The feet of the “Zouave” statue of the Alma bridge in Paris have been covered by the rising level of the Seine. It is the classic indicator for Parisians of a significant flooding of the river and a stark reminder of the historic 1910 event when the water reached the Zouave’s shoulders. If, as is the case today, only one tributary of the Seine is overflowing, what would happen if others did the same, as in 1910?
A major flood similar to 1910 would have direct and indirect impacts on nearly 5 million citizens, many companies and the life of the city for several months. In a 2014 OECD report, Seine Basin, Île-de-France: Resilience to Major Floods, the economic damage of a major flood in the Paris region was estimated at a minimum of EUR 3 billion up to a staggering EUR 30 billion for direct damage. The significant macroeconomic impact in terms of GDP, jobs lost and public finances also need to be taken into account.
One of government’s key responsibilities is to ensure that large metropolitan areas are resilient to major risks, to guarantee the safety and welfare of the public and maintain public trust. This is a major governance challenge. The governance of risks includes the need to develop a long term flood management strategy, to strengthen the risk culture, to foster urban resilience, particularly for critical infrastructure, and to develop a long-term financial strategy.
This is not only a challenge for Paris but is affecting countries across the world as vulnerabilities to climate change and its impact on precipitation patterns begin to be felt. OECD countries come together to discuss and share their experience with us in our High Level Risk Forum and OECD research and good practice support efforts to build resilience to major shocks and promote adaptation to climate change.
Following the Great East Japan Earthquake or the flooding associated with Hurricane Sandy in New York, governments, local authorities and civil society have become increasingly aware of the fragility of major urban centres when disasters occur and of the degree to which critical infrastructure are interconnected.
We need to assess the capacity of cities to adapt to extreme weather, water or climate events and look for innovative solutions to build resilience. Preventing such shocks from happening and limiting the damage they cause should be a public policy priority. The Paris floods are another call to action for the international community.
Shayne MacLachlan, OECD Environment Directorate
Newcastle, Australia has the dubious honour of being the world’s largest port for coal exports. There’s even a coal price index named after it: The NEWC Index. Surfing Novocastrian beaches not only means “watching out” for great-white sharks, but also “being watched” by the lurking great-red coal ships out beyond the breakers, waiting to come in to port for their fill (see photo). Growing up accustomed to these ever-present leviathans, I never questioned what ships did to the environment and to our health apart from when they crash and leak oil. This all changed recently as I discovered a raft of statistics about the shipping industry that indicate we’ve been sailing too close to the rocks since the engine started replacing sails and oars in the early 1800s.
A stern warning for climate change, and our health
Shipping brings us 90% of world trade and has increased in size by 400% in the last 45 years. Cargo ships, tankers and dry-bulk tankers are an essential element of a globalised world economy, but they are thirsty titans and they won’t settle for diet drinks. There are up to 100,000 working vessels on the ocean and some travel an incredible 2/3 of the distance to the moon in one year. Some stats floating around state that the 15 largest ships emit as much as all the 780 million cars in the world in terms of particulates, soot and noxious gases. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) says sea shipping makes up around 3% of global CO2 emissions which is slightly less than Japan’s annual emissions, the world’s 5th-highest emitting country. Ships carry considerable loads so they’re reasonably efficient on a tonne-per-kilometre basis, but with shipping growing so fast, this “broad in the beam” industry is laying down a significant carbon footprint. And local pollution created by ships when they are moored and as they rev hard to get in and out of port can be severe as most use low-grade bunker oil, containing highly-polluting sulphur. Ships also produce high levels of harmful nanoparticles, but encouragingly we’ve seen IMO collaboration to raise standards on air pollution from ships.
Mal de mer with rudderless regulation
A recent estimate forecasts that CO2 emissions from ships will increase by up to 250% in the next 35 years, and could represent 14% of total global emissions by 2050. This could wreck our hopes of getting to a well-below 2°C warming scenario. Even though many, including Richard Branson, called for emission reduction targets for international aviation and shipping to be included in the COP21 Paris Climate agreement, we failed. The IMO has introduced binding energy-efficiency measures so by 2025 all new ships will have to be 30% more efficient that those built today, but in my view there are questions about stringency and seemingly they don’t go far enough.
