By Ermelinda Dias
Water is identified as 3rd largest risk in the World Economic Forum Risk Report, 2015. Water resources are constantly under pressure due to increasing population and changing lifestyles, pollution and overuse. A growing population pressure on finite water resources, coupled with industrialization and urbanization, globalization and trade policies are resulting in increasing demand for water, and in upstream and downstream conflicts. Further the physical availability of water does not guarantee a safe and affordable water supply to all. The latest Global Environment Outlook says that if the present unsustainable tends of water use and management continue then about 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity by 2025 and about 60pc of world population could be subject to water stress. The resulting decline in water quantity and quality will be exacerbated by climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change Report, 2013 has established that fresh water resources have the vulnerability to be strongly impacted by climate change with wide-reaching impacts on societies and ecosystems. Due to global warming and associated hydrological changes on account of changing precipitation patterns and receding glaciers, most of the world’s water-stressed areas will get less water and water flows will become less predictable and more subject to extreme weather events and floods. With its inextricable links to food security, economic development, and energy nexus, water scarcity is becoming one of the defining problems of the 21st century.
Water crisis –A crisis of governance
Water is unevenly distributed both spatially and temporally. It is more unevenly distributed among different strata of society and among different competing uses. While availability of water is a concern for some countries, at the heart of today’s water crisis lies power, inequity and poverty. Part of the problem lies in the unique characteristics of water as a public good. Because of its life-sustaining character, water is a basic human need. But scarcity and competing demands on its multiple uses makes water also an economic good. Water of an acceptable quality is required to maintain ecosystem services and sustain ecosystem integrity. So water is also an environmentally essential good. One of the main reasons for the water crisis, according to Vandana Shiva, a well-known India-based water expert, is the commodification of water which has led to increased control on water management and development by multinational corporations. The World Bank and the IMF have in the past encouraged many developing countries to privatize water access in the hope of increased efficiency in its management. The involvement of profit-oriented MNCs has reduced the involvement of citizens in water management. With the withdrawal of subsidies, both direct and cross, on the advice of these multinational aid institutions, the poor have often found themselves shut out from water access due to increased water prices, sparking unrest in many parts of the world. With water use growing at more than twice the growth rate of population, the challenge for water management lies in meeting the basic needs of humans, both present and future generations, needs of the environment, and to ensure that water of acceptable quality is available for use in agriculture and industry without compromising the integrity of ecosystems.
Water crisis has been aptly described by the UN as a crisis of governance rather than a physical scarcity of water. The world’s water problems stem from our failure to meet basic human needs, ineffective or inappropriate institutions and management, and our inability to balance human needs with those of the natural world. These maladies are rooted in a wasteful use of water characterized by poor management systems, improper economic incentives, under-investment, failure to apply existing and appropriate technology, and an antiquated mindset focused on developing new supplies to the exclusion of increasing conservation, efficiency, and effectively managing demand. Water management is far from being a technical issue involving mere endeavours to match supply with demand through application of technology, science, rational problem solving approaches with stakeholder involvement, etc. Water management is about shifting patterns to a contested and scare resource and therefore is inherently a political issue.
Politics of water regimes
The core business of water management is about coping with variability. It is related to storing excess water from wet periods to bridge dry periods, protecting low lying areas from floods, balancing withdrawals between upstream and downstream, and balancing water uses between social-economic activities and ecological uses. Hydrological interactions are typified with commonplace upstream-downstream effect in which down-streamers have to cope with variations in hydrological regimes occurring in the upstream. Socio-political structures shape the way natural resources are used and benefits and risks are distributed. Dominant interests and distribution of decision-making power gets reflected in decisions regarding the management & development of water resources. Through engineering, design, cost benefit analysis, and through environment impact assessments and strategic impact assessments, the provision of a public good like water becomes intertwined with political and financial interests. It is not incidental that polluted areas, water-short neighbourhoods and flood-prone localities are co-related with higher levels of poverty and vulnerability. Paradigmatic example of asymmetries of power in water management is the way cities siphon off water away from agriculture through administrative fief, and rarely through the market, thus imposing externalities on citizens in terms of pollution, flood damage, aquifer depletion etc. And industry while siphoning off groundwater without paying market price succeeds in shifting costs in terms of pumping stations, falling water tables and water stress to tax payers as a whole.
