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World Water day and corruption in the water sector

World Water Day 09 Special: Corruption in transboundary waters.

Every year on the 22nd of March, many individuals and organisations draw attention to a pressing issue in the water sector on World Water Day. The theme of the 2009 World Water Day is on transboundary waters.

Water crosses many borders across the world. Two in every five people in the world today live in international water basins. This creates global interdependencies among nations and people, but also opens opportunities for corruption. The Global Corruption Report 2008 has dedicated an article to the challenges that corruption poses to transboundary water management.

The article by Transparency International states that corruption in transboundary water can cause international conflict, destabilise entire regions and lead to ecological disaster. It can derive from commitments states enter into through multilateral water treaties, 200 of which have been signed in the last fifty years. Or it can be tied to fiduciary duties to govern water responsibly and sustainably, in accordance with established international norms and agreements such as the Dublin Principles or Agenda 21.

Yet, tackling corruption in transboundary water-sharing is difficult for two reasons. It is harder to prevent and punish because of its international context, and it has very grave consequences. TI states that “preserving and sharing the benefits of a common good such as a river basin is vulnerable to a serious free-rider problem: everyone has a strong incentive to take more than their fair share if there is suspicion that others also do so.

Trust in the effective enforcement of commitments on all sides is essential to sustaining such agreements. But water corruption fatally undermines this trust by thwarting enforcement and opening the door to irresponsible water grabs or water pollution.” As a result, shared water ecosystems become more vulnerable to overuse and ecological collapse.

One attempt to tackle these issues is the 1997 UN Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses. It codifies important principles of prior notification, equitable and reasonable utilisation and no significant harm for the use of transboundary waters. These principles inform many international water-sharing agreements, but only few countries have so far signed up to the convention.

If you would like to comment on this article or voice your opinions on the issue of corruption in transboundary waters, please join the discussion in the WIN forum.

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