Navigating alternative routes to <2°C
As the Arctic ice sheet melts, a route across the North Pole would be about one-fifth shorter in distance than the Northern Sea route. But this isn’t what I have in mind for reducing shipping fuel consumption and emissions. We need to develop a copper-bottomed response to the challenge by further boosting investment in innovation and research. It’s great to all these sustainable shipping initiatives in the offing:
- Fit wind, wave and solar power such as kite sails, fins and solar panels. There’s some research into other energy sources underway such as nuclear cargo ships, but of course that presents another element of risk if something goes wrong.
- Increase carrying capacity of ships and future proofing of ships for a further 10-15 years with increased fuel efficiency by retrofitting vessels with more technologically advanced equipment.
- Use heat recovery technology to harness waste energy from exhaust gases to create steam, then mechanical energy, then electrical energy to power elements of the ship’s systems.
- Construct ships with sleeker design to reduce drag and install more efficient propellers.
- Use Maritime Emissions Treatment Systems (METS) in the form of a barge which positions large tubes over ships’ smoke stacks and captures and treats emissions from berthed vessels.
Let’s sink fossil fuels
Innovation and efficiency is hardly a “cut and run” approach. And typically when an industry reduces fuel costs they use the savings to increase activity, meaning carbon reduction is limited. This “rebound effect” could happen in maritime shipping. Truly green shipping will require vessels that are 100% fossil-fuel free. To help drive down fossil-fuel use, a carbon charge for shipping (and aviation) has been proposed. The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) queried the carbon price of $US25 per tonne. Indeed this is higher than the price on CO2 for onshore industries in developed countries. What’s needed is a system where emitters that aren’t linked to a country’s climate policies are accountable. At COP17 in Durban, delegates discussed a universal charge for all ships that would generate billions of dollars. The money could be channelled to developing countries’ climate policy action. Phasing out subsidies on bunker fuel used by ships is also needed to get us on the right course.
You can’t cross the sea by standing and staring at the water
Following Paris it’s time for specific shipping emissions targets. It appears we know the co-ordinates but the fuel tanks are full of the wrong stuff. Earlier this month, the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) of the IMO discussed emissions targets but only got as far as approving compulsory monitoring of ship fuel consumption. This is a key step if one day we introduce market-based mechanisms to reduce shipping emissions. What’s needed is accelerated action consistent with the Paris agreement.
In the doldrums of COP21, it seems shipping (and it’s by no means the only sector) is rather like that surfer, sitting on their board waiting for the next wave. At the same time it’s trying to avoid the lurking great white shark.
Did shipping just fail the climate test? ITF’s Olaf Merk on Shipping Today
Kiln have produced this interactive map showing movements of the global merchant fleet over the course of 2012, overlaid on a bathymetric map with statistics including a counter for emitted CO2 (in thousand tonnes) and maximum freight carried by represented vessels (varying units).
Claire Jolly, Head, Ocean Economy Group / OECD Space Forum, and Barrie Stevens, Senior Advisor, OECD Science and Technology Policy Division
For some, the ocean is the new economic frontier. It holds the promise of immense resource wealth and great potential for boosting economic growth, employment and innovation. And it is increasingly recognised as indispensable for addressing many of the global challenges facing the planet in the decades to come, from world food security and climate change to the provision of energy, natural resources and improved medical care. While the potential of the ocean to help meet these challenges is huge, it is already under stress from over-exploitation, pollution, declining biodiversity and climate change.
Calculations based on the OECD’s Ocean Economy Database value the ocean economy’s output (measured in terms of the ocean-based industries’ contribution to economic output and employment) in 2010 at USD 1.5 trillion, or approximately 2.5% of world gross value added (GVA). Offshore oil and gas accounted for one-third of total value added of the ocean based industries, followed by maritime and coastal tourism, maritime equipment and ports. Direct full-time employment in the ocean economy amounted to around 31 million jobs in 2010. The largest employers were industrial capture fisheries with over one-third of the total, and maritime and coastal tourism with almost one-quarter.
