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close this bookUnited Nations University - Work in Progress Newsletter - Volume 15, Number 2, 1998 (UNU, 1998, 12 pages)
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentWater for sustainable growth: "Nor any drop to drink"
View the documentThe work of UNU/INWEH: Improving water management
View the documentStanding in line for water: Cooperation on the Ganges and Brahmaputra
View the documentHydropolitics along the Danube
View the documentCity water: 21st century challenge
View the documentNew ways to govern the seas
Open this folder and view contentsRavaged seas in Central Asia
View the documentHistory's plagued seas: The Mediterranean
View the documentClimate, history and water
View the documentWater: The 21st century's oil?
View the documentA chemical eye on water
View the documentWhen oil troubles waters

(introductory text...)

A Review of Research Activities of The United Nations University

Public Affairs Section
The United Nations University

Water for sustainable growth: "Nor any drop to drink"

"Water, water everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink."

("Rime of the Ancient Mariner" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

The Ancient Mariner had it nearly right. Water covers most of the globe, but very little of it - about two per cent - is freshwater, and most of this is locked up in polar ice. By UN estimates, two-thirds of humanity will face shortages of clean freshwater by the year 2025. Improved management of our precious water resources is an urgent global need.


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The United Nations University is given the charge of tackling "pressing global problems of human survival, development and welfare." One is hard put to come up with a problem that fits the definition more precisely than that of the planet's stressed water resources. Without sufficient water, the very survival of our species would soon be called into question -as, obviously, would any hope of development or decent daily welfare.

It is difficult to say which part of the water equation has the greater urgency - for, in fact, all life is caught up in a watery web of daily needs, from humans to animals to the crops that nourish us. The face of the waters has helped to define the course of ancient civilizations.

Water systems can be sensitive barometers of the health of the planet. Decreased freshwater supply has encumbered world food harvests, destroyed precious aquatic habitats, and threatened biodiversity. The world's oceans show equal evidence of the track of the human species - fish catches are off, polluted run-off threatens the ocean's ability to supply life-giving oxygen. Global climate warming is rogue factor - it could imperil the lives of tens of millions, mostly poor, who have much to fear from even a slight rise in sea level.

All in all, it is hard to think of another set of interlocking concerns which so precisely fits the definition of "pressing global problem of human survival, development and welfare" - the defining Charter responsibility of the United Nations University.

The UNU has committed much of its intellectual resources to this immense agenda, and this issue of Work in Progress provides a sampling of the work. UNU scientists have been looking at the state of many of the globe's different waterways: from the oceans in which life began, to the mighty rivers which have been history's great trade highways, to environmentally devastated inland lakes, like the Aral Sea.

Until fairly recently, most people had little inkling of the ecological, economic and social consequences of too little water. The oceans were too vast, the rivers too mighty, the fish too plentiful to be permanently destroyed. But, due mainly to population increase, per capita water supplies as we enter the 21st century are one third lower than they were in 1970. Growing water scarcity has become a very real obstacle to sustainable development.

The UNU has long been concerned with water questions. This concern was given institutional structure in 1996 with the creation, thanks to core funding by the Government of Canada, of the International Network on Water, Environment and Health (UNU/INWEH). Its role is to strengthen water management capacity, particularly of developing countries. We begin this issue with an article by UNU/INWEH Director Ralph Daley and his Ontario colleague Terry Collins. They explain the new network's innovative mode of operations and discuss some of its initial work.

Work in Progress then takes up a number of facets of the modem global water dilemma. Conflicts over water rights, for example, have been a thorn in the side of United Nations negotiators since the UN's earliest days a half century ago. Indeed water, observed former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, could prove to be the oil of the next century, the source of geopolitical strategies by the great and small. With Mikiyasu Nakayama, a Japanese agricultural specialist who has been intimately involved in UN water resources research, we take a look at previous challenges to the world organization by water disputes.

The 1997 UNU Forum, "Water for Urban Areas in the 21st Century," made clear that two of the future's most urgent problems are intimately interlinked. The forum brought together experts from Asia, Europe, Latin America, and North America. Three of the scholars at the forum ponder the explosive scenario developing in the competition for urban water.

Rivers continue to be some of the world's most troubled waters, with their division responsible for baffling eco-political conflicts. Work in Progress takes a look, in three separate articles, at the intermix of concerns along some of the world's most storied rivers: the Danube along the Slovak-Hungarian border; the Volga on its course to the Caspian Sea; and the interweavings of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra in the daily lives of millions. A fourth article recounts the tragic creeping results of river mismanagement in Central Asia - the diversion of water for irrigation purposes, which is drying up the Aral Sea.

Common to all of the river crises is paucity of information, and the need for better monitoring. The UNU, through its environmental monitoring efforts, is helping to bring a sophisticated scientific eye to water problems. The target areas are East Asian coasts, which are particularly stressed due to development efforts. The ways in which it is providing key information to policy makers are discussed by Glen Paoletto, who helped develop the UNU's Global Environmental Information Centre (GEIC).

An eloquent voice in the global water debate, Elizabeth Mann-Borgese, advances the plea that, in this 1998 International Year of the Ocean, the concept of sustainable development should be based on the principles of common heritage enunciated in the Law of the Sea. Yoko Kobayashi, of the GEIC staff, takes a close-to-home look at a sadly familiar ocean problem - what happened last year when oil spilled from an aging tanker into the frigid winter waters of the Sea of Japan.

In closing, we take a look, from two UNU Lectures, at the intimate ways in which water and human civilization have been interwoven. First, François Doumenge, successor to Jacques Cousteau at the famed oceanographic facility in Monaco, reviews the geological history of the Mediterranean and Black Seas, including what modem science tells us about Noah's flood. Finally, Arie Issar, a UNESCO-affiliated water scientist, discusses the fascinating "what-ifs" of Mideast history that seem to emerge from isotopic testings of cores from the Sea of Galilee, and suggests what this might imply about the world's water future.

Someone has observed that, now that we can look at our planet from outer space, as science has permitted us to do, we should name it Water - not Earth. The globe's all-encircling seas are our definitive final frontier. As our knowledge grows, so does our awareness of the immense debt we owe to the waters of the Earth and our common responsibility for their care and well-being. We hope this issue of Work in Progress helps underline the importance UNU attaches to that obligation to help all share those waters.

The work of UNU/INWEH: Improving water management

By Ralph Daley and Terry Collins

Growing water scarcity is now a major impediment to some of the globe's most urgent development objectives: improved food production, thriving ecosystems, healthy and socially stable societies. The UNU's work on water scarcity problems is being spearheaded in Canada by the newest member of the University family, the International Network on Water, Environment and Health (UNU/INWEH) in Hamilton, Ontario; it completed its first year of operation in 1997. The Network responds to a stark reality of our time: more than one-fifth of all people on earth presently lack access to safe drinking water - and that number is projected to rise to a shocking two-thirds of the world population in the first quarter of the new century.

INWEH is integrating international expertise into a worldwide programme of education, training, research and technology transfer on major issues relating to water, environment and human health. Its Director is Dr. Ralph Daley, who previously headed Canada's respected National Water Research Institute. The following article, by Dr. Daley and INWEH staff member Terry Collins, outlines the way the new water network has been organized and some of the results of its early work. - Editor

In 1997, the UN General Assembly called for the highest priority to be given to the serious freshwater problems facing many regions, but especially in the developing world. These contribute to a growing human toll each year, including the deaths of 2.9 million children. The United Nations University International Network on Water, Environment and Health (UNU/INWEH) has been created to help address these concerns. Its mandate is to work in and with developing countries to improve freshwater management training and to engage in on-the-ground water projects, emphasizing integrated watershed management.

As with other components of the UNU, the new facility seeks to build institutional capacities in the Third World. As a network, it is able to do so with small institutional overhead and the flexibility to assemble teams from different disciplines and nations with the precise skills and expertise required to meet a given need.

As home to UNU/INWEH headquarters, the UN flag flies at McMaster University in Hamilton, a city famous for its steel industry, on the shores of Lake Ontario to the west of Toronto. INWEH now has a full-time staff of six, two part-time professionals, and an annual budget of roughly US$700,000.

The new Network operates on two major tracks. On the one hand, it is a hands-on organization, putting teams of professionals from around the globe to work on water-related projects in developing countries, thus dealing with immediate pressing concerns. At the same time, it is an educational organization, working to strengthen human resources locally to meet long-term needs.

The Network includes water-related experts at academic institutions, the UN and other multilateral bodies, governmental and non-governmental organizations and private sector firms. UNU/INWEH represents a new approach to delivering much-needed services - a global network of experts to conceive, research, design and implement projects that address water problems and promote integrated watershed management in developing countries.

At the same time, because it is an academic institution, training is a key role: human resource development is fundamental to each project and programme. INWEH emphasizes the training of people from developing nations who, in turn, will teach others back home. In this way, countries can better meet ongoing needs themselves, with citizens better skilled in such areas as environmental monitoring, regulatory development and enforcement, information collection and dissemination, and water research. The educational programme will eventually include integrated training in watershed management, customized project training, and distance education.

The Network's World Wide Website (www.inweh.edu/unuinweh), which became operational in 1998, is a key component of the educational programme. It is designed to aid distance learning in integrated water quality management and aquatic ecosystem protection. In full operation, the Website will facilitate international communication (including on-line language translation), data management and environmental modeling.

A quarterly UNU/INWEH newsletter, Network News, was launched in spring 1998, and an introductory brochure was completed in five languages (English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic) and distributed broadly in relevant government, academic, private sector and UN circles.

On-the-ground project team members are being recruited from different disciplines and nations, especially those countries in which projects are undertaken. Experience will be transferred to other places, with emphasis on creating South-to-South interaction between people in developing countries.

The Network's objectives also include promoting the transfer of technologies to meet water needs and support for environmental industries in developing countries, to ensure the ongoing availability of affordable products and services.

While projects and programmes are coordinated from Network Headquarters in Canada, UNU/INWEH is establishing small international cooperating offices (ICOs) in selected developing countries, to serve as focal points for projects, training and distance education, as well as regional and community information dissemination. ICOs are considered critical for effective outreach, ensuring that a developing world perspective is present in all of INWEH's activities.

The new organization features several advantages:

· The Network approach permits the identification, design and execution of programmes and projects quickly, effectively and at minimal cost;

· As part of the UNU, INWEH is an impartial global body. It benefits from a close relationship with UN agencies and the ability to contribute to the policies and technical programmes of sister multilateral bodies in the UN system. These include UNESCO, the UN Development Programme, the World Health Organization, the World Meteorological Organization, the UN Environment Programme, the UN Commission on Sustainable Development and the World Bank.

· The Network approach permits a high degree of flexibility and choice in assembling the expert team members who conduct research, provide training, and execute projects.

· Small institutional overhead costs are possible. Project team experts will often be seconded from other institution to meet specific project needs.

The new organization has three immediate goals: First, the registry of public, academic and private sector experts will be expanded worldwide to permit the formation of customized teams that meet specific project and training needs. Second, water projects will be chosen that provide opportunity to build local capacity in environment and human health protection. Initial funding here has been directed to project development in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. Lastly, the activities will be designed to achieve financial self-sufficiency by year 2001. (For the four-year start-up period only, core funding of approximately US$3 million has been provided by the Government of Canada.

UNU/INWEH has an International Advisory Board comprised of six distinguished experts in environmental affairs from around the globe, together with the UNU Rector and the Director of INWEH, who sit as ex officio members.

ICOs

ICOs in Jordan and Mexico are expected to be in full operation soon, and work is under way to create additional units in Brazil and East Africa. Located in host institutions with broad national and regional interests in water-related issues, these offices will facilitate project development and serve as regional focal points. They are key to achieving UNU/INWEH's goals, including financial self-sufficiency.

ICOs are to be small, with up to three core staff, located within government, university or NGO institutions. The offices will be formal components of UNU/INWEH and work closely with institutions, governments and organizations in the regions concerned. Training and technical support in the areas of integrated watershed management, water supply and wastewater systems, and laboratory operations will be initial priorities.

Dr. Walid Saleh is Regional Coordinator of the Middle East ICO, in Amman, Jordan, co-funded by the Higher Council for Science and Technology of the Government of Jordan. The Middle East is the most concentrated region of water scarcity in the world.

The ICO in Mexico City will ultimately serve the wider Caribbean region, but its initial focus will be on capacity building in Mexico itself, which has severe water stresses.

