Water for all?
Four issues to be dealt with at Rio+20
Despite progress made over the last decades, millions of people around the world still do not have access to safe drinking water on a sustainable basis. This DIIS comment points to four factors which pose a threat to a Water for All vision coming true – and to what governments and aid agencies should do at Rio+20
The first one has to do with insufficient – and sometimes counterproductive – targets. Often national water agencies and international donor agencies supporting them are under pressure to reach implementation measures such as the Millennium Development Goals. This often makes them prioritize to cover as large a geographical area as possible. The result is that the water infrastructure gets too thinly spread. The water is there but the water infrastructure put in place to bring it out is simply not enough to cover people’s needs. This leads to false claims of coverage.
Unfortunately, it tends to be the poorest households within a community and the most thinly populated parts of a region or country who remain without access to safe water.
Need and greed – power and inequality
The second factor has to do with need and greed and power and inequality. Just as much as lack of sustainable access to safe water contributes to poverty, access to water provides a source of wealth and opportunity. Even though water infrastructure may be put in place to provide for only domestic water, the temptation, i.e. the potential economic gains, to use the water also for productive purposes is irresistible.
Those with more political and economic power tend to be the ones who succeed in accessing water intended for drinking for productive purposes often without having to pay and without getting punished.
This means that often publically funded drinking water infrastructure in actual fact subsidizes access to productive water for the non-poor contributing to increase inequality – rather than to lower it!
Global redistribution of water
However, it is not only power relations at the local level but also power relations – and inequalities – at the global level which contribute to widen the unequal access to water.
The consumption of an average Danish citizen corresponds to a total water footprint of around 1,600 m3 per year. Barely 2 pct. of the water footprint is due to domestic water consumption while the rest is associated with goods and services. Not all this water footprint is set in Denmark. Our net import of water amounts to 23 pct. of the water footprint of our consumption and is set e.g. in Argentina where the soya to feed our pigs is produced or in China where our industrial consumer goods are produced.
Zambia, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Bolivia and even Mali are all net exporters of water. The net export of water from Mali constitutes around 14 pct. of what is being consumed in Mali!
Thus the third factor threatening the ‘water for all’ vision from coming true is that water is exported from the places where people suffer from lack of adequate water supply.
If we look towards the future, the expected expansion of biofuel consumption during the next two decades implies an alarming water scenario. It implies that the redistribution of water from areas where people have inadequate access to water today will grow explosively! Estimates suggest that Europe’s per capita water footprint will grow by approximately 200 m3 by 2030, i.e. by more than 10 pct. of the current Danish per capita water footprint, simply due to our projected increase in biofuel consumption.
The scenario is even more alarming if we look only at the biofuel-generated ‘blue’ water footprint, i.e. the amount of water we abstract from ground and surface water – the water that is normally used for drinking water and which requires infrastructure investments to be brought out. The biofuel-generated blue water footprint is expected to grow by 45 pct. compared to the 2005 level.
Thus the lack of access to drinking water that millions of people around the world experience today is only partly caused by climatically determined water scarcity and a lack of sufficient investments in water infrastructure. It is also caused by the local and global elite capture of available water and of public investments in water infrastructure.
Discretional water governance
Moral responses to this situation are important, but they are not sufficient. It is hard – if not impossible – to remove people’s greed, but it is possible to regulate people’s actions, i.e. their water use, through political, economic and institutional means.
Unfortunately, the countries where most people suffer from lack of access to water, from inequality in the access to water and from virtual export of water to other parts of the world, also tend to be the countries where water governance is most deficient and often discretional, meaning that powerful individuals or groups can influence the water allocation to their own advantage. Therefore the ways that water allocation is governed constitute the fourth factor which prevents the ‘water for all’ vision from coming true.
Good policies – implementation lacking behind
Many countries, including many developing countries, have recently reformed their water policies and their water governance frameworks. On paper everything seems fine! In most cases, these reforms assign first priority to domestic water use in the allocation of water, while more commercial and large-scale uses of water receive lower priority and require that a user permit is obtained.
But the reality is often different! First of all, the water reforms move decisions on water access and water allocation out of the realm of things that are negotiated locally and into the realm of things that are negotiated and obtained through more formal institutions. Some types of users have easier access to local institutions while other types of users have easier access to formal institutions. Hence, the water reforms imply changes in the water power balance between different types of users – both between the current water users and between the current water users and those who will appear as water users in the near future, e.g. those who will be involved in biofuel production. Second, while the reforms have been formally approved in many countries, implementation lacks behind, particularly at the local level.
If this implementation bias is not corrected, the result may very well be that – even within a relatively short time span – well-informed and economically and politically powerful individuals and companies will obtain rights to water at the expense of the population at large. Even people who may have had the fortune of having received assistance for establishing improved water supply from international donor agencies and from their own governments may suddenly wake up one day to find that the rights to use their water source now belong to someone else, as happened in Chile following their water reform in the beginning of the 1980s, or that a mining company now has ‘the right’ to contaminate their water as is happening in Vietnam and in many other places.
In this way the recent water reforms may end up legitimizing water grabbing and an even more unequal distribution of water. This means that over the next decades conflicts about water will not only be about who should have access to water and for which purposes, but also about which types of rights and which types of institutions should govern the allocation of water.
What governments and donors should do at Rio
Governments and development agencies can contribute to address these threats and bring us closer to a Water for All future by offering economic as well as technical support – e.g. legal and administrative support – to a proactive and local-level implementation of on-going water reforms in the developing countries. In addition to continuing efforts to expand water supply infrastructure, efforts should be made to strengthen water governance by providing assistance that aims to (i) ensure water for environmental needs; (ii) safeguard the rights and responsibilities of citizens and local authorities in water governance; and (iii) assist citizens and local authorities in executing their rights and responsibilities. This will gradually narrow the room for the present discretional water governance.