Economic activity in the ocean is expanding rapidly. However, an important constraint on the development of the ocean economy is the deterioration of its health. The ocean has absorbed much of the anthropogenic carbon emissions, leading to ocean acidification. Also, sea temperatures and sea levels are rising and ocean currents shifting, resulting in biodiversity and habitat loss, changes in fish stock composition and migration patterns, and higher frequency of severe ocean weather events. The prospects for future ocean development are further aggravated by land-based pollution, in particular agricultural run-off, chemicals, and plastics, as well as by overfishing and depleted fish stocks in many parts of the world.
Looking to 2030, many ocean-based industries have the potential to outperform the growth of the global economy as a whole, both in terms of value added and employment. Between 2010 and 2030 on a “business-as-usual” basis, the ocean economy could more than double its contribution to global value added, reaching over USD 3 trillion. Particularly strong growth is expected in marine aquaculture, offshore wind energy, fish processing, and shipbuilding and repair. Ocean industries also have the potential to make an important contribution to employment growth. In 2030, they are anticipated to employ approximately 40 million full-time equivalent jobs in the business as-usual scenario. The fastest growth in jobs is expected to occur in offshore wind energy, marine aquaculture, fish processing and port activities.
In the coming decades, scientific and technological advances are expected to play a crucial role both in addressing many ocean-related environmental challenges and in the development of ocean-based economic activities. Innovation in advanced materials, subsea engineering and technology, sensors and imaging, satellite technologies, computerisation and big data analytics, autonomous systems, biotechnology and nanotechnology – every sector of the ocean economy – stands to be affected by these technological advances.
Expected growth of ocean-based industries highlights the prospect of growing pressures on ocean resources and ocean space already under considerable stress, not least in economic exclusion zones (EEZs), where most of the activity takes place. The inability so far to deal with these pressures in an effective, timely way is in large part due to what is historically a sector-by-sector management of marine activities. At least for the foreseeable future, regulation of ocean activities is expected to continue to be largely sector-driven, with efforts focusing on the integration of emerging ocean industries into existing and fragmented regulatory frameworks. The number of countries and regions putting in place strategic policy frameworks for better ocean management within their EEZs has increased in recent years in response to growing pressures.
In order to boost the long-term development prospects of emerging ocean industries and their contribution to growth and employment, while managing the ocean in responsible, sustainable ways, a number of steps could be taken to enhance the sustainable development of the ocean economy.
Reinforce international co-operation in maritime science and technology as a means to stimulate innovation and strengthen the sustainable development of the ocean economy. This entails undertaking comparative analyses and reviews of the role of government policy regarding maritime clusters around the world, notably in respect of their effectiveness in stimulating and supporting cross-industry technological innovations in the maritime domain; and establishing international networks for the exchange of views and experience in establishing centres of excellence, innovation incubators and other innovation facilities in the field of cross-industry maritime technologies, and improving the sharing of technology and innovation among countries at different levels of development.
Strengthen integrated ocean management. In particular, this should involve greater use of economic analysis and economic tools, for example by establishing international platforms for the exchange of knowledge, experience and best practice, and by stepping up efforts to evaluate the economic effectiveness of public investment in marine research and observation. It should promote innovation in governance structures, processes and stakeholder engagement to render integrated ocean management more effective, more efficient and more inclusive.
Improve the statistical and methodological base at national and international level for measuring the scale and performance of ocean-based industries and their contribution to the overall economy. This could include further development of the OECD’s Ocean Economy Database.
Build more capacity for ocean industry foresight, including the assessment of future changes in ocean-based industries, and further development of the OECD’s current capacity for modelling future trends in the ocean economy at a global scale.
Job, in the book of the Bible he gave his name to, was a whiner’s whiner. His version of Happy Birthday includes the catchy lines “May the day of my birth perish and may God above not care about it; may no light shine on it. May gloom and utter darkness claim it once more.” Not a man to see a glass as half full or half empty, for Job it would be smashed on the floor and slice open your foot. So his words on precipitation are pretty much as you’d expect: “If He holds back the waters, there is drought; if He lets them loose, they devastate the land”.
To be fair, that was in the days before governments played “a key role in developing targeted policy responses to market failures that impede the efficient mitigation and allocation of drought and flood risks”, as the OECD Studies on Water report on Mitigating Droughts and Floods in Agriculture puts it. These responses, plus progress in agricultural methods and technology, mean that in most countries, droughts and floods don’t have the terrible impact on economies these days they’d had since biblical times.