An extensive range of needs and opportunities present themselves in both South America and Africa. These include lake and reservoir management, agricultural application of wastewater biosolids, industrial pollution prevention and community-based water monitoring.

Project Development

The Network's first capacity-building project, in Juarez, Mexico, is to design, develop and implement a Master Plan for Biosolids Management in that northern border city. The goal is to ensure that sludge from two new wastewater treatment plants is managed in an environmentally sustainable manner. UNU/INWEH will play an executive role, marshalling a team of experts in the science, economics, guideline development and agricultural practices of biosolids management; the experts will be drawn from government, academia, and the private sector, both in Mexico and the international community. The three-year project aims at building, applying and consolidating a sustainable biosolids management capacity in the form of a permanent public-private partnership for Juarez. Its ultimate goal is to replicate this project in urban centres in Mexico and throughout Latin America, using the Juarez expertise to promote South-South interaction and implementation. Peru and three other Mexican cities have already expressed interest in following and perhaps modeling the Juarez initiative.

A second capacity-building project in Mexico involves the development and implementation of a pilot "National Capacity-building Framework for the Water Sectors," in conjunction with the Mexican National Water Commission and in partnership with the Environmental Education and Training Institute of North America.

In East Africa, an agreement has been signed with the newly created Lake Victoria Fisheries Organization for INWEH to provide training, research and management advice to an environmental management project currently run by the three nations bordering the lake: Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

This effort, the Lake Victoria Environmental Management Project, with US$77 million over five years from the Global Environment Facility, contains important provisions for training and technical capacity-building in watershed management, limnology, water quality monitoring and fisheries science. The agreement capped a visit in March of this year by delegations of senior government environmental officials from the nations involved, which was hosted by UNU/INWEH.

In West Africa, efforts are under way on a UNU/INWEH-seeded project to install solar-powered groundwater pumping stations around cities and in rural villages of the Sahel. Pilot installations are planned for Burkina Faso, with community-level training conducted to ensure that water quality and the pumping systems themselves are properly monitored and sustained.

In the Middle East, planning is well advanced on projects in Jordan, Palestine, and the Arab Gulf states. In Qatar, work started in summer 1998 on a $240,000 groundwater remediation project in Doha. In Jordan, a computerized decision-support model is being developed to optimize water-harvesting efforts in arid and semi-arid Bedouin farming regions; the work is being done in collaboration with the Badia Research and Training Programme of the Jordanian Higher Council for Science and Technology.

Other activities in the Middle East include: an environmental data base project in Abu Dhabi; a biosolids management project in Gaza and the West Bank; study of environmental impacts from water treatment plants in Saudi Arabia; and region-wide training in environmental information management systems. A Memorandum of Understanding is expected to be signed with the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia for cooperation on water research, training and capacity building.

Training

A pilot training course on freshwater chemical instrumentation has been started in partnership with Hewlett-Packard Inc. HP and Varian International are two of several private firms which, together with a number of universities, have offered to provide their existing training courses, appropriately modified, under the UNU/INWEH umbrella.

Efforts are now underway to fast-track the creation of an integrated training curriculum in freshwater management. Memoranda of Understanding are being developed with several Canadian universities - including Waterloo, Western Ontario, Windsor and McMaster - as well as with the Grand River and Hamilton Region Conservation Authorities. These efforts are closely related to the transfer to the Hamilton headquarters of the UN system's "GEMS/WATER" training programme (UNEP and WHO), an activity coordinated at Canada's National Water Research Institute.

Standing in line for water: Cooperation on the Ganges and Brahmaputra

By Asit K. Biswas, Mikiyasu Nakayama and Juha I. Uitto

Bangladesh is the nation last in line to receive water from the Ganges - which rises in the Himalayas in Nepal and then flows through India and Bangladesh before emptying into the Bay of Bengal. The scene is complicated by the Brahmaputra River, which also rises in lofty mountains, in tiny Bhutan, and joins the Ganges in Bangladesh, after flowing through the nearly cut-off Indian state of Assam. The tortuous hydropolitical scenario is a legacy of the 1971 war, which brought Bangladesh into being.

In the early 1970s, India completed the Farraka Barrage, a dam that diverts Ganges water to Calcutta. An agreement with Bangladesh to share the dry-season flow of water expired in 1988; since then, the two countries have been deadlocked, leaving Bangladesh with no guarantee of water for its irrigation needs in the annual lean season, from January to April. In 1993, the dry-season flow into Bangladesh was the lowest ever recorded.

Against this backdrop of geopolitical tension, the UNU, in March 1998, organized the Ganges Forum, with co-sponsorship of the Government of the Netherlands, in association with the International Water Resources Association (IWRA), which brought together scientists and policy makers from the involved countries. A volume on the forum, to be published by the UNU Press, is now in preparation. The following report on the Ganges Forum was prepared by Prof. Asit K. Biswas, Past President of IWRA, with the collaboration of Dr. Mikiyasu Nakayama of the Faculty of Agriculture, Utsunomiya University, Japan, and Dr. Juha I. Uitto of the UNU programme staff. - Editor

Increasing population and accelerating economic development activities in the basin of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra river system have made the sustainable water management of the region even more critical than in the past. Historically, water has always been regarded as a very important resource in South Asia, and it is also considered to be a main entry point for economic development of the region.

The sharing of water resources of the Ganges-Brahmaputra system has long been a matter of dispute among the four countries which share the basin: Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal. Following the construction of the Farakka Barrage in the Indian Ganges in the mid-1970s, sharing of water downstream has become a highly contentious political issue between Bangladesh and India. (It also highlights the manner in which urban concentrations can compound water problems; one of the major purposes of the Farakka diversion is to supply badly needed water to Calcutta.)

The Ganges is one of the world's mighty rivers that no longer reaches the sea every year. The upstream diversions and other water demands do not leave enough water for the river to reach its natural outlet in the Bay of Bengal. The lack of freshwater flowing out to sea has caused the rapid advance of a saline front across the western portion of the river delta, threatening agricultural production in one of the most densely populated regions on earth. The region is plagued by national boundaries reflecting past political tensions. The basin of the Brahmaputra, for example, is largely in Assam, the Indian state in the far northeast, all but cut off from the rest of the country at the time when Bangladesh was created in 1971.

For more than three decades, the development of the Ganges-Brahmaputra river system has been a hydropolitical bone of contention in the region. However, two recent treaties on the Ganges (between Bangladesh and India in December 1966) and on the Mahakali (signed between Indian and Nepal in 1977) have dramatically changed the political atmosphere of the region in terms of water management.

The main purpose of the Ganges-Brahmaputra forum, like three other earlier such meetings, was to provide the countries concerned with an independent platform where senior policy makers and experts could quietly and objectively explore genuine potentials for cooperation in the sustainable development of the water, land and biotic resources and come to understand and appreciate each other's resource needs.

Participation in this very high-level but low-keyed forum was strictly restricted, by invitation only, to some thirty senior policy-makers and experts. They were all invited in their personal capacities for free and frank exchange of ideas, opinions and facts on this complex hydropolitical issue. Because of the position of the participants, the meeting refrained from drawing any formal conclusions or making any specific recommendations.

Eight backgrounds papers were specifically commissioned for the forum. These analyzed the historical background of the conflict as well as the collaborations among the four co-basin countries; future potential for water resources development in the basin; consideration of flow augmentation in the "lean" (or "dry") season; review of social, environmental and political conditions; and discussion of possible legal and institutional frameworks for future collaboration between the countries concerned.

Among the range of topics discussed, a major discussion was devoted to overall water resources requirements for the region. If total annual flow is considered, the Ganges has abundant water resources. The main problem is water scarcity during the lean season - from January to April - which affects both India and Bangladesh. Only 5% of the total annual flow of the river would be sufficient to solve the downstream scarcity problems during the lean season. But ways will have to be found to somehow store water in catchments to be used when the flow diminishes. Thus, the possibility of low flow augmentation should receive high priority in management of the water resources of the region.

While the lean season scarcity problem is easy to resolve conceptually, problems arise when attempting to select a way to do it that would be acceptable to all countries concerned. Historically, Bangladesh has preferred to have reservoirs constructed upstream, in Nepal. Though several participants backed such a concept, it was noted that only a very large scheme, such as the planned Kosi High Dam, could be effective in augmenting lean season flow in Bangladesh.

India, on the other hand, has supported construction of a 300 km long canal - through Bangladesh territory - to transfer water from the relatively water-rich Brahmaputra to the water-scarce Ganges basin. The plan has not met with favour in Bangladesh for a variety of reasons. It would involve resettling a large number of people in Bangladesh. Many serious environmental and social problems would likely arise. A canal through Bangladesh, which could also be used for navigation from one part of India to another, could have serious socio-political implications for both countries.


Scenery of a flood in Bangladesh. (Source: Floods in Bangladesh, Institute of Geography, University of Berne, 1997)

However, the idea of a Ganges Barrage constructed exclusively within Bangladesh was generally appreciated by the Forum participants. Such a barrage would have very few political implications since it would be a national project. International funding organizations like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank have initially been somewhat reluctant to finance any project on the Ganges, primarily due to the absence of any agreement between the countries for the sharing of its waters. The Forum participants overwhelmingly felt that the feasibility of the Ganges Barrage in Bangladesh should be given serious consideration by external funding agencies, particularly in light of the existing Ganges Treaty between Bangladesh and India.

Information Flow Problems

One major problem identified at the forum was lack of information sharing. Water experts in one country had surprisingly little access to information from other co-basin countries. Even information freely available in one country is often not available in others.

Participants agreed that an operational mechanism needs to be established for wider sharing of meteorological, hydrological, economical and environmental data. Considering the sensitivities associated with data and information sharing, it may not be an easy task - but it is essential to the long-term sustainable development of the region.

There were various suggestions on how best to promote sustainable development of the region, and how to further enhance the existing collaborations between the co-basin countries. It was generally agreed that a holistic approach is desirable, but it was felt that trying to integrate various sectors and involve all parties concurrently might unnecessarily complicate the overall scene -and thus only contribute to delay a solution. However, small-scale development activities should be promoted even in the absence of a basin-wide master plan. New types of investment possibilities should be looked into, such as cost sharing between private sector and donor agencies. A review of similar investment practices currently being used in countries like Turkey or Brazil should be made. Also, the idea of a supra-national institution for regional collaboration, like the Mekong River Commission, should be thoroughly explored.

Needed: Macro-vision for the Future

As a follow-up activity of the forum, it was proposed that the International Water Resources Association, in cooperation with the UNU, convene a small working group, made up of experts from Bangladesh, India and Nepal. The group would be charged with preparing a macro-vision for the future of the Ganges-Brahmaputra Meghna basin as a whole. The vision would be discussed by decision makers and concerned experts of the region, most probably in Dhaka in late 1999. The revised and finalized version could subsequently be presented at the World Water Forum, which is being organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands in The Hague in March 2000.

Hydropolitics along the Danube

By Libor Janský

When Czechoslovakia split up in January 1993, it left to one of the new states, Slovakia, a long-running environmental dispute with neighbouring Hungary - over a dam on the Danube reckoned to be the largest civil-engineering project in Europe.

The Danube has seen much history. The site for the dam is between Bratislava, the Slovak capital, and Budapest, capital of Hungary, a stretch of the Danube that has been a camping ground down the ages for Illyrian, Celtic, Slavic, Magyar and Germanic tribes. There are important industrial centres on both sides of the border along this part of the Danube - Gyor in Hungary and Komarmo in Slovakia, for example, are important cogs in a Central European economy daily growing more interdependent.

Some two decades ago, construction began on a barrier system on the Danube, aimed at improving management of the river's resources. Construction has since stopped, however, and the project has broken down into a war of words between Hungary and Slovakia about what is and is not ecologically and economically feasible. The following article about the dispute is by Libor Janský, of the Faculty of Natural Sciences, Comenius University, Bratislava, Slovak Republic, a member of the UNU multidisciplinary team examining river water issues. - Editor

The Danube River is a journey through the old and new states of post-Cold War Europe - a 2,857 kilometre-trip through Germany, Austria, the Slovak Republic, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, and the Ukraine. Before emptying into the Black Sea, the river also drains the catchment areas of Switzerland, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania and Moldova. The topography is as richly varied as are the bordering states - through jutting mountain gateways, lush agricultural plains, and deltaic interlacings of land and water near the river's terminus.

