Forum Umwelt & Entwicklung/ Netzwerk unser Wasser
Ever since the pronouncement of the first Water Decade in Mar del Plata in 1980, water has been high on the international agenda. Since then, usable freshwater reserves have become scarcer in several regions. Their quality has deteriorated world-wide. More and more people are suffering from an acute lack of drinking-water and are getting ill by consuming contaminated water.
Overuse and pollution of surface and groundwater are not only threatening further human lives and the prospects for humane living conditions but are also restricting diversity and productivity in the ecosystems to an increasing degree. In view of a water consumption that has strongly increased mainly owing to agricultural overuse but also because of growing population numbers, lasting conflicts over water use are already appearing on the horizon in addition to the regions presently lacking water.
Expertise and the will to cope with the structural dilemma have been unable to keep pace with the spread of problems. More and more frequently, access to water is being determined by violence and the threat of military muscle. Solving the water issue cannot be reduced to the question as to how much funding has to be raised and to which clientele groups it needs to be distributed. Neither can standardised technological concepts and economic policy models ensure diversified and sustainable development processes. Rather, an integrated assessment of the ecosystems is required, as are sustainable use of the resource water and, setting out from this, new partnership alliances in order to maintain the functioning of the aquatic natural balance and thus meet human needs on a lasting basis.
If they are to be successful in the long run, national structural policy and global development policy cannot be separated from maintaining the natural resources. As Agenda 21 stresses, water is a key factor here that plays cross-sectoral roles. German non-governmental organisations have got together in the “Environment and Development Forum” to advocate the conditions for a sustainable water and environmental policy in the context of development co-operation in their own country and in their international activities. The present paper that has been prepared for the International Conference on Freshwater in Bonn in December 2001, expresses this intention.
Water – an essential and threatened resource
1. Water and the balance of nature
Alongside sunlight, water is the crucial processor in transporting matter and energy from intercontinental to intercellular dimensions. Maintaining it preserves life in its natural environment, and secures the diversity of the ecosystems and the species as well as the conditions for further evolution. Moreover, water is an element that shapes nature and that, beyond its immediate use, is seen by human beings as a symbol of life.
Water and the habitats it shapes and maintains ought to be protected for their own sake, which is what the Biodiversity Convention of Rio also demands. In the continuous natural cycle of water, different ecosystems perform irreplaceable functions, secure a stable water balance in terrestrial areas and thus enable the use of water by human beings. It is only within the confines of this natural cycle that water can be regarded as a “renewable resource”. And only a sustainable use that has been adjusted to this can maintain the productive interplay between water and nature on a lasting basis.
Water retention in forests, natural flood- plains and soil layers as well as the renewal and self purification water of rivers, lakes and the groundwater are among the most important natural functions of the water balance cycle.
2. Water in industry and society
Water is a means of survival and a crucial factor in economic development. Organised and secured availability of water is essential for maintaining human settlements on a lasting basis. This is why water management has required intelligent organising by society ever since the early high cultures. Its efficiency is not measured by production statistics but by its continuing to be of use for all members of society and by securing a natural balance that can be reproduced.
Rather than being under the aegis of highly specialised technicians and engineers, water management ought to be understood as an integrative task for society as a whole to deal with in accordance with the ramifications of the water balance. The basis for this to succeed is open information, a participation of citizens in decision-making processes and a common setting of societal values. This is why an optimum handling of water is far more than a mere issue of economic policy concepts.
Almost everywhere in the world, historical experience and the stability, health and development requirements of larger communities have resulted in the organisation of water supply and wastewater management as a responsibility of municipalities and communities. This entails demands on water as a common good that are understood as part of providing for human life as such. Community welfare-oriented availability of water is a common heritage.
Encountering the life-supporting water in its variety of roles and its aesthetic values is reflected in the culture of civilisations in many ways. The livelier these traditions are, the more the value attached to water is stressed is. What is essential is to delimit the social value of water from a purely technocratic and means-to-an-end oriented view, to maintain this value and integrate it into a living comprehension of sustainability.
3. Threats to bodies of water, the water balance and water use
Nature has provided for a very unequal distribution of water throughout the world. Nevertheless, human beings have proved ingenuity in adapting to local conditions. However, processes of industrialisation, population growth, migration and the expansion of world trade and capital transactions are eclipsing appropriate local treatment of water more and more. Overuse of and damage to aquatic ecosystems, which is at an increasing rate world-wide, is exacerbating the problem and causing far-reaching land partly irreversible impairment of freshwater resources.
In the countries of the South, the use of water often follows a growth model that has been imposed from the outside, largely ignoring the already existing scarcity of limited resources. The problems resulting from this are exacerbated because no sustainable policy, i.e. no policy oriented on protecting the natural resources and the interests of the people is developed in the South. This is due to economic, political, cultural and technological dependence on the countries of the North, so-called uneven development, a lack of participation of the majority of the population in decision-making processes as well as a lack of social balance. Further aspects such as population growth, urbanisation processes, water-intensive economic activities and a lack of technology transfer worsen the problem.
