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World Water Day: Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

March 18, 2009

Thinking about World Water Day this Sunday, March 22nd, and the 2009 World Water Day theme of Transboundary Water, “sharing water, sharing opportunities,” I am reminded of “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost’s 1914 poem in which he asks why two neighbors must rebuild the stone wall dividing their farms each spring. Today, the unwritten rule – that good fences make good neighbors – makes plenty of sense to most of us. Our cities and suburbs, farms and factories, power plants and parks, and roads and rivers share common geography, boundaries, and neighbors.

But it’s not 1914 and we know better than to rely heavily on unwritten rules; these days, the rules and regulations help us be good neighbors. More importantly, globalization – as it continues to dissolve the distance that separates us all – has changed our relationship with one another and with the planet itself. We are new neighbors in a new neighborhood: globalization demands new ideas about how we can share resources within our one, bigger, broader global neighborhood.

In Asia, water remains one of the most critical, yet most poorly-managed and under-protected, natural resources. Currently, where watersheds, rivers, and aquifers cross boundaries, one country’s environmental policies do not always match well with the protections and needs of its neighbors. In addition, downstream neighbors suffer the cumulative, negative impact of poor environmental management choices made upstream. For example, hundreds of millions of people live along the Ganges River in India and Bangladesh and along the Mekong River in China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. What can those who want to be good neighbors do to protect and manage shared water sources?

First, we must acknowledge that regional and transboundary water sharing is an extremely complex problem. For example, in the United States, we live by dozens of byzantine, complicated, and tenuous water sharing arrangements that are not sustainable as written. This is often because the water that seems available on maps is not actually available in the physical world. Climate change will likely exacerbate this problem. In Asia, development changes — such as water infrastructure, watershed degradation, and urban migration — are accelerating at a pace never experienced in the U.S. This makes data collection and long-term problem-solving very difficult. Fortunately, Asian nations are quickening their water work, taking more measurements, bringing more citizen participation into water policy-making processes, and advancing new technologies to reduce water use and degradation. Improved information sharing on water issues will be one of the best ways for Asian nations to demonstrate good neighbor intentions all around.

Second, “building good fences” means also a shared opportunity to “build good relationships.” Frost’s good neighbors, through their annual ritual of fence-fixing and sharing of information and perspective, led to increased mutual understanding. Even though neighbors express differing views, they maintain the good relationship necessary to take care of their collective land and resources. In Asia, convening government, industry, and civil society members around water resources and many other important environmental issues is a core approach to The Asia Foundation’s work of building a “peaceful, prosperous, open, and just Asia-Pacific region.” We believe that building good relationships is the cornerstone to the good neighbors and good fences that all humans seek.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer working on water and sanitation projects in the Philippines over 20 years ago, I learned from the mountain communities that solving their water problems wasn’t about the springboxes, the water tanks, the pipes, and the tapstands. These people taught me that solving problems was really about people acting as extraordinarily good neighbors.

In times of need, extraordinarily good neighbors are a necessity. With growing global water insecurity, climate change, and natural resource loss, this is our time of great need to be and to have good neighbors. We share the waters of the Pacific, and multiple opportunities to help Asia solve the long-term challenges of managing and protecting their watersheds and water resources. From their example, we can learn how to better protect ours.

Chris Plante is The Asia Foundation’s Director of the Environment Program. He can be reached at cplante@asiafound.org. Recently, he participated in a panel discussion titled “Water Worries: Balancing the Water We Need with the Water We Have” aired on City Visions Radio.

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