Some 80 million Europeans live in the Danube basin, which spreads across an area of mountains, plains and wooded hills totalling 817,000 square kilometres. For centuries the river has been used for fishing, navigation, and drinking water supply -satisfying the demands of agriculture and industry, as well as for the disposal of purified wastewater. Between 1950 and 1980, a total of 69 dams and more complex waterworks were constructing on the Danube. Since the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal opened in 1992, the river has become an artery for a continent, with the route connecting hundreds of inland ports from the North to the Black Seas.


The Danube is the second largest river of Europe after the Volga. It rises in the Black Forest mountains of Germany and flows for approximately 1,770 miles (2,850 kilometres) to its mouth on the Black Sea. (Photo: Juha I. Uitto, UNU)

The Danube is registered as an International Corridor 6C for transportation. The Danube Commission, consisting of representatives of the Danube states, regulates this agreement and oversees large-scale navigation measures. The natural topography along the river is as varied as are the different social and political situations in each country. Different countries have different priorities. This has resulted in a range of different approaches to river problems.

In 1977, Czechoslovakia and Hungary concluded a treaty for the construction of the Gabcíkovo-Nagymaros Barrier System along the Slovakian-Hungarian border some 50 kilometres downriver from Bratislava.

This immense engineering project was meant to improve utilization of the natural resources of the Bratislava-Budapest section of the Danube; it would aid in the development of water resources, energy, transport, agriculture and other sectors of the national economies of both countries. The joint investment was thus essentially aimed at the production of hydroelectricity, the improvement of navigation on the relevant section of the Danube and the protection of the areas along the banks against flooding.

In 1989, Hungary suspended and subsequently abandoned completion of the project alleging that it entailed grave risks to the Hungarian environment. Slovakia (created by the split of Czechoslovakia in 1993) denied these allegations and insisted that Hungary carry out its treaty obligations. It planned and subsequently put into operation an alternative amendment to the project. While the new work was located only on Slovak territory, its operation had effects on Hungary's access to the Danube across the river.

The UNU work on this question is part of the activities focused on sustainable resources management. Particular concerns are instances where transboundary waters have gone beyond the purely technical and become political. The dispute over the Gabcíkovo-Nagymaros Barrier System on Danube River between Slovak Republic and Hungary seems to be such an example.

Discussions about the UNU Danube project started in 1993, shortly after the documents on the Gabcíkovo-Nagymaros Barrier System dispute were submitted by the Slovakian and Hungarian governments to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. A multidisciplinary and multinational core team has since been established, consisting of the author; Dr. Miklos Sukosd, a political scientist and sociologist at Central European University, Budapest, Hungary; and Prof. Masahiro Murakami, Kochi University of Technology, Japan, an authority on water engineering and hydropolitical geography.

Since 1993, the UNU Danube project has held three conferences, all in Bratislava and organized by the City University Bratislava (CUB). The most recent, in June 1997, was part of an international Danube conference jointly organized by CUB and the International Biopolitics Organization on the subject: "Danube River Bonds - Past, Present, Future - A Dimension of Time and Space." It attracted more than 80 speakers from over 20 countries including the representatives of national institutions, research and academic areas, consultants and NGOs.

Dr. Sukosd of the core team outlined the political-historical background of the conflict between the Slovak Republic and Hungary over the Danube, with attention to the damming by the Gabcíkovo-Nagymaros Barrier System. He noted the many dimensions to the social science research that must be taken into account, including: (a) the different pace and scenarios of democratic transition in the two countries; (b) limited independence of scientific communities in both countries; (c) nationalism - historical, cultural and ethnic factors; (d) weak civil societies and scarce transborder communications; (e) the use of the barrier system issue for political legitimation; (f) lack of regional conflict resolution institutions; and (g) the role of the European Union and the International Court of Justice.

Whether affecting a downstream flow or upstream navigation, the rights to a river's resources can pose thorny and complex questions. Another core team presentation covered some vexing, but often overlooked, local concerns - touching, for example, on things like the division of fishing or river bed rights, toll and bridge rights, or adjustments that need to be made when a channel shifts (the Danube splits into three channels shortly after passing Bratislava). On a larger regional and national scale are questions of the rights on non-contiguous lands (i.e., not fronting on the river) that need to navigate the Danube, the passage of migrating fish, and exploiting the river (e.g., bed sediments) with or without damage to other countries.

The Danube Conference agenda was a full one: ranging from biodiversity to pollution prevention; to forest ecosystems and soil protection; to protecting the rights of future generations. Conceived as a forum for the exchange of ideas about environmental management in the region, the conference stressed the importance of drawing lessons from history - in particular, what might be learned from the people and societies living along the Danube. Such lessons should be the building blocks for a harmonious future. Also discussed was the implementation of biocentric principles; participants discussed the contributions their respective disciplines might make and proposed models for new thinking and action. The interdisciplinary character of the hydrological issues involved emerged clearly.

There were major discussions of the implications for the Danube regions of the likely future expansion of the European Union. What might this mean in terms of future leadership and diplomacy, for economic structures, for trends in trade, transport and tourism, and a range of other issues that might emerge with a broadened union of European states? The Conference gave evidence of willingness, in the official national policies of the countries along the river, to improve the general environmental and technical standards in legislative, executive and financial ways.

Some Practical Needs

A list of some practical current needs for the Danube region emerged from the exchange:

(1) to support the ideas of bio-politics and sustainable development between the riparian countries;

(2) to increase the information flow about the project activities which are undertaken within the framework and auspices of various international organizations on a governmental or academic level or within the NGO circles;

(3) to create the partnerships between civic initiatives in the whole Danube region and to support the involvement of the NGOs in the Danube Environmental Forum;

(4) to transform the scientific results into political decision-making;

(5) to consider the whole Danube river basin when evaluating the impacts of and on the Gabcíkovo-Nagymaros Barrier System.

The UNU Danube project will continue to identify issues in dispute concerning water resources, select alternative scenarios that could lead to the solution of complex water environment problems, and recommend processes that could lead to mutually satisfactory solutions. Other rivers with international border conflicts to be studied include the Colorado, the Indus, the Nile, the Jordan and the Euphrates.

City water: 21st century challenge

By Juha I. Uitto, Asit K. Biswas and Cecilia Tortajada-Quiroz

Farmers around Beijing are losing irrigation water to satisfy the thirsty demands of Beijing. Groundwater levels are dropping in many places in the Third World to meet the demands of nearby mega-cities. Rising urban affluence intensifies competition for agricultural water.

The burgeoning urban populations of the world are generating some of the severest environmental challenges of the coming century - most notably in providing safe and clean water to the five billion people who will live in cities (double the present number) by the year 2025. In 1997, the UNU organized a Forum in Tokyo on the topic "Water for Urban Areas in the 21st Century," which brought together eight leading world experts from Asia, Europe, North America, Latin America and the World Bank. This article summarizes and highlights the main issues raised in the Forum. Dr. Juha I. Uitto is a Senior Academic Programme Officer at the UNU Headquarters. Prof. Asit K. Biswas, who acted as the convenor of the Forum, is the Chairman of the Committee on International Collaboration of the International Water Resources Association (IWRA). Cecilia Tortajada is the Vice-President of the Third World Centre for Water Management in Mexico. The UNU Press is planning to publish a book, edited by Drs. Uitto and Biswas, on the urban water forum. - Editor

The number of urban dwellers on the globe is expected to double to more than five billion people by the year 2025. Between 1950 and 1990, the number of cities having more than one million people increased almost four-fold, from 78 to 290. By 2025, the number of such cities is likely to double to more than six hundred.

Asia and Africa are now experiencing explosive urban growth at around 4 per cent per year. The provision of clean water and sanitation facilities in the mega-cities of the developing world -places like Lagos, Shanghai, Jakarta and Mexico City - is going to be one of the most challenging tasks faced by development strategists in the 21st century.

Already, there are very disquieting signs of inadequate water supply and sanitation in the developing countries. Some of the signs:

· Unsafe water is responsible for 80 per cent of all diseases and 30 per cent of deaths in the developing world;

· Annually 1.2 billion people suffer from diseases caused by unsafe drinking water or poor sanitation;

· Annually more than four million children die from waterborne diseases;

· Fifteen per cent of children will die before reaching the age of five years due to diarrhea - deaths that might be avoided with reasonable water and sanitation services.

Both quality and quantity are serious urban water concerns. The cities of the world produce huge amounts of sewage - both from households and industries - which causes health problems both for humans and for ecosystems. Water-related diseases are prevalent, especially in the poorer parts of developing country cities. Similarly, providing sufficient amounts of water to the growing urban centres is in itself a challenge.

Solutions obviously need to be found on multiple fronts involving a range of stakeholders. Thus far the main emphasis has been on managing water supplies. As new sources of water all over the world become scarce and more expensive to develop, emphasis needs to shift from supply to demand management. One of the tools will be increasing reliance on water pricing. Appropriate water pricing could significantly reduce water wasted in all sectors.

The public sector has often failed to deliver sustainable water supply and sewage systems. The World Bank estimates that the current investment needs in this sector in developing countries and the countries with economies in transition are in the order of $50 billion per year. Such huge investments can only be harnessed through public and private sector partnerships. Private sector will have to play an increasingly important role in the future.

The efficiency of water supply systems is frequently appallingly poor. Water distribution systems all over the world lose between 15 and close to 70 per cent of water through leakage. Poor operation and maintenance is a significant problem, for example, in the Indian mega-cities of Bombay, Madras, Calcutta and Delhi. More emphasis needs to be placed on water conservation to reduce such major losses.

The example of Japan can serve to demonstrate what careful management can contribute to the efficiency of urban water supply. Tokyo has experienced remarkable growth during this century and is now arguably the largest urban conglomeration in the world (with some 31 million people in the eight adjacent cities). Nevertheless, the losses (systemic leakages before water reaches the end-users) in the urban water supply system of Tokyo have been reduced from 80 per cent in 1945 to the current remarkably low 9 per cent.

Considering the escalating conflicts in water resources development and the increasing water demand in the developing countries, wastewater reclamation and reuse will need to be seen as increasingly important options for sustainable development of urban water resources. As environmental requirements become more stringent, wastewater reclamation is becoming more important. Reused wastewater can be used for purposes where the quality requirements are not that high: flushing toilets, washing cars, gardening, etc.

Another Japanese case can highlight the need to balance the requirements of water for urban areas with other ecosystem demands in the region surrounding the cities. Lake Biwa, the largest lake in Japan, is important for the water supply for the second largest urban conglomeration in the country, the Kansai area consisting of the cities of Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya and Kobe. The Lake Biwa-Yodo river system shows how individual municipal water systems have evolved for many different local reasons based on the agendas of the various municipalities in the basin. A holistic approach to integrated watershed management has been lacking. Consequently, policy has been segmented and the implementation approach has been incremental, causing problems with the economics of water use.

Now environmental considerations and restoration are becoming increasingly important with regard to, for example, water resources management and quality. In Japan, the development of water resources has traditionally been seen in the context of overall economic development, with emphasis on river development, dam construction, diversion channels, etc. In the future, however, it is important to incorporate environmental considerations and conservation into the water resources development plans.


The role of engineered treatment, reclamation, and reuse facilities in the cycling of water through the hydrologic cycle. (Source: Asano, T. and A.D. Levine, "Wastewater reuse: A valuable link in water resources management," Water Quality International, 1995, No. 4)

The Lake Biwa Comprehensive Development Project took twenty-five years to complete. This was achieved during a time of very rapid economic growth in Japan when environmental concerns were not considered front-burner issues. Similar projects today and in less wealthy countries would take much longer to realize.

A case in point may be Mexico City, a sprawling metropolitan area of 25 million people. Population growth remains high and the water demand is increasing rapidly. To cater to the growing demands, Mexico has embarked on projects that involve long-distance water transfers from basins located far from the city. As a consequence, the costs are escalating rapidly. Similarly, supplying water to the urban giant is taking a toll on the environment in the surrounding areas. The situation will not be sustainable in the longer term.

Water management during disasters needs special attention. For example, human suffering and property damages due to fires could have been significantly reduced after the Great Hanshin Earthquake that devastated the city of Kobe in 1995 with more efficient planning and operation of the water supply systems. Many of the world's urban centres are concentrated in locations susceptible to hazards. Coasts where most of the large cities are concentrated are generally exposed to climatic hazards, such as typhoons and hurricanes that can disrupt water supply and sewage systems. Incidents of flooding can have devastating effects in urban areas.

