Blessed and Cursed by Water

OSLO - Millions of people are threatened by poor, unreliable, or non-existent water resources, and climate change could make things worse. IPS looked at some of the issues before participants at a World Bank conference on water and sanitation issues held in Oslo last week.

In 2008, the United Nations (U.N.) International Year of Sanitation, it is estimated that 2.16 billion people in developing countries lack that most basic of amenities -- a proper toilet. They do not have water conveniently pumped in and out of their homes for use in flush toilets. Many have no choice but to relieve themselves in ditches, behind the house, down the road, or at any other 'convenient' location.

The result: "widespread damage to human health and child survival prospects; social misery especially for women, the elderly and infirm; depressed economic productivity and human development; pollution to the living environment and water resources," according to the U.N. report 'Tackling a global crisis'.

Of course, water is not only a question of sanitation. This year is also part of the U.N's international decade for water, titled 'Water for Life'. Some more statistics: about 700 million people in 43 countries are affected by water scarcity, according to the U.N. In 2025 the number could be 3 billion. Around 1.1 billion people are said to have no access to safe drinking water.

"The question of poverty and underdevelopment will always be tied to the question of water," Terje Tvedt, professor at the University of Bergen, and a water and development expert, told IPS. Tvedt spoke on the sidelines of the conference on water and basic sanitation issues that was held by the World Bank and the Norwegian foreign ministry in Oslo May 20.

"Everybody needs water, and some have to spend great parts of their lives fetching it, as many women do, while some have to spend a lot of their wages buying it, as many poor people in the cities do," Tvedt said. "And where there are water borne diseases or malaria, water threatens their health. There are all kinds of concrete consequences related to water distribution."

Sometimes the consequences are less subtle. A quick glance at media reports provides ample evidence of the huge human costs of many water-related environmental disasters.

"There are massive existing adaptation gaps to water shocks, flood shocks, and drought shocks. There are hundreds and hundreds of millions of people in South Asia that already, without climate change, do not cope with droughts and floods," David Grey, the World Bank's senior water advisor for South Asia and Africa, told IPS.

"Africa is similar. Ten to twenty percentage points of GDP (gross domestic product) are lost as a consequence of very high levels of climate variability that go unregulated. Of all the regulation mechanisms that rich countries have used all over the world, there isn't a single industrial country that doesn't regulate rivers, and yet almost all of Africa's rivers are unregulated," he said.

There is a risk that climate change will compound such problems, according to Tvedt.

"To the extent that climate change will happen, it will largely materialise as changes in the way water flows in the landscape. There will be more rain or less rain, more evaporation or less evaporation, and so on," he said.

The World Bank is one of the largest institutions working with water issues.

Tvedt sees the World Bank-supported Nile Basin Initiative, which promotes cooperation between Nile countries in harnessing the river's resources, as an example of a "historically speaking highly interesting and potentially very positive" project. Another is the World Bank-brokered Indus Water Treaty between Pakistan and India from 1960, which resolved a dispute over border-crossing rivers.

These initiatives are not only about enhancing cooperation in using water resources, but also about how such cooperation can be used to promote peaceful coexistence and general development. Grey points out that in many cases you cannot have one without the other.

"Water is often a nation-dividing issue, and if water is a nation-dividing issue, water management and development stalls terribly. The challenge is to turn water into a nation-building opportunity," he said.

This challenge is greater in South Asia than in Africa, according to Grey.

"In South Asia people like to be consulted, they like to understand and to be involved. To have the state developing water resources without that consultation almost always creates tension and objection to development," he remarked.

"In Africa I think there is more of an understanding of the need for change. It doesn't have the long established bureaucracy of South Asia that is 150 or 200 years old. There is more innovation. For example, there are many more river based organisations and much more cooperation between states in Africa."

The World Bank has often been accused of relying too heavily on top-down solutions that ignore the voices and real needs of locals. It has been heavily criticised for imposing conditions, known as structural adjustment programmes, on loans to poor countries that have obliged them to undertake reforms that it is argued have increased poverty instead of decreasing it.

This was the view presented to the conference by senior advisor Gaim Kebreab at Norwegian Church Aid, the only NGO present. He argued for an increased focus on bottom-up approaches.

"Whether NGOs or local governments or the World Bank support the projects, they cannot be sustainable as long as the people are spectators. When the communities take the ownership and say 'this is what we want, that is what we want', and so on, then I think we can move ahead," Kebreab told IPS.

"The World Bank has to be democratised," he continued. "Now there is no democracy, the rich countries own the World Bank, and they have their own agendas. If it is to serve all peoples, then developing countries must sit down around the table.

"The point is that the top-down approach doesn't work by itself, and the bottom-up approach doesn't work by itself either. I think the two have to work together. The top has a macro understanding, while the bottom has the energy, the ownership, the implementation, and the management."

Tvedt says history does not necessarily teach this lesson. He argues that each new situation has its own new set of possibilities.

"In the past you will not find, and cannot find, models outlining how you should act in the future. The way in which the international development industry thinks about historical lessons is hugely unproductive -- it simply maintains a market for consultants, societal 'doctors' that rely on blueprints, on general models," Tvedt said.

"There are countless examples that counter the conclusion that top-down approaches don't work. The industrial revolution was inarguably a top-down process. Norway's development, China's development -- there are just so many examples of the opposite," he said.

Tvedt adds that the World Bank, as a whole, cannot be blamed for the failures of its constituent parts.

"The World Bank does not represent just one policy, and the outcome of World Bank policies is not the same regardless of where you are in the world. We have to get away from that way of thinking," he said.

(c) 2008 Inter Press Service

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.