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By Amy Syvrud, IWC for the Australian Water Partnership (AWP)

As an initiative to support the now-concluded High-Level Panel on Water (HLPW), ‘WaterGuide’ policy dialogues were held with four countries to share Australian expertise and experience in water scarcity and drought management, discussing the most significant challenges faced in each country. I personally participated in the Mexico-Australia WaterGuide Dialogue. A recurring challenge identified in Mexico and in the other participating countries was the question of how to effectively allocate and manage water for the environment, providing useful context for an additional contribution to the work of the HLPW – A Guide to Managing Water for the Environment.

The report WaterGuide: Setting a path to improved water management and use under scarcity was authored by Aither and published by the Australian Water Partnership (AWP) in March 2017, with an updated version released in March 2018. WaterGuide represents an Australian contribution to the work of the High-Level Panel on Water (HLPW), a panel of 11 heads of state that was convened to accelerate progress toward achieving SDG 6. It is a six-element organizing framework for improving water management and use in response to scarcity, informed by the Australian water management experience.

Aither, AWP, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), and other AWP partners including ARCOWA, Global Change Advisory, and HARC, have been working with national governments facing challenges relating to water scarcity to apply WaterGuide through facilitated dialogue with Australian water policy and management experts. Since its initial publication, WaterGuide has been used to structure policy dialogues in Jordan, Senegal, and Mexico (all HLPW members) and in Iran.

As a native southern Californian with research experience in the Colorado River Basin and Delta with The Nature Conservancy (and a deep appreciation for Mexican food and the language), I was able to participate in the inaugural Mexico-Australia WaterGuide dialogue, which focused on the experience of water scarcity in Baja California.

The WaterGuide dialogue in Mexico was held with representatives from the Baja California State Water Commission (CEABC), the National Association of Water and Sanitation Utilities of Mexico (ANEAS), and the National Water Commission of Mexico (CONAGUA), among others, in Tijuana and Mexico City. Over the course of a week of activities, Australian and Mexican partners shared their experiences in water scarcity and drought management, discussing the most significant challenges that they face now and into the future. The dialogue focused on the drought-stricken region of Baja California and concentrated on assessing Baja California’s Hydrological Plan (PHEBC) 2018-2035, against the six elements of WaterGuide. One challenge that was raised repeatedly was around ensuring water for the environment—specifically in regards to the Colorado River Delta.

Mexico has come a long way over the last century in attempting to overcome this challenge. From the 1930s to the 1980s, no regular base or pulse flows reached the Delta in Mexico, resulting in the decline of many species and the collapse of fisheries, with a subsequent decline in indigenous populations and further social and economic costs. Over the last two decades, Mexico and the United States have engaged in several cooperative policy efforts to restore water for the environment in the Delta. The first was a managed pulse flow in 2014 from a large-volume water release from a US dam (Minute 319), returning water to areas of Mexico that had been without it for 17 years. Then in 2017, the two countries reached an agreement on how they would make voluntary cutbacks during drought, committing the US to financially supporting water efficiency projects in Mexico in return for a one-time water exchange, and requiring both countries to provide water and funding for habitat restoration and scientific work in the Delta for the next decade (Minute 323).

While Mexico and the US have gradually aligned policies for managing the Colorado River, and have started to move from conflict to cooperation, this was only after decades of disagreement, compromise, and negotiation. Yet despite this cooperation, further and continuous work is required in order to achieve desired outcomes, demanding careful planning, dedicated action, and commitment.

When discussing PHEBC 2018-2035 with Mexican stakeholders, we found that there was little mention of the allocation of water for the environment and that this is not a key objective of the plan. We also found that there is still a highly ingrained culture of ‘úsalo o pierdelo’ (‘use it or lose it’). It was stated that the overall objective of the plan is to be as efficient as possible, with ‘no drop of freshwater going to the ocean’. This raises questions about the ongoing survival of the Delta region. If there’s no water going to the ocean, then there’s no water going to the Delta either – which is going to ultimately compromise not only productive efficiency but all other economic, social and cultural values that are dependent on a healthy water system. So, while Baja California has taken strides in the right direction, they still have a marathon ahead of them in this regard.

Similar issues were observed during our WaterGuide dialogue in Iran while visiting Lake Urmia, which has shrunk considerably due to under-regulated abstraction in the basin. Both Mexico and Iran have expressed a desire to learn from Australia’s experience in water management, and particularly its experience in managing water for the environment to sustain system health and the values that depend on it. Australia’s experience in this area has recently been captured in a further contribution to the HLPW – A Guide to Managing Water for the Environment – which I was also privileged to be involved in developing in partnership with the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office. The guide reflects the six-element structure of WaterGuide, transforming and applying it in the context of determining and sustaining the health of surface and groundwater systems. I hope that the practical guidance offered in this Guide may assist our partners in Mexico and Iran, and other decision makers around the world grappling with the inherent complexity of managing water for the environment.

With so much achieved during the two years of the HLPW, I’m excited and eager to see what we can accomplish through the next 10 years of the UN International ‘Decade of Water’ and subsequent initiatives – and I pledge to continue to contribute to this work to the best of my ability in the years to come.

Amy Syvrud is an international water policy expert. The Australian Water Partnership (AWP) is an Australian Government development initiative enhancing the sustainable management of water across the Indo-Pacific.

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