The solutions to the pressing problems of urban water supply and sanitation must combine both technological as well as managerial and policy issues. There is also need for enhanced cooperation between the industrialized and developing countries. The industrialized countries need to rethink the focus and priorities of their official development assistance programmes in the water sector. What is needed now is a long-term vision for broad-based cooperation in the water sector that places more emphasis on the "software" aspects, such as capacity building and institutional strengthening. It will also be important to change the national policy environments to facilitate efficient water management in a holistic manner. Public awareness needs to be raised to support these processes.

The world is now facing an urgent water crisis of dimensions that no earlier generation has had to face. These problems must be solved lest there will be a major human tragedy facing mankind, especially in the developing countries. However, the problems can be solved with correctly focused investment, technology, and management. What is needed to achieve this is political will and active collaboration between the North and South, and East and West. If countries can initiate urgent actions, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic about the future.

New ways to govern the seas

By Elizabeth Mann-Borgese

Both the Latin and Greek roots of the word "govern" denote the act of steering or piloting a boat - reflecting, perhaps, the human desire to somehow master the complexities of the trackless expanses of the sea. Governance of the oceans remains an item near the top of the environmental agenda. Life itself took shape in the seas - a precious biological storehouse where our weather is shaped and much of our nourishment first enters the ecological food chain. A range of interlinked human activities now threaten the marine environment - through polluted run-offs, coastal degradation, or lessening of the ocean's ability to supply life-giving oxygen.

Elizabeth Mann-Borgese has been an eloquent and forceful voice in defense of the oceans' seminal importance to human existence. In the following article which she wrote for Work in Progress, she discusses some of the issues involved in the vision of the 1998 International Year of the Ocean, in particular, the need for a more integrated approach to ocean management. Dr. Mann-Borgese is with the International Ocean Institute in Malta. Her new book, The Oceanic Circle, has just been published by the UNU Press. - Editor

The International Year of the Ocean - 1998 - is now drawing to a close. What will it leave behind?

Many important manifestations of concerns about the seas have taken place: ocean exhibits, marine technology shows, children's art competitions, music on the oceans. Thousand of papers have been read at hundreds of conferences; a World Commission on the Oceans has been formed. Reports have been tabled.

What will remain? What should remain?

A new awareness has to be created. Especially in the Western countries, we have to learn that we are not the lords of the universe - not vis-à-vis the poor in our own countries, not vis-à-vis our non-human fellow creatures and their natural habitat. Other cultures and peoples, who knew these things better than we did in the West for the past few thousand years, should remember this, and forget some of the things they have "learned" from the West during recent centuries or decades.

The very nature of the untamable ocean, "the majesty of the oceanic circle," forces us to think differently, to act differently than we do on land. And, as the land is already largely exhausted and spoiled and our civilizations are driven to the coasts and spilling their industrial revolutions into the seas and oceans, we have to learn to adjust to the different way of thinking and acting.

What should remain of the Year of the Ocean is a new vision of governance based on a different relationship between humans and between humans and nature - for as we treat nature, we treat one another; and if we kill nature, we kill ourselves.

A broad-base understanding has to be generated of where we are now in this process of moving in the direction of this new vision, and what the next practical steps might be.

The adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982 was hailed by the UN Secretary-General as the most important event since the adoption of the United Nations

Charter itself. It is indeed a breakthrough document containing the seed of a new world order for the next century.

The Convention's principle of the Common Heritage of Mankind, which cannot be appropriated by any State, company or individual, but must be managed for the benefit of all people, reserved for exclusively peaceful purposes and conserved for future generations, foreshadows new economic theories transcending both the centrally planned and free-market systems. Although originally to be applied only to the area and resources of the international seabed, with no effects on the high seas above or the areas under national jurisdiction, it is quickly transcending this limitation. The second fundamental principle of the Convention, that the problems of ocean spaces are closely interrelated and must be considered as a whole, in fact contradicts this limitation. The academic community has failed, thus far, to read the two principles in their conjunction. History, as well as logic, will teach us to do so.

The Agreement on Straddling on fish stocks and highly migratory stocks, further developing the letter and spirit of the Convention, for all practical purposes extends the concept of the Common Heritage to the management of living resources, in the ocean as a whole. Fish stocks on both sides of the boundary between national jurisdiction and the high seas are to be managed sustainably, for the benefit of mankind as a whole, including future generations. Rules and regulations on both sides of the boundary have to be harmonized, with the assistance of regional fisheries organizations. The "freedom to fish" on the high seas has been replaced by the principle of the Common Heritage.

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED, 1992) extended the principle further to include the land. "Sustainable Development" will have to be based on the principle of the Common Heritage of Mankind, or it cannot be realized at all. All post-UNCED Conventions, Agreements and Programmes reflect the new principles of the Common Heritage of Mankind with its economic, environmental, disarmament and equity concerns and implications, and the principle of the interdependence of problems and solutions.

On the basis of these new philosophical and legal concepts, the "UNCED process," furthermore, has begun to develop new models of governance, from the level of coastal community to those of the nation-state, the region and the United Nations. These emerging forms of governance must be comprehensive, including the governmental as well as the international levels. The emergence of the non-governmental organizations and their new role, at national as well as international levels, is indeed one of the more interesting phenomena of the last two decades. They must be consistent - there must be a "fit" between decision-making processes at different dimensions of governance - or else decision-making cannot function. They must be participatory -bottom-up not top-down. And they must be interdisciplinary.

"Co-management" - bridging local and national planning and decision-making and including all users of coastal and ocean spaces and resources - is a term characterizing developments the community level. "Co-management" forms are making their appearance more and more frequently in all parts of the world.

"Interministerial commissions" appear to be the most promising way of restructuring national governments to enable them to manage the closely interrelated problems of coastal and ocean space under their jurisdiction.

The revitalization of the UNEP-initiated regional seas programme is proceeding. It is broadening the agenda of regional organizations, from a sectorial approach limited to conservation of the marine environment to the concept of "sustainable development" and the assumption of new responsibilities. A major new charge is the implementation of the Global Programme of Action to Prevent Pollution from Land-based Activities. This requires conceptual and institutional renovation and innovation. Leading the development are the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Here the establishment of a Mediterranean Commission on Sustainable Development is a breakthrough event. It has created a new relationship between the government and the non-governmental sectors, which are treated, in this Commission, as equals. It has included coastal communities in its membership. It has transcended, for the first time the "sectoral approach" by calling, at its highest levels, not only on Ministers from the Department of the Environment but also from all other Departments and Ministers involved in one way or another in issues of coastal and ocean management. Like Commissions need to be established in the context of all Regional Seas Programmes.

At the global level of the United Nations, a number of institutional innovations are stirring. It is my fervent hope that at least one of them will materialize before the Year of the Ocean comes to its end.

When UNCLOS III came to its end in 1982, with the adoption and opening for signature of the Law of the Sea Convention, it was clear that there no longer existed a body in the UN system capable of "considering the closely interrelated problems of ocean space as a whole." During the decade-and-a-half that has passed since then, the need for such a body became ever more glaring.

The problem arises from a lacuna in the Convention itself. In this respect, as in some others, the Convention is unfinished business, a process rather than a product. Unlike other Treaties, which generally provide for regular meetings of State parties to review and, eventually, to revise such Treaties, the Law of the Sea Convention severely limits the mandate of the meetings of State Parties. It is restricted, after the establishment phase, to the periodic election of Judges to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, the approval of the expenses at that institution, and amendments to the Statue thereof. The mandate of the Assembly of the International Seabed Authority, the only other body comprising all State parties, obviously is limited to seabed issues. Yet a Convention which, in our rapidly changing times, does not provide for periodic review and revision, will soon be bypassed by history.

Theoretically, there would be three ways of dealing with the problem:

One could, perhaps, first informally and later by amendment, broaden the mandate of the meetings of State Parties, enabling them to review the implementation of the Convention and to formulate an integrated ocean policy.

Or one could broaden the mandate of the Assembly of the International Seabed Authority, considering that, on the one hand, seabed mining is not going to require very much time for the foreseeable future, while, on the other, "the problems of ocean space are closely interrelated and need to be considered as a whole."

Or the General Assembly of the United Nations could be given the responsibility for examining, periodically, all the interrelated problems of ocean space and generating an integrated ocean policy.

The first two alternatives would have the advantage of utilizing existing and otherwise under-utilized bodies for a function for which they would be well prepared. Both would have the disadvantage of a membership that is less than universal. It should also be noted that "closely related problems of ocean space" arise also within other post-UNCED regimes with a different membership. The first two alternatives would not be suitable for dealing with ocean-related interactions between various Convention regimes, e.g., the overlaps between the Biodiversity and Climate Conventions and the Law of the Sea.

As emphasized in the Report of the Secretary-General of the United Nations,* it is only the General Assembly, with its universal membership, that has the capability of dealing with all the closely interrelated problems of ocean space, including those arising from the interactions of various Convention regimes. The disadvantage of the General Assembly, however, is that it cannot possibly devote sufficient time to these problems which would require several weeks, at least every second year.

* Doc. A/51/645

To solve this problem, the General Assembly should establish a Committee of the Whole to devote the time needed for the making of an integrated ocean policy. Representatives of the upgraded Regional Seas Programmes, the Specialized Agencies of the UN system with ocean-related mandates, as well as the non-governmental sector should participate in the work of this Committee of the Whole.

This sort of "Ocean Assembly" should be serviced by the Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea as well as by the UN Commission on Sustainable Development.

At the United Nations in New York, one may notice a certain "Law-of-the-Sea fatigue," Four new institutions have already been established: the International Seabed Authority, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, the Continental Shelf Commission, and the Meeting of State Parties. For God's sake, that is enough! If there be need for more, let us shove it off to the Agencies, the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, the Food and Agriculture Organization, etc.

But none of these institutions, whether old or new, is able "to consider the closely interrelated problems of ocean space as a whole." There is a danger that the achievement of UNCLOS III -the creation of one comprehensive regime of ocean governance, with subsystems in the Specialized Agencies and their Conventions and Programmes - will be lost and the regime will again be splintered between various totally independent Convention regimes. This danger should be avoided. It would mean chaos. It would frustrate all efforts to achieve sustainable ocean and coastal development and conserve the natural environment, the world climate and biodiversity.

If we want to make 1998, the International Year of the Ocean, a landmark (or seamark) year, we should take the decision to create this Committee of the Whole, this "Ocean Assembly." That is the one that is really needed to make all the other function better. It does not really cost anybody anything. All it takes is political will.

(introductory text...)

Two of the globe's great inland seas - the Aral and the Caspian - lie only a few hundred kilometres apart on the vast Central Asian steppes. The waters of both are suffering ecological damage due to imprudent human action. The Aral is gradually disappearing, the Caspian is overflowing. The receding shorelines of the Aral Sea can be blamed on irrigation efforts, which diverted the rivers that have fed it over the millennia. The Caspian has too much water, with great damage to its shorelines. Compounding the ecological management problems is the need to somehow coordinate the post-Cold War policies of five nation-states who border one of the two seas. And, where once the Soviet Union and Iran were the only two littoral states, the post-Cold War policies of a number of nation-states, some struggling to adapt to new economic, political and social conditions, must now somehow be coordinated. On these pages, two scientists with long experience in the ecology of the region - one an American, the other a Russian - examine the tragic plights of these two great bodies of water. - Editor

The dying Aral sea

By Michael H. Glantz

By common consent, one of this century's greatest ecological tragedies is the drying up of the Aral Sea - an environmental change visible from outer space. Once thriving coastal settlements have become isolated desert towns more than a hundred kilometres from the receding shoreline. Abandoned ships lie high and dry, crazily atilt on barren seabeds. There has been a devastating impact on agriculture and human health in the region, much of which has been in severe economic crisis since the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

The sad scenario is what Michael Glantz, a leading American scholar on the Aral Sea, terms a "creeping environmental problem" - one that evolves slowly, almost imperceptibly, over time, until a fateful threshold is passed. He is Senior Scientist in the Environmental and Societal Impacts Group, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado. The article is excerpted from his chapter, "Creeping environmental problems in the Aral Sea basin," in the UNU volume Central Eurasian Water Crisis, which he co-edited. - Editor

The demise of the Aral Sea is a quiet catastrophe, one that has evolved slowly, almost imperceptibly, over the past few decades. It was referred to in the former Soviet Union as a "Quiet Chernobyl." This has become acknowledged as one of the major human-induced environmental degradations of the twentieth century.