In that respect, it’s interesting to look at the findings of Rudolf Brázdil from Masaryk University, Brno, in the Czech Republic and his colleagues in their study of data going back a thousand years on droughts in the Czech Lands. Nearer modern times you get data from instruments, but the earlier chronicles, diaries, tax data and so on describe a series of issues the OECD report talks about, too, such as competition for water resources and the way different impacts can interact. In the Czech case lack of rainfall is often described as not only damaging crops, but also making it impossible for water mills to grind what the farmers did manage to harvest.
It may seem odd taking Europe as an example when there are so many striking (and tragic) cases elsewhere. But one of the surprises for me in the OECD data was the figure below, showing the number and duration of droughts by continent. Europe is similar to Africa, and North America is worse than both of them. But their levels of resilience and vulnerability to risks, whether drought or flood, are very different. The report provides brief summaries of what these different terms mean: risk is the combination of the probability that something will happen and the impacts if it does; vulnerability is the capacity of a system to cope with a risk or combination of risks; and resilience is the system’s ability to recover after a shock.
Number and duration of droughts
Intuitively, you’d think that for risks you can’t eliminate, reducing vulnerability is the best policy. It’s not so simple: “Physical and economic interdependencies associated with specific characteristics of water imply there can be synergies and trade-offs in vulnerability reductions across water users and uses” says the report. Lord Smith, Chairman of the UK Environment Agency summed it up in February 2014 after particularly bad floods hit England, pointing out that flood defences cost money and the question was how much the taxpayer should be prepared to spend on different places, communities, and livelihoods. Or, as he put it, “this involves tricky issues of policy and priority: town or country, front rooms or farmland?”.
There can even be trade-offs between shorter and longer term vulnerabilities. Increased irrigation could help farmers cope with a drought, but over time groundwater reserves may be used up and the land become damaged irremediably by erosion and over-exploitation.
Fortunately, there are also ways to make everybody better off, by improving the efficiency with which water is used for instance. Given that agriculture accounts for 44% of the groundwater withdrawn in OECD countries, even relatively small changes by farmers could have a significant impact, although if the water allocation system gives them cheap, plentiful water they would have little or no incentive to change their ways of doing things.
Dams and other hydrological infrastructures could help. The Aswan High Dam for example saved Egypt from the impacts of the droughts and floods that provoked so much misery before it was built, but the OECD report argues that big hydrology projects should complement water policies that try to influence demand rather than replace them. It argues, too, for the need to reconcile environmental, social, and economic objectives (or sustainable development as it’s sometimes called).
Even with all the best policies in place, though, the OECD thinks drought and flood risks are likely to become a growing concern in the future for three reasons: increased population and associated rising demand for food, feed, fibre, and energy in the context of rising competition for water resources and increasing water-related vulnerability; increased demand for flood protection and mitigation for urban areas; and climate change increasing the frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events.
And the report reminds farmers of the need to look after themselves by taking out insurance and not just wait for help, for as Job so rightly pointed out, “Those who are at ease have contempt for misfortune”.
A Californian enigma: Record-high agricultural revenues during the most severe drought in history
Guillaume Gruère, OECD Trade and Agriculture Directorate
Drought in California has been in the headlines frequently these last three years, with startling pictures of empty reservoirs, rivers and canals, wildfires, disappearing snowpack and dry earth. The ongoing drought in the State is believed to be the most severe in the last 500 years.
The drought is having many different effects. After limiting outdoor watering use in cities, the governor has imposed an emergency state-wide reduction of 25% in urban water consumption. The use of water from the Central Valley project, a federal grand canal which links the northern and southern parts of the state, was banned for farm irrigation. Some media reports are asking how soon the Central Valley will turn into a desert; others ask when the population will start to leave the “Golden state”.
Yet these dramatic effects have not stopped the agricultural sector from growing. Even though large amounts of land were fallowed and there were significant losses in production and agricultural jobs (an estimated direct agricultural revenue loss of $1.5 billion in 2014), figures for 2013 and 2014 show the highest agricultural net income ever recorded in California. The fruit and nut industry, in particular, just like the state’s economy, continues to grow despite a four-year quasi absence of precipitation. Curiously, consumers have not seen any price increase in their food basket and are unlikely to do so.
