Diving into empty pools

world water forumToday’s post is by Bill Below of the OECD Directorate for Public Governance and Territorial Development

We humans have a dynamic relationship with the water we depend on. Call it fluid. Indeed, the story of civilisation is a water story. And, we’ve had fairly good success taming and stabilising our supplies of it. Other stories began well and ended badly. A theory posits that the fall of the Roman Empire can be traced in part to the high marginal cost of securing water for its colonies. There have also been unmitigated disasters. The desiccation of the Aral Sea in the 1960s, the failure of China’s Banqiao and Shimantan dams and the ongoing pollution of our precious groundwater reserves are examples.

Thirst has an edgy urgency. It informs the brain in no uncertain terms that the situation must not escalate. Perhaps that’s why when we think about water scarcity, we tend to focus on drinking water (the same water we in the developed world use to water our lawns, clean our clothes, take showers and flush our toilets). But in terms of global usage, drinking water accounts for only 8% of water use, with 22% used by industry and 70% for farming and irrigation. Effective water governance must mediate across a broad set of actors and needs that cut across all economic sectors.

This mediation is critical, for tough times lie ahead. The OECD 2012 Environmental Outlook projected that by 2050, the world’s population will have risen to 9 billion, 4 billions of which will live in severely water-stressed basins. By then, demand for water will have risen by 55% globally, and global nitrogen effluents from wastewater will have grown by 180%. According to the UN, over the last century water use has been growing at more than twice the rate of population increase. UNESCO reports that at the current rate, demand is set to surpass availability as early as 2050.

We can be oddly optimistic when faced with hugely challenging news. Unpleasant choices, novelty, the momentum of the status quo or just wishful thinking can delay necessary action. But even diehard optimists should not expect the present crisis to be solved by reclamation technologies, desalination or eleventh-hour innovations. Not even by rain. In many regions prolonged drought requires substantial precipitation and snowfall over many seasons—a trend that may very well remain elusive. Nor will population growth, a critical stress factor, suddenly abate. This leaves the onus on citizens, the private sector, civil society, governments and political leaders to forge solutions.

Scarcity is the crucible of good governance. Shedding light on what countries are actually doing to manage freshwater and wastewater is the focus of the OECD report “The Governance of Water Regulators.” Independence, accountability, the ability to collect accurate data as well as enforcement of regulations and standards… these qualities are critical if water regulators are to meet present and future challenges.

But there are leaks in the system. Water sources tend to span all forms of boundaries—administrative, geographical and political. Municipalities, regions and cross-border stakeholders must work in unison to ensure efficient, balanced and equitable usage of shared water resources. Surprisingly though, few mechanisms exist for concerted coordination. Nor are top-down solutions adequate to solve many of the local or regional issues of equitable water resource sharing. The OECD report concludes that best practices in water governance favour bottom-up, inclusive decision-making that involves a broad range of protagonists and stakeholders.

Yet, even long-standing, multi-stakeholder agreements are facing pressure. In the southwest United States, the Colorado River Compact comprises a complex web of federal laws, court decisions, compacts, decrees, contracts and regulatory guidelines determining water allocation to seven western states and Mexico. Allotments were defined in the 1920s, a time of relative water abundance at the start of the explosive urban expansion of the last century. Indeed, southern California’s growth was made possible in part by absorbing water surpluses not needed by the other states. Now, with drought and their own growing populations, those states are calling in their chits. Mexico, last served, is also vigorously defending its rights.

Cross border issues bring additional challenges. Approximately 40% of the world’s population lives in river and lake basins that comprise two or more countries. Over 90% of the world’s population lives in countries that share basins. More than 44 countries depend on other countries for over 50% of their renewable water resources. A United Nations convention offers the only global framework for dealing with shared basin disputes, but water rights remain a contentious international issue in many parts.

This is the case in the Tigris and Euphrates, the Nile and other shared river basins where water issues are enmeshed in a number of upstream and downstream disputes mixing sovereign rights, modified water volumes through hydroelectric and other developments, drought and the growing population needs of all riparian neighbours.

The takeaway: drought and population growth create uniquely acute pressures, and in the quest to secure water resources, sovereign, regional, local or sectorial entities will always put their constituencies first.

In the face of scarcity, societies must find new channels to inclusive growth. Better governance towards more efficient use of water will play a big role. Less water-intensive crops need to be promoted along with less wasteful irrigation techniques. Urban water management also must rise to the challenge of growing their economies with less water. The upcoming OECD publication “Water and Cities, Ensuring Sustainable Futures” underlines the necessity of interlinking finance, innovation, urban-rural cooperation and governance in achieving this.

