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Coordinating assessment of water, energy and agricultural needs among riparians is key to sustainable development in the Sava River Basin

Published: 01 February 2017

For all the countries sharing the Sava River Basin (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia), hydropower is a major source of energy, sometimes the main source (i.e., in Montenegro and in Croatia). Collectively, hydropower in from the Sava River constitutes 11% of the total power generation capacity of these countries. Water is also an important resource for other power installations, including cooling thermoelectric power plants, with 53% of all power installations in the Basin relying on water from the Sava River. To meet the long-term renewable energy targets set by the European Union (i.e., for Croatia and Slovenia) or the Energy Community (the other riparian countries are Contracting Parties) also requires these countries to depend heavily on the Basin’s water resources. Key to achieving climate change mitigation targets in the region are hydropower investments in the Sava Basin are expected to account for 43% of carbon dioxide reductions in the riparian countries by 2030. Despite the importance of energy security for most of these countries, development planning for the energy sector is not necessarily connected with water management planning, which also has to ensure necessary water for agriculture and other water uses. This calls for increased coordination, information sharing and transboundary cooperation.

These are some of the main findings of a new report released today by UNECE — Reconciling Resource Uses in Transboundary Basins: Assessment of the Water-Food-Energy-Ecosystems Nexus in the Sava River Basin. The report with its recommendations is the result of a participatory assessment process carried out in cooperation with the International Sava River Basin Commission in the framework of the UNECE Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes.

With the current energy sector outlook, the report cautions that the trade-off between hydropower development and agricultural expansion needs to be carefully managed. The modelling results that contributed to the assessment suggest that significant crop yield increases could be obtained by optimizing irrigation. However, increased irrigation might have substantial effects on surface water and groundwater flow, especially in the lower Sava Basin during dry periods. Higher levels of irrigation could also reduce water availability for hydropower generation on some of the tributaries.

The report further underlines that economic development needs to be weighed against environmental effects. Developing the use of instruments for permitting of activities and for consultation of stakeholders with different interests, including environmental concerns, are among the necessary means and counterweights to reconcile different resource uses. Strategic environmental assessment (SEA) would be an effective tool to assess the impact of energy, water management and agricultural programmes and policies on ecosystems, to synchronize competing objectives and to ensure proper public participation.

Because of the potential intersectoral and transboundary impacts of national and sectoral development strategies, developing consultation on such strategies would be beneficial. At the basin level this could be done through the International Sava River Basin Commission (ISRBC). While the on-going process of preparing River Basin Management Plans supports valuable engagement with a broad range of stakeholders at the transboundary level, improving coordination with the energy and agriculture sectors could be further strengthened. The Strategy on Implementation of the Framework Agreement on the Sava River Basin envisages further integration of water policies with other sector policies. The nexus assessment helped to progress towards that objective, especially by broadening and informing the dialogue on the Basin’s resources.

The Sava nexus assessment also pinpointed various other solutions to address the intersectoral challenges identified, involving the application of sustainable development principles in economic and sectoral planning and decision-making. Recommended information solutions include developing and implementing guidelines that synthesize good experience and help harmonize approaches. To resolve infrastructure challenges, among others, recommendations include the multiple and flexible use of infrastructure, in particular dams, irrigation and drainage systems; investing in expanding and upgrading water infrastructure, such as wastewater treatment; coordinating infrastructure investments, notably in hydropower and other renewable energy sources; and protecting natural infrastructure assets, including floodplains and wetlands.

More intense transboundary cooperation on the management of basin resources will bring additional real benefits. For example, the different energy generation and storage capacities make up valuable complementarities that can add to the energy security for all the riparian countries. Looking into the future, approximately 200 MW of hydropower generation are expected to be built in the region with reservoirs, representing a concrete opportunity: by coordinating between the countries, investments can be rationalized and the utility to be had from the water maximized. In particular, adopting designs that are multifunctional and minimize impacts on the environment would allow future reservoirs to better serve different needs, including flood control and maintaining appropriate navigation depths.

International coordination and cooperation at the basin and regional levels offer opportunities to “manage the nexus” beyond what is possible at the national level. The countries sharing the Sava Basin are well positioned to advance their transboundary cooperation: ISRBC is already in place as a multisectoral platform for this. A transboundary nexus approach can be built on existing processes. The opportunities include the development and implementation of legal instruments, in particular the Framework Agreement on the Sava River Basin (FASRB) and its protocols, but also EU directives, and transboundary planning processes such as the Sava River Basin Management Plan and the Flood Risk Management Plan, and further regional integration and harmonization, in particular around EU accession and approximation.

Link to the report: http://www.unece.org/index.php?id=45241

Note to editors

This intersectoral assessment gathered input from a broad range of stakeholders, including at the onset in a workshop that brought together sectoral authorities and other key stakeholders from the riparian countries to identify the main intersectoral issues in the Sava Basin and their possible solutions. The assessment was further complemented by analyses carried out by the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, focusing on integrated energy and water modelling, and by the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission on, among others, modelling of land use, agricultural water needs and climate change effects.

The preparation of this report and related consultations among the various sectoral authorities concerned was supported by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety and by the German Federal Environment Agency. The assessment process was also supported by Switzerland.

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