I was curious about why today, March 22nd was the date selected by the United Nations to celebrate World Water Day, and I have to admit that I couldn’t find the reason. Perhaps it is related to the beginning of spring and the thaw that turns ice into water, or perhaps it was just the result of an arbitrary selection determined by the busy schedule of International Days. Anyhow, let’s use the occasion to reflect upon the importance of water as a cultural, aesthetic, biophysical and public good, let’s think about water in the global context and its relation with human livelihoods. Even more importantly, let’s individually step back and look at the essential: what water means for each of us, what its impact is in our lives and how would we like it to be regarded and managed.
For the first time in history, more than half of world’s population lives in urban areas, registered in 2010. It is foreseen that this trend will continue, reaching 60% by 2030 and 70% in 2050. What consequences will this shift have concerning freshwater supply? In the context of such increasing global urbanization, it seems apparent that residential, commercial, municipal and industrial needs will play major roles in water management strategies. In this sense, efforts seem to be focused on the demand-side, for instance developing new freshwater-conserving technologies and urban planning approaches that minimize water consumption. Moreover, there is a generalized call for more effective data collection and monitoring of water supply and demand, an essential step if we are to improve freshwater management. This has been regarded by the private sector as an opportunity to participate in urban water supply and sanitation, arguing that their entry improves the efficiency and service quality of utilities. These claims have led to considerable controversy.
The present situation and the projections for total population growth and continued urbanization imply a steady increase in global water requirements – some estimations point out that by 2030, total water demand will be 40% above the current accessible, reliable supply –. It is worth thinking about the consequences of these trajectories. One particular point of contention that requires serious, democratic reflection is that of water privatization. Contractual relationships between government and water companies have been developed in many occasions with the aim of reducing fiscal burdens, fostering asset sales and concessions. This strategy has been criticized for considering water as a resource dependent on the regulations of the market, which has led to rate increases in numerous communities where water has been privatized (i.e. in the USA, UK). Conceiving water as a simple marketable commodity can tempt water enterprises to maximize prices, with no obligation to provide water to those who cannot afford it in addition to compromising water quality standards. On the other hand, many have pointed out that this problem may only arise in developed countries, whereas in developing countries privatizing water services actually improved water quality and the scope of its distribution (Gabon, Ivory Coast, Ghana) where governments due to a number of economic and political reasons failed to provide adequate water supply.
However, the main problem of water privatization that water users around the world have to face lies on the fact that water companies are accountable to shareholders and not to consumers, which in the long run can drive major conflicts: to reduce public control can be to reduce public rights. Poor communities could see their access to water jeopardized, which doesn’t align with the undeniable fact that water is a basic human right and need and is formally recognized in a UN resolution . Not less disturbing is the way in which many water privatization processes have been characterized by an evident lack of transparency and occultation of information, thus avoiding public social debate. Some privatization agreements carried cases of corruption, which doesn’t mean that privatization inherently leads to corruption. In contrast, in order to avoid these aforementioned problems, such processes require social debate, a high accountability and transparency, that considering its impact in all users. As it is said in my hometown: “if it is not transparent it is not water”. In this sense, it is imperative policy makers prioritize water security, meaning real reliable access to all users, for which it is essential to consider water as an undeniable essential right and public good. Taking this into accountand considering that water management issues vary considerably in each urban center, each context needs its own appropriate model. And principally, it requires the maximum consensus amongst public governmental institutions, private companies and fundamentally users, aiming to achieve a balanced vision of water for its social, environmental and cultural value.
But how do users perceive water? Do we have a clear opinion about how we want water to be managed and supplied? Recent surveys show that 77% of Americans don’t know where their water comes from. This is applicable to many European countries, pointing out the increasing alienation of urban populations from natural resources, preventing them from realizing its importance in their lives. But let’s take a look to the agricultural sector.
Irrigated agriculture has contributed since ancient times to build the identity of numerous cultures in Mesopotamia, the Nile, the Niger, the Zana or the Indus Valley, all of them conscious of their dependence on the precious resource. Similarly, indigenous communities around the world established their cultures on the dynamic, humanist and spiritual notions of their natural resources, water invariably being the omnipresent resource that sustains life. These visions, far from being inconsistent or vague as some may state, provide an alternative point of view that can help us manage water in a more sustainable way from a social and environmental perspective. Moreover, present-day smallholder farmers who irrigate their crops are also completely aware of the importance of the environmental, socio-cultural and economic value of water. They depict an integrated vision of the different dimensions of irrigated agriculture with an accurate perception of how the water supply affects their short and long-term interests, in contrast to most urban users.