But enforcement of water usage remains challenging. While the use of surface water can be more easily controlled by water authorities, groundwater use is often neither measured nor scrutinized. California, for example, passed its first law limiting groundwater pumping last year. Understanding both surface water and aquifers as a single system is crucial to a meaningful water policy designed to protect against aquifer depletion. As it stands, even developed countries are strangely schizophrenic on this point.

Part of this may be the difficulty of accurately measuring groundwater. New methods based on satellite gravimetry developed by NASA and Jay Famiglietti of the University of California, Irvine, enable remote measurement of groundwater, allowing scientists to gather objective data on regional volumes and depletion. The other dimension may prove thornier: namely, the complexity of water rights. Political, legal and even cultural blowback to attempts to create a more comprehensive, modern and inclusive approach to water rights is guaranteed.

Water governance and meaningful reform are a matter of scale. It requires widening the number of stakeholders in order to limit policy capture by regional or sectorial interests that run counter to goals of inclusiveness and sustainability. That means local interests must link up with regional and even national and transnational governing bodies. This subject is treated in depth in the OECD’s upcoming publication “Stakeholder Engagement for Inclusive Water Governance.” The political complexity can be daunting, and yet this is exactly where evidence-based policy tools and recommendations can make a difference. As accurate information flows in regarding how real-world policies are working, or not, and more precise global scientific data becomes available as to the true, net effect of policies on surface water and aquifer depletion, progress may be possible.

In the absence of adequate and equitable governance arrangements, water scarcity will impose its own organisation, or chaos. As always, the hardest hit will be the planet’s most vulnerable populations. The work of the OECD on water governance focusses on providing evidence-based data on governance arrangements so that government at its various levels may learn from the experience of others.

A drop in the bucket, perhaps, but along with political will and good old human resolve, we might just get the bucket back to sustainable levels.

Useful links

OECD Principles on Water Governance

UNESCO World Water Report, Water and Energy, 2014

OECD at the 7th World Water Forum in Daegu & Gyeongbuk, Republic of Korea

OECD Water Governance Initiative at the 7th World Water Forum

The Governance of Water Regulators

Water and Cities, Ensuring Sustainable Futures

Stakeholder Engagement for Inclusive Water Governance

City slickers and water security: governments getting their hands dirty

Today’s post is from Xavier Leflaive of the OECD Environment DirectorateWater meme

If you’ve just visited the room with no windows and enjoyed the effortless push of the “deposit disposal button” followed by a stream of fresh, clean tap water to wash your hands, you could well be in an OECD city. Count your blessings too if your basement or street has avoided flooding from heavy rain or if your lawn and plants are still in vibrant colour because they are well hydrated during the dry summer. This urban providence doesn’t mean you’re not exposed to the risk of flooding, water scarcity or pollution. It probably means that your city is rolling up its sleeves and getting equipped to manage these risks and minimise their consequences in a way that you and your fellow city slickers can afford.

Water security is providential: globally 1 billion people have no clean drinking water (that’s double the population of the EU) and 2.5 billion lack access to basic sanitation. 20 million people in the São Paulo region don’t know if they’ll have a reliable water supply in the coming months. The number of people at risk from floods is projected to rise from 1.2 billion today to around 1.6 billion in 2050 (nearly 20% of the world’s population). The economic value of assets at risk is expected to be around $45 trillion by 2050, a growth of over 340% from 2010. From a global perspective, the level of water risk protection that OECD city dwellers enjoy is remarkable. The question is, can it last?

Water infrastructure (particularly piping) in our cities is old, cracking and needs to be upgraded. In some cities, leakage from distribution networks is as much as 40%. This is not only a waste of water, but a monumental waste of energy in pumping, treating and channelling this water. It also represents lost opportunities for economic development and equity as this water could have been put to more valuable uses, depriving others of this vital resource.

Deteriorating water quality and increasing competition among water users indicates that many cities in OECD countries have outgrown their water supplies. We are witnessing an unprecedented rate of urbanisation: 86% of the OECD population will be living in urban areas by 2050 with a concentration in cities with over 1 million inhabitants. Climate change generates more uncertainty on how much water will be available and when. It puts cities in coastal zones at greater risk as sea level rises. It gets one asking “does my city have a viable plan to ensure a sustainable water future?”

