Data exchange protocols in shared waters: Cart without a horse?

Key principles of international water law — including the reasonable and equitable utilization of shared water resources, and the duty to cooperate to prevent significant harm — require transparent sharing of water data.
Data exchange protocols in shared waters: Cart without a horse?

Key principles of international water law — including the reasonable and equitable utilization of shared water resources, and the duty to cooperate to prevent significant harm — require transparent sharing of water data. Active exchange of data equally enhances practical outcomes in international waters for example in averting disasters such as droughts and floods. But while an active exchange of reliable data has the potential to improve cross-border stewardship of shared waters, current levels of data exchange remain frustratingly low – both in depth and scope —may not be useful in supporting the decision-making processes of transboundary water management.

 How can protocols help shape the exchange of water data?

 An increasingly common way to promote data exchange concerning shared water resources is to support the adoption of data exchange protocols, which today are a widely employed tool for facilitating data sharing.  By establishing which data should be exchanged and at what frequency, protocols have an important role to play related to enacting and sustaining effective data-sharing practices in transboundary watercourses.

 Already, basin organizations in the Nile, Sava, and Zambezi basins have developed data-sharing protocols, and the Permanent Okavango River Basin Water Commission (OKACOM) is currently revising its 2010 OKACOM Protocol on Hydrological Data Sharing to increase the scope of data exchanged to include groundwater data as well as surface water data. Meanwhile, similar activity continues elsewhere, with data-sharing protocols currently under development in the Buzi, Pungwe, and Save basins.

Despite protocols’ promising potential, evidence suggests that they do not necessarily lead to greater data exchange. In Southeast Asia’s Mekong basin, for instance, the success of the Procedures for Data and Information Exchange and Sharing has been impeded by trust and policy harmonization issues, while in the Okavango basin resource constraints and protection of national interests have limited the effectiveness of the Protocol on Hydrological Data Sharing. It is important to remember that geopolitical dynamics cannot be ignored in transboundary settings where sovereignty is at stake. However, it may equally be worth asking if data exchange protocols are simply not serving their purpose.

 Are we prescribing data that should be exchanged without first considering which data needs to be exchanged?

 One explanation for the meager exchange of water data in some basins — even in the presence of protocols — may be that the predicted value of data exchange protocols has been overblown. Another explanation could be that the current process for protocol formulation is resulting in products that are fall short of their desired effect. Generally speaking, the development of data exchange protocols follows the precepts of international water law, and in most cases, there is no deliberate effort to determine the needs that data exchange efforts should respond to. Altering the process of data exchange protocol development, therefore, to first identify needs may support the effectiveness and sustainability of such protocols.

 Key recommendations for developing need-responsive data exchange protocols

1.  Prioritize data exchange according to need

 Prioritizing the types of data that can and should be shared across a given transboundary basin can help focus and optimize water management, especially when that data is related to specific basin characteristics. For example, flood- and drought-prone transboundary basins and aquifers may require a more frequent exchange of data related to river flow, groundwater level, and climate. Other basins may face water quality challenges due to particular socio-economic activities; in such cases, water quality data becomes a greater priority. Emerging areas of joint concern — and the data requirements to enable effective responses to them — can be considered as part of periodic data needs assessments. Further, the practical implementation of protocols can be improved by following a series of steps, which include identifying needs for data exchange.

There are multiple steps in the process of ensuring the effectiveness of data exchange protocols.

2. Consider available capacity

 It is important to remember that capacity asymmetries in data generation and transmission can potentially jeopardize data exchange goals, rendering data exchange protocols ineffective. An appreciation of available capacity in basin countries, by contrast, may create an enabling environment for exchanging data. One potential path forward for strengthening transboundary water management could entail basin countries exchanging currently-collected data, then progressively integrating newly collected data as well. Meanwhile, joint monitoring initiatives could provide an opening for basin countries to harmonize capabilities by collaborating on the development of strategic monitoring stations where all basin countries could easily access data.

 3.  Optimize data flows

 Through its World Water Data Initiative, the World Metrological Organization recognizes the need for better data management within basin country institutions in order to achieve more effective river basin management. Indeed, such practices can affect the flow of data at the transboundary level. If thoughtfully crafted, however, data exchange protocols can help streamline internal data transmission and address in-country bottlenecks. Protocols can be used to identify clear pathways for data flow from fragmented data repositories in basin countries to the point of exchange, which can enhance the smooth flow of data.

 4.  Acknowledge aspiration, but focus practically

 While it is important to aspire to a broader set of water data that can be exchanged — in accordance with global frameworks — it is equally important to remain practically focused on critical needs. As such, consideration of the sustainability of scaling-up data collection to achieve greater exchange should be a central focus of data exchange protocols. A core minimum amount of data can be initially exchanged in the buildup to deepening and broadening the scope of data to be shared.

 5.  Set realistic targets for exchanging data

 Basin contexts vary, and such variation should filter into guidance for exchanging data. Socio-economic disparities among basin countries may affect their abilities to generate and transmit data, which in turn affects data flows. Indeed, ambitious protocols that significantly exceed basin countries’ capabilities to fulfill their obligations may undermine the sincerity with which those countries are treated. Data exchange protocols based solely on best practices — but lacking clear connections to basin realities — may indeed fall into this trap, unless a clear pathway to achieving ambition is outlined.

 More information on data exchange in transboundary waters can be found here: https://doi.org/10.5337/2021.232