In an ineffective water regime, decision-makers or interest groups manage to frame the water management and development discourse in favour of certain interests such that the voice of the weaker impacted sections is limited or unheard since they have very little access to channels of power & information. There is a tendency to depoliticize water management problems by clothing inherently political debates through the use of political technologies using scientific or technical or neutral terms. But the real need of the hour is to acknowledge the political dimension of water development and management and depolitisise the issue through a rebalance of decision-making and discursive power towards the empowerment of the community as a whole.
Nuts and bolts of water governance
Amidst a growing recognition over the last sixty years that technology and infrastructure alone are insufficient to address persistent water management problems, discourse about water governance began to emerge in particular with the Dublin Conference on water in the early 1990s. Early thinking about water governance was based on highly centralized system that emphasized the role of governments in water management. Today however the term water governance is used more broadly to describe the political, social, economic and administrative systems that are in place, and which directly or indirectly affect the use, development and management of water resources, and the delivery of water services to various levels of society. A governance regime is a system of formal institutions, water legislations, informal institutions like social norms and customs for water-sharing, and actor-networks including stakeholders for policy formulation & implementation. Governance systems which include relationships of power, authority, and legitimacy are complex adaptative systems with non-linear dynamics capable of including periods of incremental modifications as well as abrupt transformational change. Water governance regimes address, among other things, principles of equity and efficiency in water allocation and distribution, water administration based on catchments, need for integrated management of water approaches, and the need to balance water use for socio-economic activities and ecosystems.. They clarify the roles of governments, civil society and the private sector in terms of ownership, management of water resources and water services. Good governance requires the involvement of the public, and the interest of all stakeholders must be included in the management and development of water resources.
Water governance is important because how societies choose to govern their water resources has great impact on people’s livelihoods and the sustainable development of ecosystems. Socially how water resources and related services are distributed have direct impacts on people’s health and livelihoods. Efficient and equitable use of water resources is critical for poverty alleviation. At the political level, all water stakeholders and citizens, including marginalized sections like indigenous people, women, slum-dwellers, etc should have equal opportunity to influence and monitor water management decisions and their outcomes. The environmental dimension of water governance is critical to ensure that water use takes into account the need to maintain ecosystem services. As opportunities for increasing water supply decrease in many parts of the world, competition over current supplies increases creating the need for improved water governance.
Water governance decisions are anchored in three levels – government, civil society and the private sector. Facilitating dynamic interactions among them and promoting dialogue and partnership is critical for water reforms and improving water governance. It must be noted that water governance depends not only on specific institutions mandated to govern water, but also on the overall governance context of any country. If the country lacks essential democratic institutions like right to freedom of speech, right to information and right to organize, then participatory approaches to water management will suffer. Similarly in the face of lack of information about water availability and water quality, people will have little chance to halt environmentally harmful projects or hold governments accountable for ill-governance of their resources. Water use and distribution is also affected by facts and circumstances outside the water sector. For example global markets and trade agreements can affect the choices of crops with serious implications for water demand in the agricultural sector. Water reforms should therefore take into account social, economical and political conditions outside the water sector that can have direct or indirect impacts on water resources.
Water reforms around the world
With slowly emerging changes in the predominant economic development paradigm towards a more balanced approach which recognizes the importance of investment in natural capital and the need to maintain ecosystem services and livelihoods, many countries are moving towards a greener economy. In the face of increasing pressure on water resources, acute competition for water, declining water quality and a continuing need for improving access to water and sanitation, water reforms have become an imperative need. Insecurity of water rights, mismatches between formal law and informal customary water rights and an unequal distribution of water are frequent sources of water conflicts in many countries. Climate change has made water resources management more challenging imposing major possibilities of rapid variability and unpredictability of water flows. Many countries are therefore moving away from the traditional water governance modes dominated by top-down approach towards bottom-up approaches which harness the knowledge, understanding and expertise of local people.