How is this possible? The response lies underground. Groundwater has allowed high value Californian agriculture to continue thriving. It is estimated that groundwater has replaced 70% of the surface water lost through lack of rain in 2014. The California Central Valley aquifer, serving as a natural reservoir, has been used by farmers to replace unavailable surface water, helping California remain the top agricultural state in the leading agricultural nation, even under extremely high water stress.
Groundwater pumping like this is highly unsustainable; it is drying up the resources California will need in the future to face climate change. A growing body of evidence suggests that groundwater withdrawals largely exceed natural recharge and cause long-term environmental damage. While available data is partial and insufficient for a full diagnosis, satellite and other sources show that the Central California Aquifer is one of the most rapidly depleting aquifers globally.
Intensive pumping of groundwater for irrigation also generates large, increasing, and, in some cases, irreversible environmental damages. Pumping in coastal areas has led to sea water intrusion, making groundwater increasingly saline and difficult to use for irrigators and cities. Pumping in the valley has also compacted aquifers, resulting in a drastic lowering of the land (geologists call this land subsidence). In some areas, the land has gone down by 2m in the last 25 years and 20m in the last 90 years! This has not only damaged infrastructure, houses and canals, but is also probably irreversible, reducing the capacity of aquifers to store water in the future. A 2014 study even suggested that groundwater pumping has contributed to seasonal uplift of the Sierra Nevada Mountains (by up to 1-3mm) and that it has increased micro-seismic activities around the San Andreas Fault.
So what can we do? Groundwater has long been unregulated and unmonitored in California. Until last year, each landowner could use groundwater under his or her land with little or no constraint. This changed in September 2014 with the introduction of the California Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) which requires the formation of regional groups of users to set up a monitoring and management system to reach sustainable use of groundwater resources. In the absence of action by such local collectives, the state reserves the right to exert its authority.
The recent OECD report, Drying wells, rising stakes: Towards sustainable agricultural groundwater management, shows that California is one among the many semi-arid regions in OECD countries that face a similar situation. Farmers have largely benefited from the development of groundwater irrigation, during what has been called the “silent revolution”. But they have also started to see the effects of intensive pumping as water tables have dropped, rivers and wetlands have dried up (even under rainy conditions), and salinity has intruded into fresh water bodies.
Although groundwater policies have begun to be put in place, many management systems still lack critical components to be fully effective. Information and data monitoring systems for groundwater remain largely insufficient. This is because not enough attention is paid to groundwater despite the fact that it will become even more important as climate change advances. A good management system will comprise regulation, the right economic incentives and collective action – the tripod approach in this figure:Some countries do not enforce the regulations they have put in place (resulting in tens of thousands of illegal wells), and other countries even give incentives, such as reduced-price electricity for pumping, which exacerbates the problem.
With its recent reform, California may now be moving in the right direction. While the implementation of SGMA will take time and will be challenging, it is encouraging that more and better information will foster a promising combination of collective management, new regulations and economic instruments. At a minimum, it will help ensure that farmers play an active role in managing this critical resource, rather than simply emptying nature’s “savings”, inducing lasting environmental effects and jeopardising their future. It could also help ensure that this dry region remains a major producer and exporter of a broad range of agricultural products.
Policies to manage agricultural groundwater use, 16 OECD country profiles providing an overview of the national and regional policies to manage groundwater use in agriculture.
Howitt, R.E., MacEwan, D., J. Medellín-Azuara, J. R. Lund, and D. A. Sumner (2015), “Economic Analysis of the 2015 Drought for California Agriculture”, Center for Watershed Sciences, University of California – Davis, Davis, CA, 16 pp.
Pacific Institute (2015) Impacts of California’s Ongoing Drought: Agriculture, Oakland California.
Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics (2015), “The Economics of the Drought for California Food and Agriculture”, Agricultural and Resource Economics Update, Vol 18 (5), University of California.
The second International conference on Groundwater management in agriculture will take place in San Francisco in June 2016.
Today’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.
