Tapping the potential of data sharing in transboundary basins: Are we overlooking a simple reality?

Co-Contributors: Dr. Jonathan Lautze, Research Group Leader-Integrated Basin and Aquifer Management, International Water Management Institute (IWMI), South Africa & Davison Saruchera, Interim Regional Technical Coordinator, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), South Africa.

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Data has long been acknowledged to be an important basis for decision-making. Nonetheless, the role of data has now elevated in response to the expanded computational ability to process it in response to global challenges and demands for innovation. The World Economic Forum recently launched the Data for Common Purpose Initiative, for example, directed at six core areas where data sharing could transform the status quo. Through this initiative, data can be deployed to accelerate solutions to rare diseases through sharing clinical data and to solve world hunger problems through improving the connectedness of the global humanitarian food supply system. The CGIAR has made extensive climate data accessible to support decision-making towards building more resilient food systems. These examples highlight how data was plugged into a focused process with a discrete outcome and actionable results. In other words, determining beneficial use of data is key. Lessons can be derived from this, that are applicable to areas including data exchange in transboundary waters.

Data exchange in transboundary basins: from principle to practice, but then what?

In transboundary waters, the drive for data exchange is ubiquitous. The 1992 Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes and the 1997 UN Convention on non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses call for exchange of data across countries sharing a watercourse. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6.5, and its associated indicators transboundary water cooperation (6.5.2), recognize the importance of data exchange. Further, the UNECE is currently undertaking a refresh of its 2006 Strategies for Monitoring and Assessment of Transboundary Rivers, Lakes, and Groundwater to further refine data exchange guidance. At a practical level, data exchange is conventionally treated as an important initial step toward building cooperation. Donors such as the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the World Bank, for example, routinely feature data exchange centrally in their development programming aimed at strengthening cooperation in international waters.

 This global push for the exchange of water resources data has no doubt brought great practical benefit, manifested in a proliferation of data exchange clauses in basin-level agreements as well as enhanced trust and understanding across countries. Nonetheless, challenges persist. The scope of data that are practically exchanged routinely falls well below that outlined in principles. While there are multiple reasons for this, one contributor may be that extensive focus on promoting the end of data exchange, well-intentioned though it may be, may have led to some loss of focus on the reasons for – and uses of – data exchange. There are clearly direct soft benefits that accrue from virtually any data exchange effort in shared waters, but the realization of complementary hard benefits by exchanging and using data may not always occur.

Increasing focus has been placed on technological innovations to enhance data and knowledge in shared waters. For example, in southern Africa, an initiative for Big data analytics in transboundary waters aimed to harness available groundwater data to power application tools. Unfortunately, data to support machine learning as well as processing limitations within available information systems limited realization of the anticipated results. Equally, there have been assertions that technology may increasingly supplant the need for traditional data exchange. Ultimately, it seems technological advancement can and eventually will play a greater role in data on transboundary waters. That said, it is likely just one piece of a broader calculus which needs to be considered: regardless of whether data are collected through technological advancements or physical measurement and exchange, benefits accruing from basin-wide data compilation are likely to be far greater if there is a clear-cut pathway to data use and outcome.

Take the next step: Do something with the data

Ensuring that data are used can maximize benefits of data exchange, evidenced in notable examples where exchanged data are put-to-use. Regular data and information exchanges around the pollution problem in the Rhine River, for example, has achieved very tangible benefits. Data from Rhine basin countries are compiled to identify most significant pollution sources, and ensure contamination in one country is not externalized to another. Today water quality in the river has greatly improved with reduced heavy metal concentrations and improved aquatic biodiversity. However, pollution from wastewater discharge and nutrient rich agriculture runoff continues to pose pollution challenges in some 218 transboundary rivers.

Another example of putting exchanged data to use is evidenced in the Incomati Basin, where riparians face scarce and variable water availability. The need to meet downstream flow requirements means river flow and dam storage data are shared between the basin countries and used to determine whether cross-country flow allocations and in-country dam levels should be at normal levels or adjusted according to decreased water availability e.g. during drought years. Conversely, within a pilot project in the Buzi-Pungwe-Save basins, data were collected using an interactive mobile application to harness the broad benefits of data exchange; such efforts may have lacked a clear-cut path to use and impact. Because of this, the activity faced challenges and ultimately lost momentum

The above examples underline the reality that need is central to the effectiveness of data exchange efforts. While any data exchange is good, matching data to need improves data use and provides motivation to practitioners. Coupled with technological innovations in data manipulation, the potential for drawing the most out of existing data is enormous and will indeed fuel the generation and exchange of more data. It is nonetheless critical to focus such efforts by incorporating a potentially overlooked step: a needs assessment. Having this step clearly in the forefront of any data exchange endeavor or directive - beyond compliance to global convention or building trust -  will ground data exchange into a defined process with actionable outcomes.


Patience Mukuyu

Researcher , International Water Management Institute