Water being essentially a local issue, its management requires a plethora of stakeholders at the municipal, basin, national, regional and international levels. In the face of absence of effective public governance to manage the interdependence across policy areas and between levels of government, policy-makers face obstacles in effectively formulating and implementing water reforms related to institutional and territorial fragmentation, limited institutional capacity, questionable resource allocation and unclear allocation of roles and responsibilities of different agencies. Insufficient means for measuring performance contribute to weak accountability and transparency. Similarly insufficient hydrological data and networks for sharing information pose difficulties specially in transboundary rivers. The nexus between water, energy, agriculture and environment also present significant challenges for water policy reform efforts. Due to the silo nature of governmental functioning, policies across water, energy, agriculture and environment are formulated without sufficient consideration of their inter-relationship. For example as countries confront water resources constraints they turn to energy intensive solutions like long-haul water haul and desalination, and when confronted with energy constraints, they resort to water intensive options like biofuels and steam-cycle power plants. Institutional arrangements need to be re-engineered to create a greater intersection between policy formulation and implementation in these areas.
Water reforms in many countries have typically included components linked to decentralization of water decision-making, increasing stakeholder participation, promoting incentives for more and better public-private partnerships, privatisation of water delivery/distribution services, community involvement, and clarification of institutional roles and responsibilities through formal legislation or informal customary law. Local stakeholder participation has facilitated more informed decision-making, more effective implementation and enhanced conflict-resolution, besides giving voice to relatively powerless groups like subsistence farmers, women, traditional fishermen, indigenous people, etc. However it must be said that water economies in most developing countries remain largely informal with little interface between users and public institutions. In some reform efforts have largely focused on direct regulation and management, overestimating the capacity of legal provisions to influence water use patterns, and have sidelined incentive-based approaches which can give better results.
Although various private enterprises, community based organizations, water users associations and NGOs can play important roles in partnership with government agencies in better delivery of water services, the privatization of water supply is a particularly controversial issue and bogged in ideological debates. Since water is such a vital part of the economy and infrastructure, it is not surprising that there has been an enormous push for privatization of water services. Some privatization programmes have produced positive results, but some have been catastrophes like the case of Cochabamba in Bolivia in 2000 where a consortium of private companies led by American corporate Bechtel had to quit the contract due to public unrest, and then file an arbitration case in the International Centre for the Resolution of Investment Disputes for losses of over 25 million dollars. The overall record of water services privatisation is therefore not encouraging. From Argentina to Bolivia and from the Philippines to the US, the conviction that the private sector offers a magic bullet for unleashing efficiency and equity needed to accelerate progress towards the goal of ‘ water for all’ has proved to be misplaced. While these failures of water contracts do not provide evidence that the private sector has no role to play, they do point the need for greater caution, better regulation and a greater commitment to equity in public-private partnerships. Weak or non-existent governmental regulations for the protection of the poor can result in a case of ‘no payment, no supply’. Weak regulations can also result in market -based rules pushing water rights from low-value use to high-value users like industry. In such cases, the water sector ceases to be a social responsibility and water changes from being a social good to a mere commercial commodity. The conclusion of the 4th World Water Forum held in Japan in 2006 that governments should have the primary role in providing water access without precluding the role of the private sector in providing some of the services highlight the democratic accountability of the state for the provision of water services.
In conclusion, given the complexities of water use within the society, developing, allocating and managing water resources with equity, efficiency and sustainability requires that disparate voices with different perceptions about water are heard and respected in decisions regarding its use. In conflicts over water, the dispute is not exclusively or mainly socio-environmental, but also economical, political, cultural and territorial. Therefore the issue of water governance has to encompass all these different dimensions. Developing effective water governance and management practices grounded in sustainability and social justice is indeed one of urgent challenges of societies in the 21st century.
(Ermelinda Dias is the representative of All India Radio based in Dhaka)