Despite of all these factors, indigenous and poor rural communities and those who suffer directly from water crises are not represented in the World Water Council as well as in other water-relevant institutions, even though these institutions theoretically tend to envisage a common strategy over water resources and services for all actors of the “hydric community”. In this sense, it is especially astonishing how women have been disregarded in decision-making of water issues, taking into account the undeniable principal role of women in the provision of water for domestic use and more generally, in safeguarding water, especially amongst the poor in developing countries. Concerning irrigated agriculture, indigenous communities and family farmers have been historically forgotten in the development processes and access to productive resources and services, not just water, but also land, for being less productive according to old parameters of the green revolution. It can be affirmed that smallholders have been systematically excluded from the processes of planning, design and even evaluation of irrigation systems. In consequence, technical experts have very often failed to meet the social and environmental needs of irrigation systems, as well as to identify the causes of low performances, being therefore unable to implement adequate solutions. Recently researches are demonstrating that understanding and including smallholders’ and indigenous’ perceptions of water can contribute to building a more integrative vision of irrigated agriculture that is beneficial for all stakeholders.
In this context, agro-ecological practices performed by many family farmers are showing a high degree of productivity and sustainability in agriculture, through a coherent culture of water use and conservation. It can be therefore stated that agro-ecological principles aim for the efficient use of water, through diverse practices like mulching, the use of green manures, terracing or organic farming practices that have the final goal of conserving hydrologic basins. Such practices are oriented to improve water circulation and nutrient distribution in the soil to reduce leaching to groundwater bodies, increase water retention or improve crops’ tolerance to droughts. These strategies are irrefutable evidences of how agro-ecological practices are sensible to water issues, reason why there has been a claim for a shift in water management by a recent UN Environment Programme report, from “water for food” to “water for multifunctional agro-ecosystems” (Boelee et al., 2011). However, this trend in which agro-ecologic principles appear to be increasingly frequent in international water and food security policy narratives sounds contradictory to the global reality of industrial agriculture. The increasing urbanization discussed at the beginning of the article doesn’t favor the implementation of the agro-ecological principles, given the major role of family agriculture in agro-ecologic systems. On the contrary, generalized rural exodus is facilitating massive land grabbing and vice versa, which ends up in the expansion of industrial agriculture. It seems therefore pertinent to analyze the impact of rural development policies in the present and future context of water management at a global scale.
So what is water? A profitable commodity? A right? A cultural value? An environmental resource? As I see it, it is symbol of life, human patrimony, a common resource, and its present and future’s sustainability needs our involvement. Last week, the European Commission reacted positively for the first time to a European Citizens’ Initiative, Right2Water, which claimed for the right of European citizens to water and sanitation, asking as well for the exclusion of water supply and management of water resources from internal market rules and liberalization. Even though this shows the awareness of an active part of the European population and seems to be a success of participative democracy, the truth is that most of the population is becoming progressively less aware of our dependence on water and its value, which in turn makes us less prone to get personally involved in protecting our right to access it. On the other hand, many private enterprises are aware of the increasing competition for this resource, and are willing to make a profit out of it, managing water purely as an economic good. Thus, the EU promised to improve information for citizens through more transparent data management. Moreover, they declared their intention of removing water from the scope of the concessions directive. These encouraging strategies and the importance of the issue oblige us to keep more aware and involved than ever, given the large number of questions that remain unanswered: not considering concessions anymore, are other forms of privatization such as lease contracts or mixed ownership susceptible of being introduced? What is the current state of the privatizations announced for southern-European countries? Are there any plans to involve citizens durably in the decision processes of water management?
Beyond the consideration of water as a public good for its vital importance, water users need to be aware of the strategies that concern water supply, for which public debate needs to be stimulated and accessible to the population. There is a need to involve populations to harness creative and collaborative solutions in order to achieve sustainable water management. However, in both urban and rural agricultural scenarios it is necessary to understand what determines users’ perception of water and include them in decision-making processes concerning water management, actions that have not been undertaken so far in the sector.
to know more:
Boelee E et al. (2011) Ecosystems for water and food security, an ecosystem services approach to water and food security. Nairobi, Kenya: United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP); Colombo, Sri Lanka: International Water Management Institute (IWMI). 179p.