Problems

Societies arc always adapting incrementally and in diverse ways to a variety of integrated and cumulative changes. There is, however, little understanding of the long-term and widespread consequences of these adaptations (Dynesius and Nilsson, 1994). Questions remain as to how and when adaptation will occur and, in particular, how equity and environmental considerations will be addressed over time. A key component has been, and will continue to be, ensuring that the best available and most appropriate scientific information is employed in decision making (Pulwarty and Redmond, 1997). Unfortunately, detailed assessments of the direct human-induced changes of river hydrology of most large river systems are lacking, as are coherent assessments of discharge. Attempts to cope with the negative effects of technological interventions usually follow decades later (L'vovich and White, 1990).

Most major programs for complex utilization of rivers assume that average conditions for hydrologic records available at the time of project planning will continue indefinitely into the future (White, 1997). This has usually resulted in overestima-tions of supply or underestimations of demand over the long term. The complications of changes in the spatial and temporal distribution of rainfall, soil moisture, runoff, frequency, and magnitudes of droughts and floods have not been explicitly included in response planning. Systems design, operational inflexibility, and legal and institutional constraints reduce the adaptability of water systems to respond to climatic changes (Gleick, 1993). It is therefore difficult to plan for and justify expensive new projects on the basis of supply alone, when the magnitude, timing, and even direction of the changes in basins are unknown (Frederick, 1996).

The major stumbling blocks, exacerbated by shifts in climate or in the frequency of climate extremes, relate to the adversarial relationship that usually develops between upstream and downstream users of water. The determination as to when a particular use is equitable and reasonable involves definitions of broad concepts such as "no harm" and "optimal utilization." Problems are further compounded by lack of agreement on event definitions, such as what constitutes an "extraordinary" (i.e., severe and persistent) drought in different places. The spatial extent and persistence of drought may produce shortages not only in the locale considered but also in neighboring regions that otherwise are supposed to make surplus water available through interbasin tranfers. These concepts appear clear from the standpoint of water measurements, but difficulties emerge in (a) the practical and equitable sharing of quality water or (b) how an upstream country should share water with downstream countries, especially during periods of water stress.

As pointed out by Frederick (1996) and others, in the absence of clear and enforceable property rights, the strongest, most clever, and most advantageously positioned countries can claim and use scarce resources with little concern for the impacts on others. Scarcity does not arise on its own but is dependent on the quantity and quality of resources at particular times and on the degree of access to and capacity to use those resources. The call to the market as a first order of business does not address historical inequities, political differences, and environmental needs. The most powerful usually have the greatest resources to purchase property rights anyway.

All of the river basins described above exhibit characteristics of "closed or closing" water systems. In such systems the management of interdependence becomes a public function; development of mechanisms to get resource users to acknowledge interdependence and to engage in negotiations and binding agreements become necessary. The implementation of such mechanisms does not appear to be viable without focusing events (Keller et al, 1992). Focusing events, such as the La Plata floods, are usually associated with exceptional societal or environmental impacts, highlight critically vulnerable conditions, and elicit highly visible responses. Clusters of historic events may combine with physical events to precipitate or allow particular actions to be undertaken e.g. the cumulative roles of high flows prior to 1930, the 1930s drought, the Great Depression, World War II, and the 1950s drought in influencing dam building and management on the Colorado). Experience shows that decisions bringing rigidity to the management system ultimately generate more problems than they resolve (see in addition to cases cited here, Glantz, 1988; Gunderson et al, 1994). As is evident on the Lower Colorado River Basin and the Nile, early "winners" are unlikely to be willing to alter earlier terms of agreement even when changes in climate conditions are well documented. These problems are further complicated by the unique context imposed by transboundary resources at the borders themselves. According to Ingram et al. (1997), political boundaries, whether domestic or international (1) often separate the location where problems are felt from the location where the most effective and efficient solutions can be applied; (2) make restraint in using scarce water resources unlikely especially when the forces of global economic competition reinforce the focus on opportunities for immediate economic profit; (3) aggravate perceived inequalities; and (4) obstruct grassroots problem solving. In addition, they note that national and state policies are usually at odds with border needs and priorities.

As pointed out by one geographer, "it would be naive to envisage government-sponsored research on the cultural conflicts and politics of water management" (Wescoat, 1991 p. 392). The end result is that in the absence of explicit discussion of conflict the policy process is pushed toward the "technological fix," and time and resources are allocated to achieve near-term tangible results rather than long-term solutions (Caldwell, 1993). Practice thus becomes largely issue specific and incremental with the focus on winners and losers rather than on the development of a consensual vision of a preferred future. There is, in addition, limited experience for managing impacts of severe events, such as persistent drought, in the context of projected rates of development or in the context of closed international water systems. In meeting new challenges and trade-offs brought by a changing and variable environment and societal changes, we simply do not know how (precisely) we must plan.

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