A singular feature of much of today's environmental deterioration is that it is the result of long-term, low-grade, and slow-onset cumulative processes. These could be called "creeping environmental problems" - as opposed to rapid-onset natural hazards such as earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes or tsunamis. Creeping environmental problems cut across academic disciplines, political ideologies, continents and cultures.

They tend to have one characteristic in common: change does not make things much worse today than it was yesterday - nor is the rate of change tomorrow likely to be much different from today. So societies (individuals as well as government bureaucracies) do not, for the most part, recognize changes severe enough to cause them to treat their environments any differently than they had on previous days.

Yet incremental changes in environmental conditions accumulate over time with the eventual result that, after some threshold of change has been crossed, things "suddenly" appear as major degradation. If no action is then taken - as is often the case - those incremental changes will continue to mount until a full-blown crisis emerges.

Making Risks for Others

Creeping environmental problems thus change the environment in a negative, cumulative and, at least for some period of time, invisible way. Both governments and individuals tend to continue to view their "usual activities" as acceptable. Scientific uncertainty can also foster inaction. Further to blame are what might be called "risk makers" - decision makers whose decisions make risks for others but not necessarily for themselves. With regard to the declining Aral Sea level, for example, in reality there were no adverse impacts on those in Moscow who made the decisions that led to the declining sea level. The bottom line is that risk makers are often not held accountable for the environmental crises that result from their decisions.

Until the relatively recent past, the streamflows of the two perennial river systems, the Amudarya and Syrdarya, sustained the Aral Sea at a stable level. Over the centuries, about half of the flow of the two rivers reached the Aral. A major expansion of irrigated cotton production altered this ecological balance.

A sizeable portion of Central Asia's agriculture is dependent on irrigation. Irrigated agriculture in the region predates by millennia the era of tsarist conquests of the 18th and 19th centuries. What is "new" about irrigation in the region, however, is the huge amount of water diverted from the region's major rivers and, in turn, the large proportion of arable land devoted to cotton production. Beginning in the late 1970s, no water from the Syrdarya reached the Aral Sea, and the Amudarya supplied only a minimal and ever-decreasing volume.


Levels of the Aral Sea, 1960-2000. (Source: Micklin and Williams, 1996)

Awareness of the potential degradation surrounding the Aral Sea draw-down was widespread, even in the 1950s and 1960s, a time when policy makers had a blind faith in the use of technological fixes to overcome obstacles in the paths of economic development. It was also a time when the Soviet government did not allow organized dissent. Articles about the risks of degradation appeared in Soviet journals, at least from the 1960s, and were translated into other languages. However, even the most ardent advocates of preserving the Aral underestimated the range, rate of change, and intensity of the degradation that subsequently transpired.

It is important to note that the decline in sea level is but one of many ecological changes taking place in the Aral Sea basin. Others include the impact of monocropping, declining water quality and adverse health effects, problems with potentially grave implications for local societies.

Monocropping - of cotton - has had adverse impacts on soil conditions, prompting increasing dependence on mechanization, pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. This is socio-economically risky - a regional economy based on a single crop is highly vulnerable to the variability of climate as well as to the whims of the market place.

A decline in water quality has caused destruction of fish populations in the Aral Sea. The sharp decline in fish landings, reported in 1977 by two Uzbek republic scientists, provided important evidence for decision makers to see that their inaction was producing adverse biological consequences. By the late 1970s, it was quite clear that a once-thriving fishing industry had become adversely affected by the increasing amounts of pollutants entering the Aral by way of the river. Today, no fish are caught commercially in the Sea; the sea ports of Muynak and Aralsk are now several tens of kilometres from the receding shoreline.

Health Costs: 20 Years of Life

The dependence on a cotton monoculture also had an ultimately devastating impact on human health. Documented regional effects have only recently become public: high infant mortality and morbidity rates, a sharp increase in oesophageal concerns directly attributable to "poisoned" water resources, gastro-intestinal problems, typhoid, high rates of congenital deformation, outbreaks of viral heptitis, and the contamination of mothers' milk. In some areas, the life expectancy is about 20 years less than elsewhere in the Commonwealth of Independent States. The adverse impacts of all-out cotton production on health have been compounded by the absolute dearth of medical and health facilities in the Aral basin. In addition, water treatment facilities are wholly inadequate (and in many areas non-existent), necessitating the domestic use of untreated surface waters from the rivers, irrigation canals, and drainage ditches.

The only way out for regional inhabitants, other than accepting the status quo, has been emigration. Few, however, have opted to leave their homeland. Thus, with few meaningful actions to improve the health of the people or the environment in the Aral basin, the total sum of misery can only increase, because the region boasts an extremely high population growth rate, ranging from 2.6 to 3.2 per cent. At such growth rates, a doubling of the present-day regional population (from over 30 million to in excess of 60 million) is expected in the early decades of the 21st century.

Each one of the adverse environmental changes we see in the Aral basin today - from wind erosion to the collapse of fisheries to the disappearance of pasturelands, and so forth - was mentioned in Soviet scientific literature at some point in the 1960s and 1970s. It would be very instructive for scientific and societal reasons to focus on identifying and analysing various thresholds for awareness of and responses to each of these creeping environmental changes. The findings of such research could be used to aid national and international decision makers to develop more effective coping mechanisms for existing creeping environmental problems as well as to avert the development of future ones - not only in the Aral basin but elsewhere on the globe.

The home of "Mother Volga" overflows

By Genady N. Golubev

The final home of the mighty Volga River - "Little Mother Volga" to the Russians - is the Caspian Sea, the largest inland lake in the world. Four out of ten Russians live along the Volga, Europe's longest river, which plays a principal role in the hydrological regime of the Caspian. The sea is a classic case of the importance of getting nature's signals right - and particularly looking at history's evidence. Scientists once feared its level was falling precipitously, mirroring the nearby ecological disaster of the Aral Sea. But today the water level of the Caspian is higher than ever; it is overflowing, causing considerable coastal damage. Remedies based on the earlier research would have only compounded the damage. Genady N. Golubev, of the Faculty of Geography, Moscow State University, takes a look at the problems of the Caspian Sea. - Editor

The Caspian Sea has always been a unique part of Nature, with a number of very special features. They include very large variations in its water level because of the natural oscillations of the components that make up the water balance. These variations have had a strong influence on most aspects of economic life.

The Caspian has immense oil and gas wealth, whose prospecting and extraction require effective environmental management. Thanks to its riches, the Sea has become an international water body of global significance. Many nations have a keen interest in the developments there.

The Caspian is about 400,000 square kilometres, extending 1,200 kilometres from north to south; its east-west width ranges from 170 to 450 kilometres. The total water volume is 80,000 cubic kilometres. The Sea's dimensions can vary considerably depending on the water level. Its main tributary is the Volga, the largest river in Europe, which plays the principal role in its hydrological regime. The Volga also brings in considerable pollutants, which influence the aquatic ecosystems, including the unique population of the few species of sturgeon.

The Volga River basin, situated almost entirely within the Russian Federation, contains about 40 per cent of Russia's population and is responsible for one-third of the nation's industrial and agricultural production. The river has long been viewed as "Mother Volga," the nation's main river. An integrated, sustainable environmental management of Caspian Sea is impossible without a proper programme of action for the Volga basin. Such a programme would extend international cooperation on the Caspian to very deep inside Russia to Moscow.

Because of its relatively small volume and depth, the northern Caspian is the most vulnerable hydrologically and, hence, ecologically and economically. The northern shores are flat, as is the Sea's bottom. The shoreline is very variable: it depends on both longer-term, climate-induced variations in water level and those caused by short-term local wind action. A typical situation is a rapid increase in sea level, usually during the cold part of the year, as a result of strong winds, mostly from a southern direction. In the most catastrophic cases the water level can increase by 3-4.5 metres, and, owing to the flat topography, the water can penetrate far inland. Strips from 30 to 50 kilometres wide can be inundated along several hundred kilometres of coastline.

The very existence of such an enormous lake in a basically arid climate is due mainly to river water inflow which totalled 298 cubic kilometres per year on average during the period 1900-85. About 80 per cent of this inflow comes from the Volga.

River inflow and precipitation are almost balanced by evaporation from the lake surface. The mean annual deficit in the water balance - amounting to 12 cubic kilometres - results in a mean annual drop in water level of 3.1 centimetres. The average water level for the period 1900-85 was 27.35 metres below sea level.

During the first three decades of the 20th century, the water balance of the Caspian was relatively stable, with water level oscillating around 26.2 metres below sea level. During the period 1930-77 there was then a deficit in water balance mainly due to a decrease in river runoff. The last two decades have seen a positive balance restored, with the water level increasing from its 1977 low point some 29 metres below sea level.

The prolonged drop in the level of the Caspian over nearly five decades caused a panic that reached its height in the 1970s. A number of long-term water-level projections were published, using different approaches to forecasting. Researchers were under the impression that water withdrawals in the Caspian basin, mainly for irrigation or to fill large, newly constructed water reservoirs, caused the drop in water level. In fact, natural variations explain about 90 per cent of the change. Without human interference, the water level might have been about 1.5 m higher than it is now.

Analyses based on inflow and evaporation were not successful because their behaviour was close to that of "white noise." Attempts were also made to develop an index of solar radiation, but they proved to be very contradictory. Forecasts based on the indices of atmospheric circulation provided unstable results. The only seemingly reasonable basis for projections was the forecast of water withdrawals and this approach led to the conclusion that the Caspian water level would keep falling.

This view was strongly reinforced by the similar sharp drop in the level of the Aral Sea just a few hundred kilometres to the east of the Caspian. In this atmosphere, very drastic and very costly measures were considered to maintain the Caspian water level, among them projects to bring large amounts of water from the North to the South of the country. If this had been done, it is now clear, it would have had many unforeseen and costly consequences.

In the 1980s, the situation has changed completely. The Caspian water level continued to rise, despite forecasts to the contrary. This was a collective miscalculation by many very good water experts. And as the water level continues to rise, problems of inundation and destruction are increasing.

Water level variations can cause particular uncertainty in economic activity. It thus becomes important to determine what might be the expected mean water level as well as its upper and lower extremes.

History provides useful insights. During the period of instrumental observations - from 1837 on - the water level varied within 25 to 29 metres below sea level, averaging at minus 27 m.

If we go farther back, we can calculate that during all of historic time - from the 6th century to the present - the water level averaged at the same 27 m below sea level. On an even longer scale - the whole of the Holocene, or recent era - 10-11 thousand years - the mean water level was still only minus 25 m.

We have also recently come to the conclusion that the state of Caspian Sea is determined also by climatic fluctuations. After large fluctuations, a few hundred years are needed for the level to come back to an average level of minus 26 m. Sharp variations in water level is a characteristic feature of the Caspian regime. These are simply an important negative reality in the economic life of the region, which must be built into development strategies.

During the years 1930-1977, planners attempted to accommodate what they assumed to be a new low water level. Roads, ports, oil installations, and so on were built on that assumption. Now, with a two metre rise in the water level, economic damage for each of the five Caspian countries has been enormous. Many houses, apartment buildings, hotels, roads, etc. constructed in 1930s-1970s relatively close to the shore are in danger or are being destroyed already.

History's plagued seas: The Mediterranean

By François Doumenge

In his magisterial work on the Mediterranean world in the age of Philip II, Fernand Braudel introduces that body of water as a "complex of seas." Over and again, he demonstrates the intricate interplay of forces that have shaped the ecology of the Mediterranean World and still influence it today. The great Biblical flood of Noah, this article shows, may have left the sea in a state of imbalance that affects the catch modern-day Mediterranean fishermen.

Dr. Doumenge has impressive credentials for his long-term historical look at the Mediterranean environment. He is the successor to Jacques Cousteau as Director of the Oceanographic Institute in Monaco and as Secretary General of the International Commission for the Scientific Exploration of the Mediterranean Sea (CIESM). Founded by Prince Albert I in 1914, CIESM is one of the oldest international scientific bodies. During more than eight decades, through two world wars, CIESM has engaged in all aspects of marine research - from marine geology to fisheries and chemical pollution. The following article is excerpted from Dr. Doumenge's UN University lecture "The Mediterranean Crises," which is presented in Environmental Change and the Mediterranean, published in 1997. - Editor

I want to talk about the Mediterranean crises - geophysical, geological and biological - that occurred at different time scales: million of years ago, thousands of years, and in the 20th century.

