Subject: World Rivers Review,
World Water Establishment Continues to Promote Flawed Solutions to Water Supply Problems From World Rivers Review,
published by International Rivers Network, February 2003 issue. www.irn.org
by Patrick McCully
The glaring mismanagement of the world's water is one of the great social and environmental tragedies of the 20th century. US water analyst Peter Gleick estimates that if water and sanitation services do not radically improve, as many as 135 million people will die from water-related disease over the next 20 years.
So what kind of radical improvement would it take to stop this deadly scenario?
The world water Establishment has put forth more big infrastructure projects and privatization as the core of their proposed solution to this crisis. This approach which will only worsen the problems they seek to solve and hinder the adoption of real solutions that are both available and affordable. The real solutions to this problem will not be simple, but neither does it lend itself to a solution that relies on an army of water-privateers taking over water supply around the globe.
It is time to question their assumptions at every level, and to press for an approach that promotes local, small scale initiatives. Herein, we re-calculate the water establishment's "gloomy arithmetic" of water supply, and find it rife with error.
Do the Maths
The argument begins with the "gloomy arithmetic of water" as described by the World Commission on Water: demand for water is growing, rivers and wetlands are being destroyed and aquifers are fast being depleted. Meanwhile four billion people will live under conditions of severe water stress by 2025 and nourishing the growing world population will depend on increasing water storage for irrigation.
The World Bank's Water Resources Sector Strategy claims that "the gloomy arithmetic of water is mirrored in the gloomy arithmetic of costs. The 'easy and cheap' options for mobilizing water resources for human needs have mostly been exploited." The Bank cites the frequently used World Water Council estimate that to meet the water needs of developing countries investments in water infrastructure would need to increase from the current level of about $75 billion to $180 billion a year.
A picture is thus built up of the world's poor and the environment facing a water-shortage crisis which can only be solved with huge investments in expensive large-scale infrastructure. This assumption is then used to argue that governments cannot afford such high costs and that only the private sector is needed to make up the difference.
Mismanagement, Not Scarcity
According to water expert Sandra Postel, by reducing irrigation by 10%, we could double the amount of water available for domestic supply worldwide. Some obvious solutions include taking the poorest lands out of production; switching to less-thirsty crops; converting to water-conserving irrigation systems; implementing proper agricultural land drainage and soil-management practices, and reducing fertilizer and pesticide use. Switching to water-conserving irrigation systems has the biggest potential - drip irrigation systems could potentially save more than 40% of water now used in agriculture.
In addition, more equitable distribution of food may be necessary to satisfy the global population's nutritional needs as water constraints on agriculture increase. For the past 30 years, around 40% of the world's grain supply has gone to feed livestock. This grain, and the water used to raise it, could be used more productively to grow food for people.
The approach with by far the greatest potential to solve rural water problems, while increasing incomes and nutritional levels and reducing inequality is rainwater harvesting. This involves building small dams and embankments and other low-cost structures to trap rainwater and recharge groundwater. Evidence from desert areas like western Rajasthan in India suggests that all but the most drought-stricken regions of the world should be able to meet basic needs for water and food with local supplies if rainwater were captured and used judiciously. Rainwater harvesting programs can be implemented and managed by local communities with little or no outside help. But this benefit of rainwater harvesting is also its downfall in the eyes of the water Establishment - it is of little financial or political benefit to the corporations and government agencies that dominate global water policymaking.
Urban areas are also prodigious wasters of water, with up to 40% of water supplied being lost to leaks or theft in too many parts of the world. Too little attention has been paid to demand-side management efforts, which could substantially reduce urban water use. The water which does reach households could stretch much further if middle class households were encouraged to use water-efficient appliances like toilets, showerheads, and washing machines. A water conservation program in Mexico City, for example, which involved replacing 350,000 old toilets with more efficient models has saved enough water to supply an additional quarter of a million residents. Alternative supply methods such as recycling wastewater and urban rainwater harvesting (such as capturing rain falling on roofs and parks) can add significantly to urban supplies without the need for costly new dam-and-pipeline projects.
The international water cartel is waking up to the difficulties of making profits supplying water even in the-better off cities of the developing world. Water companies who had jumped into "emerging markets" with glee in the 1990s are now licking their wounds, having lost millions in ill-considered investments.