Tomorrow, November 19, is World Toilet Day and to celebrate I thought I‘d tell you how I fooled God when I was about four. I was playing outside and needed to go to the toilet, urgently, but realised I wouldn’t make it home in time and guessed that peeing outside was probably a sin. But in my personal theology, God was like a geostationary satellite observing the Earth from high in the sky, so I figured that if I hid under the overhang of a roof while I did the dastardly deed, I’d be OK. My relief was short-lived though as I saw with horror that I would be betrayed by the trickle seeping out into the open and He’d see me as soon as I quit my hiding place. So I edged round the building, back to the wall, then casually strolled away on the other side, whistling innocently, and leaving the Almighty to solve the mystery of the phantom pee.
It’s amusing now, but for hundreds of millions of people the world over, not being able to go to a toilet still has far more immediate consequences than divine retribution. 2.5 billion people don’t have access to a clean and safe toilet, so they improvise. For 1.1 billion people, the solution is open defecation, a practice that poses a major threat to human health, but also to economic and social development, as well as being an affront to human dignity.
As the 2010 Millennium Development Goals Report points out, indiscriminate defecation is the root cause of faecal-oral transmission of disease, which can have lethal consequences for young children. In this article, we gave the figures for what that means: in any given week, around 30,000 children under the age of five will die from water-related diseases, that’s one every 20 seconds. Unsafe water now kills more people than all forms of violence, including war, with diarrheal diseases claiming 1.8 million victims a year and causing more deaths in children under 15 than the combined impact of HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis.
Sanitation is also a gender issue. Women and girls have a greater need for privacy than men and boys when using toilets and when bathing. Inaccessible toilets and bathrooms make them more vulnerable to rape and other forms of sexual violence, especially if they have to walk long distances at night.
If they live in rural areas of developing countries, they also face a greater risk of being attacked by animals in the bush because women and girls tend to move quietly in order to be discreet. Snakes and other animals are then not scared away and are more likely to be surprised by the women’s presence and bite them. The solution is often to use “flying toilets” – human waste disposed of in plastic bags thrown into the open, a double source of pollution from both the wastes and the plastic bags.
Women and girls also have a much greater need for privacy and dignity when menstruating, and the taboos surrounding this in many cultures make the problems worse. Separate toilets for girls in school, for example, mean more girls are likely to attend classes in the first place, and more girls are likely to stay after puberty to complete their education. The World Toilet Day website puts it like this: “In many countries, girls stay home during their menstruation days because the absence of a safe place to change and clean themselves makes them feel unsecure … Besides the emotional stress, poor menstrual hygiene often leads to health problems such as abdominal pains, urinal infections and other diseases.”
Catarina de Albuquerque, UN expert on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation agrees: “Women and girls place higher value on the need for a private toilet than men, and thus are often willing to devote household resources to gaining such access. However, women are rarely in control of the household budget, and access to sanitation remains a low priority in many parts of the world.”
Unless policies and practices change significantly, the number of people without access to basic sanitation is expected to grow to 2.7 billion by 2015 and the world will miss the MDG target of halving the proportion of people without access. Almost 1.5 billion will still not have access to improved sanitation in 2050. The consequences for water quality are severe and made worse by the fact that progress in treating wastewater does not always keep pace with progress in collecting it, resulting in new sources of nutrients and pathogens being dumped untreated.
Issues related to water and sanitation are a priority for the OECD and you can find information here on our World Toilet Day webpage on a range of topics, including health impacts. A number of people working at the OECD are also involved through our War on Hunger Group. For example, last year the Group funded a project in Mozambique to reduce diarrhoea by at least 25% in children under the age of five by training in hygiene and changing current practices. The project also improves access to drinking water and to sanitation through the construction of protected water points and 60 family latrines. It contributes to the sustainability of the protected water points by establishing local maintenance services.
Colleagues from the War on Hunger Group told me that you need to accompany the building programme with education. Their experience suggests that, in some countries, the toilets are used as a much appreciated shed or store room, and people continue to go to the fields. The problem is the cleaning, which in some places can only be done by certain (often stigmatised) groups, such as untouchables in India.
If you’re wondering what you can do, Matt Damon has an idea:
The War on Hunger Group helps people tackle a number of problems that we in the developed countries never have to worry about, for example the fact that air pollution from cooking will soon kill more people in developing countries than malaria, tuberculosis or HIV/AIDS. This article from the OECD Observer describes how WHG contributing to a solution
* Insert your own joke about making a splash, flushed with success, etc