To start, we must look at a time when the Mediterranean Sea was dry and life disappeared - some five million years ago (Figure 1) during the Messinian period. At that time, the Strait of Gibraltar became blocked and, over a period of 100,000-200,000 years, the water had evaporated quite completely. Prior to that, for about a million years, the opening of the Mediterranean had been sometimes from the east and sometimes from the west - there was a balance.


Figure 1. Distribution of upper Miocene evaporites in the Mediterranean region.*

* For sources, see Environmental Change and the Mediterranean (UNU Lectures 16, 17), 1997.

The dry Mediterranean basin was like the Sahara, but with basic level 3,000 metres below sea level. On the bottom of the basin, there are giant rock salt deposits with a total volume of 1 to 1.5 million cubic kilometres. The thickness of these strata is between 800 m in the Baleares basin (in the western Mediterranean) to 1,800 m in the Levantine basin (in the east); sometimes they are as deep as 2,000-2,500 m. These deposits might be seen as the most important reserve of oil and gas of all the world - but under 3,000 m of water!

During this period, the Mediterranean was functioning exactly like the present Sahara system, with large central salty chotts, sebkhas, and wadi - or depressions - running from the mountains at the peripheries. Subsequently, with the opening of the Strait of Gibraltar, the basin was filled again - but first by the Atlantic and only later by the Red Sea. It was thus repopulated first by cold water species, key to an understanding of its modem ecology. From 5 million years ago, the Mediterranean has been a tropical area settled by species of cold-water origin. This is the paradox explaining the fragility and the incapacity of the present Mediterranean to have a stable population.

Second Crisis -18,000 Years Ago

A second, more recent, major crisis occurred about 18,000 years ago - at the end of the last European or Wurm ice age. At that time, the general level of the Mediterranean was about 120 metres less than the present as were seas the world over, which were locked up in ice. The northern and central Adriatic Sea emerged, the Black Sea was still a quite small freshwater lake, and there was a smaller passage at the Strait of Gibraltar, with only about 30 per cent of its present capacity. The water exchange from the incoming Atlantic was reduced, as was the evaporation.

Looking at average temperatures in winter and summer [February (Figure 2A) and August (Figure 2B)], it is very important to note that at that era there was not one Mediterranean Sea, but three. On the east, in the Levantine basin, the temperature range in winter was from 15°C-21°C, and between 21°C-25°C in summer; it remained tropical, and warmer species were able to survive in that small area. There was a "tongue" of cool, desalinated water running out from the Black Sea and extending as far as the coast of Libya; this acted as a thermic wall, cutting off the Levantine from the Central basin.

The Central basin was more or less like the present-day Mediterranean - temperatures in the winter up to 11 °C and in the summer between 19°C and 24°C. The Western basin, however, was like the North Sea or the Sea of Norway - temperatures from 5°C-9°C during winter and 12°C-16°C in the summer. There were subarctic fauna - whales, penguins and seals. This explains why even today there remains in the Western basin a huge population of more than 3,000 blue whales.

The Sapropel: All Life Extinguished

The next Mediterranean crisis was 8,000 years ago - when what we call a "sapropel" phenomenon occurred. This is a general mortality of all marine organisms brought on by changing hydrological conditions, which can happen in the very short time of 50-60 years. This one happened around 6,000 BC, or just at the passage of Egyptian civilization from pastoralism to the Pharaoh state. This was also an historical time associated with the story of the deluge, the Biblical account of Noah's flood.


Figure 2. Sea-surface temperatures in the Mediterranean during the peak of the last glacial period (approximately 18,000 years ago).* Littoral emerged shelf: Winter situation (February)


Figure 2. Sea-surface temperatures in the Mediterranean during the peak of the last glacial period (approximately 18,000 years ago).* Littoral emerged shelf: Summer situation (August)

* For sources, see Environmental Change and the Mediterranean (UNU Lectures 16, 17), 1997.

It appears that heavy rain which caused the deluge, falling in the Middle East and extending down to the lake basins of the East African Rift Valley, enormously increased the water level of the Nile. Its capacity became something like the present-day Amazon. Due to this gigantic increased runoff, the Eastern part of the Mediterranean became covered, in a short period of 40 to 60 years, with a superficial freshwater layer. This, in turn, caused a stratification phenomenon: freshwater at the surface cut the communication between atmosphere and sea water - and all marine life under the freshwater layer died from lack of oxygen. A sapropel formation - some 20 cm of black organic matter at the bottom of the Mediterranean - was discovered in 1952. It caused quite a surprise - but after study by thousands of drillings, it was confirmed that in a very short time all life in the sea had indeed died.

A similar crisis occurred in the Black Sea more recently. Until about 7,450 years ago (plus or minus 130 years), the Black Sea remained a freshwater lake. It started to change, however, as the sea level rose and the Mediterranean entered the Black Sea basin. The deposition of aragonites indicates general aquatic mortality over approximately 5,000 years. The layer also correlates with some very straight data: like the explosion of Santorin Island, and a subsequent lethal deposit of volcanic ash in the Mediterranean.

Need for Many Disciplines

These crises in the Mediterranean are important to understand, because they help with an explanation of what could happen if we have climate changes. The data show that hydrology, sedimentolgy and biology interact together. It clearly demonstrates that without a multidisciplinary approach, you cannot understand the Mediterranean basin.

We have had ample demonstration from recent history that the sapropel is not just a theory. After the Gulf War in 1991, we had a pre-sapropel situation which came very close to a major disaster. Smoke clouds from the burning oil wells in Kuwait covered the Arabian Peninsula, the Persian Gulf, and reached East Africa. They created a weather situation - excessive cold and monsoon-like rains - which could have replicated the conditions that brought on Noah's flood and again threatened all marine life in the eastern Mediterranean. Fortunately, the international community was able to extinguish the fires in time. As it was, the winter of 1991-92 saw more snow and freezing weather than usual in the Middle East.

De Lesseps Lives

Let us now turn to a Mediterranean crisis from the present century, which indicates what a small rise in sea level can mean. As I noted, the Mediterranean is a warm sea populated by cold species. The present level of the Red Sea is about 1.2 m higher than the Mediterranean, and pressure pushes water northward. The Nile used to act as a freshwater barrier at the entrance of the Suez Canal. But the Aswan Dam has cut the river's freshwater flow to less than 10 per cent of the previous level. As a result, the Suez Canal is an open gate for Red Sea water to run into the Mediterranean.

This transfer phenomenon was named Lessepsian migration, after the famous constructor of the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps. Fisherman on the Israeli coast in recent years have reported catching more Red Sea species than they do Mediterranean. Every year, five to ten new species from the Red Sea, and even the Indian Ocean, are discovered in the Mediterranean. Ironically, the Mediterranean may be returning to the pre-Messinian situation of millions of years ago, when the marine life was in balance. It is a test of the fragility and capacity for change of these ancient waters. Mankind has shown that it can change the environment and create crisis conditions in a very short period of time as compared with the geological timescale.

Climate, history and water

By Arie S. Issar

Could global warming have helped the Saracen armies take Jerusalem in 638 AD? This was one of the provocative thoughts advanced by Arie S. Issar, a water resources specialist, at the first lecture to be given at the UNU's new Global Environment Information Centre in November 1996. The whole issue of climate change is an integral part of the world's future water problems - with scenarios predicting lessened rainfall in parts of the world, increases elsewhere.

The environmental scientist can bring a new dimension to history. Employing the scientific tool of isotopic deterioration, in water science research for UNESCO, Professor Issar looked at past warming and cooling periods around the Sea of Galilee (Lake Tiberius). Heavier isotope composition in rock core carbonates, signalling the onset of warmer, drier temperatures, was found to date to the years just before the eastern Byzantine empire declined as Arab armies swept into the Middle East, in the 7th century AD. Archaeological records indicate declining Byzantine settlements at the same time - suggesting that the onset of desertification may have helped the Muslim conquerors in their Palestinian campaign.

This blend of chemistry, archaeology and history can provide valuable insights into the potential impact on society of climate change. When applied to China, for example, it indicates periods of warm and humid weather which opened up more land there to agriculture. This leads to the intriguing notion that global warming might, on balance, have a positive effect on China's capacity to grow food. In the Middle East, however, the greenhouse effect would likely cause a further drying up of already severe water shortages. Professor Issar is with the Water Resources Center at Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Israel. The following article is based on his lecture "Climate Changes: Is It a Positive or Negative Process?" which is presented in Environmental Change and the Mediterranean (UN University Lectures 16,17), published in 1997. - Editor

During the research carried out for UNESCO, I adopted the principle of "the past is a key for understanding the future." I used data related to changes in the natural as well as socio-economic environment during the past 10,000 years.

Our research involved interpretation of isotopic deterioration -which is used to determine radiometric ages and conditions of formation. The data were taken from lacustrine carbonates in a core sample taken from the Sea of Galilee, along with stalagmite samples taken from caves in the Galilee of northern Israel. We further looked at archaeological data from a detailed study of Negev desert. Studies on the palaeo-levels of the Dead Sea and Mediterranean Sea were also incorporated.

Most importantly, we found that the information from the scientific analysis - both from the Sea of Galilee and the caved stalagmites - correlated with archaeological data derived from a detailed study of an area of 100 square kilometres in the plain of Beer-Sheva and Arad. The major conclusion is that climatic changes were the primary factors deciding the desertification of the semi-arid part of Israel (and not, as some historians have thought, the ravages of invading armies over the centuries.)

The Fall of Judaea

Around 700 BC, in the early Iron Age, the isotope composition becomes heavier. This may signal a new aridization phase, but cannot be correlated with the number of settlements. The decline in settlement only becomes obvious somewhere around 500 BC. At that time in history, the first kingdom of Judaea terminated, followed by a partial abandonment of the Negev. It is not clear whether this was due to the onslaught of conquering armies from Mesopotamia or to aridization.

Throughout the centuries of Byzantine rule in this part of the world, the isotopic readings suggest a cooler, more temperate climate. But then around 600 AD, our samples again record the isotopic composition becoming heavier - suggesting another period of desertification at about the time the Muslim forces began their conquests (Jerusalem fell to Islamic armies in 638 AD).

The Little Ice Age

From the isotope curves of the Sea of Galilee, another depletion can be discerned between about 1300 AD and 1500 AD, indicating another cooler, wetter period. This could correspond with the time of the Crusaders as well as to the later Little Ice Age, a period of colder weather from the 14th-17th centuries which brought shorter growing seasons in Europe and wreaked agricultural havoc. There is a problem in dating, however, for such short periods. These changes were not reflected in the resettlement of the Negev.

The Middle East and East Asia are linked climatically by the global weather systems that create monsoons. Warm and moist oceanic air masses are carried eastward to become the monsoons so essential to agriculture in that part of the world. Today, south-eastern summer monsoons dominate most of China.

Chinese Weather and History

We see similar correlations between climate changes and historical events in China to those we witness in the Middle East. In particular, weather in China appears to be connected to migrations within China. Chinese scientists have also attempted to link historical data, information from literature on Chinese lake evolution, the history of agro-cities in the Chinese deserts, and flood reports of the Yellow River.

The main migratory events in China coincided with social and political unrest, as well as invasions from the north by the Mongols. And five such migrations were linked with periods of severe climatic change, bringing cold weather.

The first period of migration observed was about 1000 BC, as nomads from the north-west moved eastwards, overthrew the Shang rule, and established the Zhou (Chou) dynasty. This migration could have been set in motion by the advance of glaciers and the snow lines to lower altitudes in the mountains of Tibet. Lakes in western and northern China became more saline and sand dunes appeared.

During cold and dry periods, the agro-husbandry boundary shifted southward.

In 300-500 AD, the boundary was two to four hundred kilometres south of the former border. These were the centuries following a northern invasion by the Huns, when China was divided between northern and southern dynasties. This was followed by warmer and more humid periods, as the Chinese kingdom was reunited and prospered.

Wet in China, Dry in Levant

When we correlate the data from the two regions, it can be seen that the cold, dry periods in eastern Asia correspond with the cold, wet periods in the Mediterranean. The reverse is true: warm and wet in China was warm and dry in the Middle East. When it began to get colder in China, around 1000 BC, it was beginning to get warm and dry out in the Middle East. Later, the dry and warm Muslim period in the Levant was warm and humid in China.