In early January 2003, French water giant Suez announced it would reduce its exposure to emerging markets by more than a third by 2005 (and took a US$500 million charge for writing off its entire investment in Argentina). Heavily indebted German utility conglomerate RWE also announced in January that it would cease making new acquisitions for at least two years. Even the World Bank's draft Water Resources Sector Strategy admits that "under current conditions the private sector will play only a marginal role" in financing water infrastructure. In dogmatically pressuring water utilities to open themselves up for private investment when no private funds are available (or are only available under highly subsidized terms) the water Establishment is only wasting the time and money of water managers and is delaying the implementation of real solutions.
Water privatization is in any case irrelevant to most of those who lack access to water. More than four-fifths of those without decent access to safe water live in rural areas. Water multinationals have little or no interest in rural drinking water systems as they are rarely able to profit from poor and dispersed rural populations who mainly depend on local water sources such as wells, springs and streams. Similarly, rural populations in developing countries could not even begin to pay the huge costs of water from centralized water systems dependent on large reservoirs, pipelines, aqueducts and pumping stations. The only practical and affordable way of ensuring decent water access for the world's rural dwellers is through small-scale, decentralized schemes based on local water sources.
The UN-affiliated Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative
Low Cost, High Reward Solutions
(TBS) has helped villagers build or restore nearly 10,000 water harvesting structures - mainly earthen embankments or small concrete dams across seasonally flooded gullies. The structures impound water which soaks into the ground, recharging groundwater which is then accessed from wells. TBS calculates that around 700,000 people benefit from improved access to water for household use, farm animals and crops.
TBS has contributed around 70 million rupees ($1.4m) in outside funding to the cost of the water harvesting structures. This works out to a cost of 500 rupees per hectare irrigated and 100 rupees (two US dollars!) per person supplied with drinking water. This is just 1% the cost of water supply from the notorious Sardar Sarovar dam projectÊ on the Narmada River. (See WRR, Dec. 2002 for an article on TBS' work.)
The construction of large dams and inter-basin diversion schemes is the single major reason for the degradation of aquatic ecosystems worldwide. To pretend that building more dams and diversions will somehow reverse this degradation is absurd.
It is also absurd to pretend that the answer to solving the world's hunger problem will depend on building more big dam-and-canal irrigation schemes. Past experience shows that such capital-intensive technologies can raise yields (at least over the short-term) for larger farmers who can afford them or who happen to own land in the limited areas to receive irrigation water. But poor farmers, and the majority living outside the irrigated lands, end up being starved of investment and become poorer and less food-secure.
As Indian water analyst Himanshu Thakker notes, "Rainwater is the mother of all water resources" - all our freshwater resources at one time fell as rain or snow. Rainfall is democratic in that it falls almost everywhere and is not easily monopolized by the powerful. It would be far more beneficial in terms of poverty alleviation and food security to spread investment over the areas where rain falls, rather than concentrating it on the small percentage of land where water can be expensively diverted or pumped from rivers and lakes.
Hunger happens not because the world is short of food - actually we produce much more than enough - but because hundreds of millions of people are too poor to buy it. India now boasts a huge surplus in food grains, its storehouses now holding a quarter of world food stocks - yet more than half India's children are classified as underweight.
Decentralized groundwater recharge is also vital to reduce the vulnerability of rural areas to the increasingly severe droughts being caused by climate change (and another benefit of rainwater harvesting and forest regeneration is that they reduce the destructiveness of floods, which are also increasing due to global warming). Climate change is expected to cause major disruptions to the hydrological cycle, meaning that drastic cuts in global warming pollution are a key component in water security.
Analyze carefully the Establishment's "gloomy arithmetic of water" and one sees that it does not add up. But doing the math, dissecting the problems and assessing solutions can be a heartening exercise: the solutions to world water problems are affordable and can be implemented. The main problem is institutional; solving it will require citizens to persuade their governments to stop listening to, and stop funding, the self-interested construction and privatization lobbies of the global watercrats.
Box 2 :
"In the irrigation and agriculture sector, preference is for improving the performance and productivity of existing irrigation systems; and alternative supply-side measures that involve rain fed, as well as local, small-scale, and traditional water management and harvesting systems, including groundwater recharge methods." . "In the water supply sector, meeting the needs of those currently not served in both urban and rural areas through a range of efficient supply options is the priority.Ê Further efforts to revitalize existing sources, introduce appropriate pricing strategies, encourage fair and sustainable water marketing and transfers, recycling and reuse, and local strategies such as rainwater harvesting also have great potential."
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