The upcoming OECD report “Water and Cities: Ensuring Sustainable Futures” warns that managing urban water in the future will need to combine new perspectives on financing, the diffusion of innovative techniques and practices, co-operation between cities and their rural environment, and governance.

Cities in developing countries need to build new infrastructures to secure access and protect against water risks.

Cities in OECD countries face a distinctive challenge: how to renew existing infrastructures and adapt them to a new context, characterised by more variable rain, declining consumption in city centres, and new expectations from city dwellers? This requires additional finance to upgrade existing infrastructures.

We need to explore ways to jumpstart and leverage private investment from groups like financiers, property developers, as well as small entrepreneurs. In France, a new urban water tax is raising revenue that contributes to long-term urban rainwater management by incentivising property owners to manage rainwater close to the source to limit stormwater run-off.

Beyond financing, we are seeing new methods in managing change and retrofitting maladapted infrastructures, architectures and business models. Combining a long-term strategy with a pragmatic approach to renewing the stock of buildings and assets can prove worthwhile. In Tokyo and San Francisco, water recycling is reducing dependence on surface water as well as raising public awareness of the importance of saving water.

Civil society can’t tackle future water challenges on its own. Smart partnerships and better governance can contribute to sustainable urban water management. The “Greenways” programme in Auckland aligns city council actions and investment across a range of policy and operational units, with the aim of delivering multiple freshwater, biodiversity, transport, urban design and stormwater-related outcomes from the same investment. Future water management in OECD cities will also largely depend on the capacities of different tiers of government to work together along a coherent pathway, as well as engage with, and make the best use of, initiatives by local entrepreneurs and stakeholders.

You may now be able to better appreciate the “privilege” of sporting clean hands and dry feet. The OECD is helping governments get their hands dirty in the transition from an era of exploiting existing infrastructures to one of building new assets and retrofitting infrastructure to adapt to changing future conditions. This action is both critical and pressing, to ensure city slickers’ health, economy and environment remain intact.

Useful links

OECD work on water

http://issuu.com/oecd.publishing/docs/oecd_work-on-water-2014_update_augu

Managing Future Water for Cities

World Water Forum in Korea, 12-17 April

http://www.quickmeme.com/Confession-kid/page/97/

Dying for a drink

Rain, rain, please come back

Imagine a mile-wide lake evaporating so quickly that shellfish dry and shrivel inside their shells. That’s what happened in Damoguzhen in south-west China over the past few months.

A drought affecting all of south-east Asia is sucking the water from rivers, lakes, streams and wetlands, destroying crops, reducing the output of hydroelectric powerplants and threatening the livelihoods of millions of people.

The drought is causing political tensions too, first among the various groups competing for what water there is, and second among countries who share resources such as the Mekong river.

 It could be a sign of climate change, and with the post-Copenhagen talks getting off to a difficult start, a timely warning of what could be in store. Yet even without global warming, demographic change and economic growth will place the world’s water supplies under strain.

Over 90% of projected population growth by 2050 (3 billion more people) will be in developing countries, often in regions which already are water scarce. And according to the 2009 UN Water Development Report, in 2030, 47% of the world population will be living in areas of high water stress.

In Africa alone, by 2020, between 75 and 250 million people may experience increased water stress due to climate change. The UN report estimates that 24 to 700 million people could be displaced because of a scarcity of water.

Even today, unsafe water kills more people than all forms of violence, including war. Diarrheal diseases kill 1.8 million people a year, and one child under the age of five dies every 20 seconds from water-related diseases.  

We’ll be discussing sanitation and hygiene in a new OECD Insights on water. Other topics will probably include the amount of investment needed for water-related infrastructure ($772 billion a year in OECD and Brazil, Russia, India and China countries by 2015 to maintain existing infrastructure and finance new projects) as well as water for various uses.

Agriculture uses 70% of the world’s water at present but this could rise. Energy production is a big user too. For example nearly 40% of all freshwater withdrawn in the US goes to produce electricity at thermoelectric power plants.

The book is still in the planning stage, and we’d be happy to hear your ideas and arguments.

Useful links

The OECD Water Programme site has data, articles and a video of OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría talking about water pricing.

World Water Council

The Guardian has a number of videos on drought in Damoguzhen and elsewhere.

Water Aid is an NGO working to improve access to safe water, hygiene and sanitation in the world’s poorest communities.

Water.org is a US-based organisation founded by engineer Gary White and actor Matt Damon, with similar goals to Water Aid.