These observations and conclusions are in agreement with other results obtained by global climate simulation runs -indicating that the heaviest monsoons occur during interglacial conditions. Yet there is a price that the people of eastern Asia have to pay for the "good" monsoon years - the loss of life and damage caused by floods.

The main conclusion from this research - as it concerns the Middle East - is that the predicted global warming will cause the further drying up of the region. This would aggravate, most probably, the already severe problems of water supply - and could endanger the flimsy socio-economic balance in the region. To reverse the existing foreboding scenarios in the Middle East, scientists and engineers have to advance new and non-conventional methods for developing and managing water resources.

Ironically, the same greenhouse effect could be positive for China's agriculture. It seems that the climate change may have a positive impact especially on countries with monsoonal climates. But precautions must be taken in time to reduce the damage inflicted by floods and use the water in a positive way. The majority of the agricultural population of the world lives in these countries - thus, if the surplus of water is turned into a beneficial resource, the greenhouse effect may have its positive effects. What is truly needed, finally, is to stimulate non-conventional interdisciplinary innovations in all that relates to the development, management and methods of the use of water regarding the possible impacts of climate changes.

Water: The 21st century's oil?

By Mikiyasu Nakayama

Heightened competition for water poses a major threat to human security the world over- it could well prove to be the major source of conflict in the 21st century, not unlike oil in our present era.

As various articles in this issue of Work in Progress make clear, water conflicts have arisen in a wide range of geopolitical conditions - from the Danube to the Caspian Sea to the teeming Ganges-Brahmaputra plain. Environmental degradation, population growth, and inequitable access all feed these discords. They pose severe strains on the mediation capabilities of the United Nations family - a group which, on the record, has not proven terribly effective to date in settling international water disputes. UN successes here, it must be acknowledged, have been limited.

As the world population continues to expand, and consumption levels spiral upwards, water problems are bound to intensify. Water could be the oil of the 21st century - a resource vital to all life, that is in increasingly scarce supply. Each year, underground aquifers are depleted further - a clear case of robbing the future to pay for the present, eating the seed corn. There is little doubt struggles over water will continue to confront the United Nations and its various responsible agencies. The challenge is to learn more about international mediation efforts -both successes and failures. This is an effort discussed by Mikiyasu Nakayama in the following article. Professor Nakayama, who is on the Faculty of Agriculture of Agriculture of Utsunomiya University in Japan, has been intimately involved in United Nations research on water resources, and has visited a number of the potential water trouble spots in the world - from the Aral Sea to Lake Chad to the Zambezi River. - Editor

More than 200 rivers flow through two or more countries. Many lake basins and groundwater aquifers spill across (or under) national boundaries. Some 60 per cent of the world's population live in the watersheds of these international freshwater systems. There is no enforceable law governing the allocation and use of these international waters. Still, this is an arena that virtually demands United Nations attention.

Providing people with adequate supplies of freshwater is becoming a major problem in many regions of the world owing to concerns like growing population, urbanization and environmental degradation. More rational use of shared resources in international freshwater systems is obviously highly desirable. However, the potential for regional tensions and conflicts over shared freshwater resources is likely to escalate substantially, particularly in arid and semi-arid regions where water is already a constraint to economic growth.

Many concerned observers have been worried about tensions and conflicts among basin countries and international freshwater systems - particularly in a region like the water-short Middle East. The former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali expressed his fear, on several occasions, that war could come to that region as a result of water disputes. In his own native Egypt, it has been axiomatic policy that it would go to war should any country attempt to disrupt the flow of the Nile.

In the early 1990s, Turkey turned down Syria's request for more water from the Euphrates - a river that watered humankind's earliest agricultural efforts. The then Turkish Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel remarked: "We do not say we should share their oil resources. They cannot say they should share our water resources"* It was not surprising, therefore, when Wally N'Dow, Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements held in 1996 in Istanbul, commented: "I suspect that in the next 50 years, we will see a shift from oil to water as the cause of great conflicts between nations and peoples."

* Reported in Sandra Postel, "Dividing the Waters," Worldwatch Paper 132, September 1996.

The freshwater resources and related environments of the world are under enormous stress. The global community is badly in need of modalities to deal with international water bodies in a much better way, both in terms of water quantity and quality. Attaining such goals can be difficult in international water bodies; it requires a degree of cooperation among riparian countries, which is not usually forthcoming. As a result, many countries are unable to utilize more fully their shared water resources due to unresolved riparian conflicts.

The present work of the UNU in promoting academic debate on better ways of managing international freshwaters continues a long-term tradition of concern within the UN system over equitable distribution of waters. On a number of occasions, the world body has been asked to help mitigate water conflicts arising between countries that share river borders.

Although no enforceable law governs the allocation and use of international waters, a code of conduct and legal framework for shared watercourses has steadily been involving. The Mar del Plata Action Plan has served as a guiding policy document for two decades now; it was adopted at a UN Water Conference in that Argentine coastal city in 1977. There was also fresh focus on freshwater issues at the International Conference on Water and the Environment organized by the World Meteorological Organization in Dublin, Ireland, in 1992, and, the same year, at the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro.

The United Nations has helped to create a global legislative framework on use of freshwater resources. Some three decades ago, a 1970 General Assembly resolution asked that laws applicable to non-navigable uses of international waterways be clarified. This led to the creation, by the United Nations International Law Commission (ILC), of a set of "Rules on the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses." These were adopted by the General Assembly in 1997. These are intended to provide general principles that can be applied to specific river basins. The rules give clear priority to the principle of "equitable and reasonable use." The convention calls on countries that share freshwater resources to refrain from actions that might cause harm to other societies.

In the scientific arena, UNESCO's International Hydrological Decade (IHD) has helped to improve knowledge about the world's major river systems. Research accumulated since the start of UNESCO's water programmes in 1965 have helped develop more rational management schemes in many international freshwater systems. Water researchers have also been able to draw on the Global Runoff Data Center maintained by the World Meteorological Organization. The quality of freshwater systems has also been evaluated jointly by UNEP and WHO.

Despite the time and efforts of the UN system, however, international organizations have had rather limited success to date in mediating freshwater conflicts. The UN mechanisms have proved to be inadequate in dealing with the sorts of tensions that arise over water conflicts. The notion of "equitable and reasonable use," however praiseworthy, can be vague and open to widely differing interpretations.

In only a few exceptional cases, the record shows, has the international community been able in recent years to foster collaborative agreements. In Africa, for example, UNEP has been successful in formulating the Zambezi Action Plan which was adopted by the riparian countries of the Zambezi river basin in 1987. In Asia, UNDP played a mediatory role in the adoption of a new cooperation framework for the Mekong river basin. And, since 1997, the International Court of Justice has been dealing with the dispute between Hungary and Slovakia of the Gabcíkovo-Nagymaros Project on the Danube (see pages 8-9 for further discussion).

Past history shows equally limited United Nations accomplishments with international water conflicts, though there have been some notable accomplishments. The World Bank, for example, played a key intermediary role in resolving the 12-year dispute between India and Pakistan over the Indus River that erupted in 1947 with the partitioning of the subcontinent. The 1960 Indus Water Treaty, in which the two countries agreed to share the resources of that border river, is widely regarded as a World Bank "success story."

One might count another past success in the Mekong Committee, established in 1957 by the UN's Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East to promote economic growth of the Mekong basin countries. Though the large scale dams originally envisioned have not yet been built (due in large pan, certainly, to years of warfare in the region), the United Nations initiative there has been useful in promoting collaboration among basin countries.

It seems inevitable that more conflicts over freshwater will emerge in the future, and thus the United Nations role in this arena is bound to take on greater importance. It is highly desirable that research be continued on ways to promote more integrated management of freshwater resources. The author has been involved in several case studies that may have helped identify some prerequisites. I have examined instances where international organizations have either succeeded or failed. These have included the Aral and Caspian Seas, Lake Chad, and the Danube, Ganges, Indus, Mekong, Nile, Orange and Zambezi Rivers.

The political and geographical settings of these cases are quite diversified. But there are some common denominators present when mediation has been effective. Creating institutions and procedures that allow for joint, integrated management of water that crosses political boundaries is critical. Other important components include: willingness of the parties to cooperate; the involvement of high-level decision makers; and the assured neutrality of a third party with financial assistance capacity. Detailed analysis of the research findings are expected to be published by the UNU Press next year, in a volume tentatively titled "International Organizations in International Waters."

A chemical eye on water

By Glen Paoletto

When the local fish catch falls off, it can be due to too much pollution in the water, too many new homes built nearby, or too much fishing - any one or all three combined. The result is the same: a lessened food supply. The UNU is attempting to build more interlinked information about this sort of damage to aquatic resources - to aid in fashioning more efficient and rational international water management.

The UNU work employs chemical monitoring techniques - a sophisticated scientific tool that provides information about water pollutants with intimate relevance to human health and welfare. The relevancy of such information is greatly enhanced when it becomes part of the computer data banks of the UNU's Global Environment Information Centre (GEIC), a facility at Tokyo Headquarters jointly sponsored by the Environment Agency of Japan. The GEIC promotes worldwide cooperation and understanding on environmental sustainability. In the following article, Glen Paoletto, an environmental specialist in charge of developing the GEIC, discusses some of the work of water monitoring. - Editor

Chemical monitoring might seem an esoteric technique, but it is actually a very practical development tool. It can help provide key information needed to make the right strategic decision about aquatic ecosystems. The target geographical area is the East Asia region, where the environment, both coastal lands and water, is suffering as a result of various development efforts. The UNU work has the objective of monitoring chemical and toxic pollutants in these waters.

UNU has two environmental monitoring studies in East Asia. The first is concerned with land-based sources of pollution in water, which are to blame for over 80% of global marine pollution. The research on land-based sources is tied to international accords that concern onshore polluting activities. The main one is the 1995 Washington Programme of Action on Land-Based Sources of Pollution.

The second project, the Asia-Pacific Mussel Watch, monitors coastal waters in the same region. Implemented jointly with UNESCO-IOC, the mussel watch involves many governmental laboratories in the region. Mussels purify the water, and hold toxic substances in their bodies. They are taken from coastal waters and analysed as indicators of pollution.

Between the two projects, a regional environmental scenario is being developed. Options are being fashioned as to what actions should be taken - by whom, when and where - to best suit sustainable development projects. International accords often miss vital interlinkages. The simplest ecosystem can involve a maze of interconnections and feedbacks. What may appear to be separate environmental problems can, in fact, be linked - both by cause and consequence.

For example, the fish catch may plummet in bays and estuaries due to various factors - pollution, habitat destruction, or overfishing. More often than not, it is due to a combination of factors. One set of laws, or one agency, can govern release of chemical pollutants; another, new building which destroys marine habitats; a third, the licensing of new fishing. International law, while an important tool, tends to treat each environmental issue separately. And individual countries discuss environmental issues generally only after they have reached an agreed-upon agenda.

This is changing, however, in a significant shift to what is called "environmental governance," involving a variety of actors. Today, corporations, NGOs, community groups and others are involved in the implementation and governance of both national and international obligations. New global scenarios are emerging. They owe a lot to the new information technologies that can help give emerging actors powerful new voices.

Within this new sort of paradigm, we can see several requirements arising. These include the need for:

· a closer examination of the link between national and international law and agreements;
· an assessment of how NGOs can participate;
· examination and refinement government administrations;
· increased transparency; and
· innovative ways in which information flows can be incorporated in the process.

Quality Regional Data

In drafting new legislation, lawyers and officials often forget about the essential need for basic environmental data of high quality. The UNU monitoring projects work on the basis that we need benchmarks on which to base research, and by which to judge results. Governments at international meetings, for example, have consistently noted the need for standardization of chemical analyses and other monitoring methodologies at a regional level. Such standardization, however, has proved very difficult to implement.

Successful bilateral chemical monitoring projects are relatively common, but successful multilateral monitoring efforts are extremely rare. They are difficult and expensive to implement; the participating scientists need training, equipment and support; the quality of data is often not good; and extensive cooperation of governments and laboratories is required. Multilateral monitoring programmes can run into political problems; the data obtained, for example, may be contrary to the interests of efforts to promote export-driven economies.

Reliable regional data in East Asia is either non-existent, or difficult to access. In order to develop regional data in the region, we need to transfer technologies and knowledge through training, and then request data to be generated. If data is calibrated and assured of its quality, researchers and others can effectively evaluate environments. Through policy research, the data can be translated into information valuable for governments and non-government sectors.

