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Diving into empty pools

9 April 2015

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


2 Responses leave one →
  1. Lorna permalink
    April 12, 2015

    There are many solutions percolating to solve the problem of lack of clean water that plagues so many countries (read peter diamondis Abundance) will be interesting to see if and how soon technology can apply a truly “disruptive ” solution to a global problem that will improve the lives of millions.

    • Bill Below permalink
      April 13, 2015

      The problem of safe drinking water is of course huge. OECD research shows that approximately 10% of the global burden of disease worldwide could be prevented with improvements to water, sanitation and hygiene and better water resource management worldwide. As might be expected, the burden of water-related diseases falls disproportionately on developing countries and particularly on children under five, with 30% of deaths of these children attributable to inadequate access to water and sanitation. Wastewater from domestic and industrial uses often reaches the environment untreated or insufficiently treated, resulting in major impacts on surface waters and associated ecosystems as well as economic activity that uses these resources. While future innovations will play a role, and hopefully a “disruptive” one, in ensuring safe water drinking water, the hard work of creating improvements through “low tech” solutions based on better governance and investment needs to happen now. Once in place they will serve to make emerging water technologies all the more effective (and adequately distributed) once they’re available. Innovation absolutely, but hard groundwork needs to precede it!

      Bill Below

      Bill Below

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