues as a primarily local, national and at most transboundary issue’, says Gupta, professor of Environment and Development in the Global South at the University of Amsterdam. ‘Besides solving water problems at the level at which they occurred, many countries faced with transboundary water challenges rejected international interference in the way they managed their water resources.’ According to Gupta, these and other considerations have led to a one-sided approach to water management, one that is unsuited to the challenges posed by a globalising world in the 21st century.   

International agreement

To address such problems, Gupta and her co-authors argue the need for more comprehensive global water governance that runs in tandem with local stewardship. Although such large-scale governance is emerging, with many actors and rules already in play, it currently has a near exclusive focus on transboundary surface water, pays little attention to pollution and fails to reconcile mismatches between hydrologic units and administrative jurisdictions. Gupta: ‘A more comprehensive international agreement on water management would require an understanding of the global nature of the water problem, the adoption of global level goals about how such water should be used (such as those that are being currently adopted within the UN General Assembly as part of the Sustainable Development Goals), the recognition of the human right to water and sanitation services, and principles on water use, sharing and pollution.’

Publication details

C.J. Vörösmarty, A.Y. Hoekstra, S.E. Bunn, D. Conway, J. Gupta (2015): ‘Fresh water goes global’, in Science (31 July 2015). DOI: 10.1126/science.aac6009.