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Empowering transboundary water governance with Decision Support Systems

  • Empowering transboundary water governance with Decision Support Systems

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Transboundary water governance presents complexities and uncertainties surpassing those of national water governance due to the involvement of diverse actors, interests, and interconnected environmental, socio-economic, cultural, and political processes. An article by researchers from the International Water Association and the University of Bahia in Brazil, published in Water International, looks at the possibilities offered by  Decision Support Systems (DSSs) as a tool to manage transboundary waters in the La Plata River basin.

Following advances in digital information collection and processing, DSSs include communication and information systems as well as databases that integrate various data sources: hydrological, climatological, environmental, economic production, etc. with advanced modelling. They aim to facilitate decision-making by water agencies and related organizations engaged in planning and management efforts.

Despite their potential, implementing DSSs faces numerous challenges. Issues such as water allocation among sectors, financial constraints, technical and institutional limitations, and inadequate data access hinder effective implementation. Additionally, the absence of River Basin Organizations (RBOs) in some areas further complicates coordination and management efforts. International organizations such as the Global Environmental Facility, the World Bank, the United Nations and the Global Water Partnership play a crucial role in promoting DSS implementation in transboundary basins, supporting efforts to overcome these challenges. Notable examples of DSS applications in transboundary basins across the globe include the Nile basin, the Euphrates–Tigris basin, the Lower Mekong basin, the Colorado basin, the Rio Grande basin, the Zambezi River basin, the Lake Chad basin and the Okavango River basin.

Transboundary water governance presents complexities and uncertainties surpassing those of national water governance due to the involvement of diverse actors, interests, and interconnected environmental, socio-economic, cultural, and political processes

The authors focus on the DSS implemented by the Intergovernmental Coordinating Committee of the La Plata Basin Countries (CIC), which since 2016 aims to enhance regional cooperation in water resources management. The La Plata basin expands across Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay, and is one of the largest transboundary basins in the world. The framework for transboundary water governance in the basin encompasses multiple subsystems containing partial and specific bilateral and multilateral agreements, created by national and subnational governments. Coordination across the river basin faces institutional challenges: although subnational actors have water allocation rights, transboundary cooperation is the responsibility of national governments. This is compounded by the unpredictability of the effects of climate change on basin water resources.

The DSS was designed by experts from the five riparian countries with the involvement of UNESCO’s International Hydroinformatics Center at Itaipú Binacional for software development. The system serves as a tool to access, process, and integrate information pertinent to the basin and its ecosystems, in order to make it readily available to relevant institutions and decision makers. Ultimately, it provides decision-making support to enable integrated water resource management and sustainable development in the basin.

Particularly valuable during extreme hydrological events such as floods and droughts, or water pollution events, the DSS aids in addressing challenges and raising awareness among decision-makers

Particularly valuable during extreme hydrological events such as floods and droughts, or water pollution events, the DSS aids in addressing challenges and raising awareness among decision-makers. Further advantages include strengthening national water resource management capacities, fostering cooperation and coordination within the basin, enhancing understanding of sub-basin level water management and quality issues, early warning capabilities, and facilitating prioritization and implementation of joint projects.

Looking ahead, the CIC and riparian states are working to optimize the existing DSS with new functions, including news layers of information that consider “all relevant socio-economic and environmental aspects in the basin”. The collection, harmonization and availability of data generated by water institutions at regional, national and subnational levels is still a challenge, as is addressing a gap in environmental degradation information, and improving accessibility and usability.

The researchers conclude that effective management and governance of transboundary waters rely not only on cooperation agreements among riparian countries but also on recognizing the benefits of collaborative water resource management, investments, and basin-wide analytical frameworks. Moreover, while transboundary basin governance can be conducted without a Decision Support System (DSS), implementing one can significantly improve coordination among countries sharing water resources, as demonstrated in the implementation of a DSS in the La Plata basin. However, the success of its implementation hinges on the full engagement of the countries involved, and challenges remain to make the most of such a system by all the stakeholders involved.

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