UNU Approach

The UNU bases its monitoring on the fact that countries have already agreed to multilateral monitoring. Its current monitoring projects extend to China, Indonesia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, and Viet Nam.

The UNU promotes regional monitoring in a number of different ways. Strong support is given to participating scientists. A "bottom-up" approach is employed, emphasizing participation of the scientists. The advantages of "privatization" are stressed; scientists need to be given more freedom to take responsibility, receive benefits, and make suggestions. Various incentives are offered to participating scientists - from training in state-of-the-art techniques to strong networking facilities.


Project participants at a UNU training workshop. Photo 1.


Project participants at a UNU training workshop. Photo 2.

There is an overall emphasis on "training the trainers," thus continually expanding the base of expertise back in the home countries. In March 1998, a "training the trainers" workshop was held in Thailand. Techniques covered can be incorporated in already existing national monitoring programmes.

Monitoring PCBs

Among the pollutants the UNU is monitoring in East Asia are polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs); these chemical compounds, once widely used in electricity transformers, have been shown to be a human health hazard, and have been internationally banned since 1985. Because they are expensive to dispose of, requiring specialized equipment to do it properly, dumping them as waste at sea becomes attractive. Thailand, Malaysia and China at the moment face the problem of disposing of PCBs as they replace old transformers.

There are reports that PCBs are still being produced in one of the countries of the region. More information is needed to better assess their impact on the aquatic environment, and the options that may be available as a risk assessment exercise. As a preliminary result from UNU research, we have learned that, despite the 1985 ban on their production, PCBs seem to be increasing in marine waters. This indicates how lasting some destructive environmental actions can be.

Rice Pesticides

Other UNU research is already yielding valuable insights about rice pesticides, thought to be a major environmental hazard. But our studies suggest that these may no longer be a major problem in East Asia, provided appropriate policies are followed. Indonesia, for example, banned 57 insecticides and promoted Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices. Rice yields subsequently rose by 15% between 1987-91, as pesticide use dropped 65%, saving US$120 million annually.

Ironically, development and wealth may work to increase the use of pesticides. Farmers tend to listen to salesmen more than other sources of information when choosing and applying pesticides. There is a clear conflict of interest: chemical corporations do not want pesticides reduced; governments and NGOs need to be more alerted to the issue. Educational problems are also involved. Farmers in developing countries are often unable to read labels, and unable to afford protective equipment.

Drinking Water

Our research indicates that drinking water in the East Asian region suffers from older technologies being used in water treatment plants. This is not true in all countries - in Malaysia, for example, the drinking water is considered to be clean at the source. In Thailand, however, the water infrastructure (in particular, old pipes) causes the intrusion of small traces of toxic chemicals in the water supply for major localities. In Viet Nam, industry discharges into rivers remain a major concern; here, the issue of transferring appropriate technologies comes into focus. Water treatment is also an issue in China. Even in a thoroughly modern society like Japan's, drinking water is polluted as a result being mixed with urban run-off; it remains an urban planning issue there.

Data from the UNU efforts will eventually be placed in the UNU database. Those interested can check at www.geic.or.jp.

When oil troubles waters

By Yoko Kobayashi

On the homepage of the new Global Environment Information Centre (GEIC), you can find ecological data from the far-flung reaches of the seven seas. As its name suggests, its interests are global. But a few months after the GEIC was established in late 1996, as a joint effort of the UNU and the Environment Agency of Japan, its expertise got a sort of "shakedown cruise" very close to home. In January 1997, in the icy waters of the Sea of Japan, an aging Russian tanker had split open, spilling a large part of its 120 thousand barrels of low-grade fuel oil into currents swirling towards Japan's eastern coastline. Severe damage was caused to the local marine ecosystems.

Many forces sprang into action: fishermen, local towns, Japan's Self-Defense Forces, national agencies, corporations. Great numbers of volunteers, spurred by media images of bedraggled, oil-fouled seabirds, rushed to the scene. Responsibilities were not clear. There were questions about collection methods. Over a quarter-million volunteer man-days were involved in the ensuing clean-up efforts, with five volunteers dying in the frigid work in icy waters.

The GEIC set about monitoring the many actors involved in the unfolding scenario. A great deal was learned about natural disaster management, a major area of the Centre's concern. It gave particular attention to the manner in which information about the disaster was disseminated and used. And, as Yoko Kobayashi points out in her account of the oil spill disaster and its aftermath, GEIC pointers for better disaster management were most helpful a few months later when, right at the UNU's doorstep, another tanker spilled crude oil into Tokyo Bay. Ms. Kobayashi is a member of the staff of the GEIC. - Editor

At 02.51 hours on 2 January 1997, the 8th Maritime Safety Headquarters of the Japanese Maritime Safety Agency was informed that the Russian-registered tanker Nakhodka (built in 1970, 19,684 dead weight tons, with a crew of 32) had broken up off the Oki Islands in the Sea of Japan and was leaking its cargo of grade C oil, a low-quality fuel oil. The tanker was carrying about 120,000 barrels of oil; nearly 40,000 barrels (6,000 kilolitres) of which leaked into the sea. The ensuing damage to coastal maritime life was one of the worst marine pollution disasters in the country's history.

The oil from the Nakhodka and its bow section drifted in a northwesterly direction due to seasonally strong winds. On 7 January, the bow grounded on rocks about 350 metres from the coast of Mikuni in Fukui Prefecture. The oil reached the coast of Ishikawa Prefecture on 8 January. It eventually polluted the coastlines of nine prefectures, causing severe damage to the marine ecosystem.

On 6 January, the government held the first meeting of a liaison council of ministries and agencies set up to deal with the Nakhodka spill. Two days later it established a Head Office for Countermeasures. The Headquarters announced several steps, including secondment of additional Self-Defense Forces (the Japanese armed forces) to the polluted area, with instructions on how to dispose of the oil collected, along with guidelines for health control.

The Maritime Safety Agency, the Self-Defense Forces, local municipalities, fishery cooperatives, other concerned authorities, residents in the polluted areas, and corporations and volunteers from all over Japan participated in the ensuing clean-up work.


Volunteers help cleaning the beaches after the Nakhodka oil spill in the Sea of Japan. (Hekurajima, Wajima City, 24 February 1998) (Photo: The Hokkoku Shimbun)

Oil "fences" were placed on the sea by the Maritime Safety Agency to prevent the oil from reaching the coast - but they were not effective due to bad weather and a shortage of stock. The safety agency, along with local fishermen and the SDF troops, cooperated in cleaning oil slicks from the water surface.

Volunteers Rush to Scene

In all, volunteers put in a total of 260,000 man-days on the disaster work. News of the manual clean up efforts were reported by newspapers and TV. Volunteer centres were set up in the polluted beach areas. They were flooded with inquiries from many people across the country. Free air and bus tickets to the polluted prefectures were provided. One main information source for. would-be volunteers was the Internet homepage set up by volunteer centres. The Internet, however, had not yet then spread widely in Japan, so that several citizen groups in Tokyo ran an information service by facsimile.

Many citizen groups and other volunteers participated in the rescue of birds coated with oil as well as in research on the impact of the oil spill on wild birds. NGOs undertook surveys and rescued some 1,300 oiled sea birds, including some rare species. The birds were cleaned and sent for release in the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. The total amount of volunteer work on this effort alone came to 800 man-days.

The disaster affected a wide range of economic and social activities. The damage caused by the oil spill included not only the costs of clean-up, but also the havoc wreaked on local fishing - in the pollution of fishing zones, suspension of fishing activities, and damage to marine resources. Another cost was the decrease in tourism to the affected areas.

Thanks to the combined efforts of residents, fishermen, volunteers and the Self-Defense Forces, most of the fuel oil was removed from the coastline. And it was an immense effort. In all about 56,000 kilolitres of combined oil, seawater and sand was collected - more than nine times as much oil as actually went into the sea. It is estimated that it will be some years before the ecosystem is fully restored. According to Japanese and US chemistry experts who surveyed the polluted areas, the decomposition of oil by sunlight and waves could take one to two years.

GEIC Studies Problems

The relatively young GEIC (then three months old) undertook a study of the oil spill. It had the cooperation of various nongovernmental organizations who had been involved in the clean up operations. Its goal was to try to see what had happened, and to try to see what might be needed in future disasters to improve management.

A number of failings in the management of the disaster came to light:

· There appears to be a strong possibility that the tanker Nakhodka broke up due to old age. The safety standards of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) specify that tankers older than 25 years and 30,000 deadweight tons or larger must have double hulls. Although the Nakhodka was actually 27 years old, its tonnage (19,684 DWT) exempted it from the regulation. The section which broke apart had been repaired in Singapore four years earlier.

· The spilled oil drifted for six days before it reached the coast. Because of extremely cold seas, the oil should have solidified, making the clean up easier. It didn't solidify because, unknown to those working in the clean-up effort, an antifreezing mixture had been added when the cargo was loaded. This showed the lack of quick response efforts. There was no system in place to have checked this, and made the information available to the clean up effort. And there was no system to monitor drifting oil.

· When the spilled oil was collected, it was mixed with a great deal of sand. Some chemistry experts said this was far too much; but there were no guidelines on how much fuel oil should be collected and how much could safely be left to decompose naturally. Other information on clean-up measures was lacking - as was basic data on coastal ecosystems.

· Tragically, five volunteers died during the clean-up process. Better health control guidelines for volunteers were needed - on, for example, maximum working hours in such cold weather. Better leadership in the management of the clean-up operations was clearly called for.

· There were also problems on distribution of information. A wide range of actors - government, local fisherman, volunteers, etc. -responded to the disaster. The news of the manual clean-up work was widely reported by newspapers and TV. But the media, for example, focused on problems on the Mikuni coastline - to where volunteers rushed; other sites also required attention. There were erroneous reports; crabs and offshore fish were not affected by the spill, but rumours that these marine products were polluted circulated among the public. Press reports also left the impression that the entire Sea of Japan was polluted.

In general, the activities of the volunteers were very effective. They could have been improved, however, by better information about which skills were needed where. Better chains of command were needed to improve management of the volunteers.

Based on the GEIC study, a proposal was made for better management of environmental disasters. For a quicker response to disaster, a new system is needed to clarify where responsibilities lie. The system should be headed by one senior decision maker, capable of integrating the work of the various authorities concerned, and empowered to order countermeasures to cope with such spills.

But the command function will also at times have to devolve on local municipalities over time, depending on the changing situation and the scale of disaster. The International Center for Disaster-Mitigation Engineering (INCEDE) at the University of Tokyo has a very useful model.

An Environmental Disaster Information Network should be established. The network should connect key persons: experts, officials of the central and local governments, citizen groups, and corporations with technology for environmental disasters.

Support measures against disasters need to be established, to aid in collecting information and providing it to citizens and organizations which need it. These should operate in ordinary time, not just in emergencies.

A centre is needed with responsibility for reporting correct information to the media, and preventing circulation of harmful rumours. In ordinary times, the centre could collect basic data on marine ecosystems and data on marine pollution caused by oil spills. It could also provide training of volunteers. Two kinds of trained personnel are required: coordinators of various volunteer activities, and people to work on wildlife rescue.

Spill in Tokyo Bay

GEIC was subsequently able to put the Nakhodka experience into practice a few months later when the Panamanian tanker "Diamond Grace" ran aground in Tokyo Bay on 2 July 1997. spilling about 10 thousand barrels of crude oil. Within six hours of the spill, a meeting of key persons was held at GEIC to decide what needed to be done to respond. The day after the spill, 3 July, GEIC published a special edition of its fax newsletter, InfoNet, informing people that, in this instance, volunteers were not necessary. Information was also provided about what to do with oil-affected seabirds. Systems were tentatively put into place in case volunteers should become needed, and general inquiries were answered.

GEIC is now one of the parties in discussions about establishing a Japan Environmental Disaster Information Centre, which could mobilize NGOs in a real-time response to future environmental catastrophes.

Work in Progress
A Review of Research Activities of the United Nations University
Volume 15, Number 2/Winter 1998

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Work in Progress aims at providing an edited sampling of the research conducted by, or of interest to, the United Nations University. UNU copyrighted articles may be reprinted without permission provided credit is given to Work in Progress (United Nations University) and a copy is sent to the Editor. A Japanese edition is also available.

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