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OOSKAnews Voices: Transferring Bulk Water across Borders

GLASGOW, United Kingdom

OOSKAnews Voices is a series of guest “opinion columns” on water, written by senior participants in different parts of the international water community. The columns provide a global platform for organizations and individuals to promulgate their views and messages.

Here, Renee Martin-Nagle of the International Water Resources Association (IWRA) describes the phenomenon of transboundary bulk water transfers.

Martin-Nagle is Treasurer of the IWRA, a PhD Researcher at the University of Strathclyde, Scotland, a Visiting Scholar at the Environmental Law Institute and President and CEO of A Ripple Effect plc. For more than 20 years prior to joining the water sector, she was chief legal counsel for Airbus Americas.

For the theme of its XVI World Water Congress, which will be held in Cancun, Mexico 29 May-June 2, 2017, the International Water Resources Association has chosen “Bridging Science and Policy”. In July, Chair of the International Scientific Committee of the Association, Gabriel Eckstein, explored the need for these bridges in an OOSKAnews Voices column

One water phenomenon that bridges science and policy is the growing practice of transferring water in bulk from one nation to another by rerouting rivers, building dams and reservoirs, constructing pipelines and utilizing tankers and bags. A number of countries such as China, India and the United States have undertaken enormous construction projects to move river water from one domestic basin to another. However, with increasing frequency, water-rich nations are transferring large quantities of water to parched neighbors.

One of the earliest examples involves Malaysia and Singapore, where water transfers from the Johor River date back to the early 1920s colonial period when Singapore relied on Malaysia for almost all of its water needs. Today Singapore has the right to purchase up to 400 million cubic meters per year of water treated at a plant on the Johor River that Singapore financed and operates. In both 2015 and 2016 Singapore permitted Malaysia to purchase 100,000 cubic meters of treated water, more than the contractually agreed share, in order to counter the effects of drought.  In June 2016 Singapore announced that through its four-taps program it had achieved its long-term goal of water self-reliance.

In the mid-1980s Lesotho and South Africa launched the multi-phase Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) to transfer water from the tiny mountain kingdom to its much larger neighbor via a complex network that includes two tunnels of 45 kilometers and 37 kilometers, two dams, a reservoir and a 200-kilometer canal. At the same time the LHWP allowed Lesotho to generate electricity for its own needs and for sale to South Africa; the revenues for selling energy far surpass the revenues from selling up to 10 billion cubic meters of water annually.  In 2016 a severe drought reduced the capacity of the Katse Dam by a third, causing Lesotho to restrict water going to its farmers, precipitating a domestic food crisis; water transfers to South Africa continued.

In a project that Turkey calls Peace Water, a 107-kilometer pipeline began bringing water from Turkey to northern Cyprus in 2015; ultimately 75 million cubic meters will be transferred annually to meet 75% of northern Cyprus’ demand.

Also in 2015, China and Taiwan reached agreement to construct a 27-kilometer pipeline that will transfer water from mainland China to Taiwan’s nearby Kinmet Islands; by 2027 the volume is expected to reach 12.5 million cubic meters annually.

Other water transfer schemes have been proposed, such as from Russia to China and from Pakistan to the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

As climate change and increased water demand heighten the pressure on nations to secure water supplies, the scientific and policy analyses must be integrated when transboundary transfers are explored as solutions to water scarcity. From a science perspective, these transfers may affect ecosystems and hydrological cycles on both sides of the transfer. Further, the large, complex engineering projects affect both land and marine areas when pipelines are laid and dams and channels retain and divert water. From a policy point of view, a nation importing water may actually diminish its water security by becoming dependent on another nation for a critical resource, and the exporting nation risks becoming obligated to transfer water that may be needed for domestic purposes in the future.

By integrating science and policy, both importing and exporting nations can arrive at optimal solutions to addressing water scarcity.  Scientific input can limit the need for imports by improving domestic water efficiency and, once a decision has been made to import bulk water, science can reduce adverse impacts on ecosystems to ensure that biodiversity is preserved and watersheds are protected for future use.

Policy-makers can guide scientific inquiry by providing input on demographic projections and projected water requirements and by fostering dialog among scientists in both the importing and exporting nations. Bulk water transfers look increasingly attractive as solutions to water imbalances; building bridges between science and policy is more important than ever.