A way forward

Posted: 14 July 2003

Experts in the field believe that the world needs a Blue Revolution in water management, just as we need another Green Revolution in agriculture. Time is of the essence. Dwindling freshwater supplies per capita are threatening the health and living standards of millions of people in a growing number of countries, as well as undermining agricultural productivity and industrial development. Achieving a blue revolution will require co-ordinated policies and responses that address water issues in a comprehensive way, not the business as usual sectoral approaches of the past.

The Okovango Delta, Botswana. Credit: RAMSAR

Countries have agreed to numerous recommendations at international conferences on water over the past 20 years. Most of these lofty goals have yet to be put into practice. The Dublin Water Principles, agreed to at the 1992 conference, summarize the management challenges:

  • Principle No. 1: Freshwater is a very finite and vulnerable resource essential to sustain life, development and the environment.
  • Principle No. 2: Water development and management should be based on a participatory approach, involving users, planners and policy-makers at all levels.
  • Principle No. 3: Women play a central role in the provision, management and safeguarding of water.
  • Principle No. 4: Water has an economic value in all its uses and should be recognized as an economic good.

Turning principles into practice will be difficult. Most countries need massive investments in sanitation and water supply infrastructure. In the developed world, for instance, the UK must spend close to $60 billion building waste water treatment plants that meet new European water quality standards.

Another important part of any international water-management strategy is to help countries that share river basins fashion workable policies to manage water resources more equitably. A water-short world is an inherently unstable world. Nearly 100 countries share just 13 major rivers and lakes. More than 300 river systems cross international borders.

Water sharing

But resources, even in chronically water-short regions can be manage, instead of pillaged. Take the case of India and Bangladesh, which share the waters of the Ganges, the largest river system in the sub-continent. The river affects the lives of a billion people. After half a century of bitter rivalry and conflict over access to the waters of the Ganges, India and Bangladesh signed a new 30-year water-sharing agreement in December 1996.

If implemented fully, the agreement guarantees a minimum amount of water to Bangladesh during the dry season. The new treaty sets 10-day periods during the three driest months - March, April and May - when each country will alternately have access to an agreed-upon amount of water reaching the Farakka Barrage, a huge dam built by India in 1974 in an effort to capture as much of the river's flow as possible for its own use. This promises to permit downstream Bangladesh a more equitable share of the river's life-giving waters.

On a national basis, water experts agree that four strategic responses are needed:

  • Adopting a watershed or river-basin management perspective, especially in water-short regions; this is also appropriate as an international response, since watersheds frequently cross national boundaries.
  • Instituting a workable water infrastructure so that national, regional and local water needs can be met within the context of a national water policy.
  • Enacting and enforcing water legislation and regulations that conserve water and value the resource properly according to type of use and costs of re-suing the water for other purposes.
  • Connecting water management to the needs of agriculture, industry and municipalities, and meeting public health requirements for proper sanitation and disease control.

Local response

Local responses can also contribute to the equitable management and conservation of water resources. Locally led initiatives are demonstrating that water can be used much more efficiently, even in water-short regions.

Here are some examples:

  • Managing the Mossi Plateau in Burkina Faso. The plateau is in the main agricultural region of this dry country. Since the late 1970s a group called the "Six S's" has been promoting an integrated approach to water management. The group encourages small-scale irrigation systems along with reforestation and erosion control. It teaches village leaders new techniques for saving water and growing crops, provides basic hygiene education and helps with financing for water conservation.
  • Balinese rice growers have used small-scale irrigation techniques for the past 500 years. Their system is not technically advanced but instead relies on loose stone weirs to collect water, which is then distributed to terraced fields using hollowed-out coconut trees as piping. Accompanying this traditional system of water distribution is a social structure that regulates water among different communities, apportioning it according to the size of each rice paddy.
  • Potable water in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Six poor communities in the capital pooled their limited resources to make a deal with the water utility to provide them with piped water. As a result, the price that households paid for water actually dropped since residents no longer had to buy water from street. The proportion of the average family's income spent on water dropped dramatically from close to 20 per cent to under 5 per cent.

Links:The Dublin Statement on Water and Sustainable DevelopmentWater in the 21st Century, a report by the Asian Development BankThe World's Water: Information on the world's freshwater rersources.World Water Council