In the countries of the former Soviet Union as well as most of the eastern European countries, the collapse of the command economy has, by and large, increased existing shortcomings and created new ones thanks to the elimination of state welfare systems. Local governments are in need of funds and expertise in order to provide satisfactory solutions to the supply and disposal problems they have inherited. Privatisation that has partly set in is focusing on large-scale technical solutions and neglecting areas that are not profitable, especially in rural districts. Protecting the environment and water resources is just as underdeveloped as the democratic participation of the population in water management decisions.
Systematic comparisons and surveys of different conditions world-wide as well as the respective conclusions to be drawn are very difficult to make. Of course there is no uniform approach to explaining the critical water situations in different regions and countries. Nevertheless, common basic patterns are becoming apparent, as to be demonstrated in the following.
Problem area 1: Hydraulic river engineering with massive impacts
Throughout the world, the natural courses of rivers have been strongly changed by regulating, dyking and embanking, by the construction of reservoirs, dams and weirs as well as irrigation and draining measures. Their ecological diversity has been considerably reduced. Not only does this affect the water courses themselves but it also has an impact on their original floodplains, the water meadows, which feature changes between high, medium and low water levels. The goals pursued in this context have been new land for agriculture, settlements, shipping, hydro-electric power and protecting the use of these and adjoining adjacent areas by humans against flooding.
Across the world, 45,000 large (damming levels of more than 15 m height and/or more than three million cubic metres of dammed water volume) as well as 800,000 medium and smaller dams cut across the free watercourses of rivers. Each of these dams interferes with the continuity of the riparian ecosystem, destroys floodplains, floods other areas and contributes to extinction of animal and plant species.
Large-scale soil sealing in the areas of human settlement and clear-cutting of forests as well as the canalisation and embanking of rivers raises the threat of flooding and leads to a lowering of local new formation of groundwater. Much marshland outside the river meadows has had to make way for comprehensive demands on usage, including swamps, moors and springs. Together with them, their role as nutrient sinks, special biotopes and water retention areas is lost. Many lakes and groundwaters are suffering from pollution, over-fertilisation or excessive use of water.
It is above all thanks to their financial muscle capacity and technology that a sufficient supply of drinking water in terms of quality and quantity is ensured by and large for the industrialised countries of the North in spite of their massive interference with the natural water balance. For even polluted water can be treated as drinking water if the necessary technical effort is made. However, such post-closure technology can provide neither for consumer health nor for the stabilisation of the ecosystems. In the interest of a sustainable management of bodies of water, the quality targets for drinking water and for water bodies must not be separated from each other in the future.
In the countries of the South, where it is often not possible to carry out technical restoration owing to a lack of funds, pollution and aggressive embanking have a direct impact on the supply of the population with unpolluted drinking water. Water bodies that can be used for drinking water supply without requiring larger investments are becoming scarcer and scarcer. The use and foreseeable exhaustion of non-renewable, fossil bodies of groundwater in arid and semi-arid areas presents a special problem.
Problem area 2: Pollution
Sustainable water management cannot be achieved without a drastic reduction in water pollution assessed world-wide. The inland waters and shores of the oceans and seas are at a considerable risk and their ecological role is disturbed, whether it be from the ecologically critical transport of nutrients in domestic and industrial wastewater and massive fertiliser and pesticide input from agriculture or the millions of tons of synthetically manufactured chemicals that enter the groundwater directly or indirectly.
In spite of some success scored in reducing the pollution of bodies of water with domestic and industrial wastewater, even the countries of the European Union are still miles away from the goal of reducing the pollution of bodies of water with hazardous substances to a value close to zero or close to the natural background values, notwithstanding the fact that this target has already been agreed by the countries bordering on these waters in international marine protection agreements such as HELCOM (Baltic Sea) and HOSPAR (North East Atlantic).
The disparities in the countries and regions of the South are being exacerbated by population and economic growth, inappropriate use of water, exceptionally high loss of water owing to leaking pipe systems and evaporation because of inefficient irrigation systems. The destruction of natural water cycles by clear-cutting, soil erosion, soil degradation, mining and changes in climate is adding to the problems. Depending on the region, global warming is going to lead to less or temporarily excessive rainfall, both of which will interfere with the water balance and the scope for humans using water.
Problem area III: Wrong approaches to development
Some of the development projects supported by the North and involving a high technological and investment effort, such as large-scale dams or irrigated agriculture, have added to the water crisis. Moreover, they have frequently gone hand in hand with grave infringements of human rights. For example, the report of the World Commission on Dams, which was submitted in November 2000, points to the severe social and ecological impacts of such measures, stating that between 40 and 80 million people have been resettled – frequently against their own will – or driven away because of dam projects. Conclusions have to be drawn for forward-looking projects from this past.
Large-area canalisation and irrigation agriculture according to patterns set by the industrial nations are not transferable solutions in any case since one of the aspects they mostly take for granted is water in abundance. Industrial irrigation agriculture, which accounts for 70 percent of water consumption world-wide, makes a significant contribution to water scarcity and disparities in distribution with its high levels of consumption, waste and inefficiency. In exporting agriculture in particular, which is being promoted by multilateral and bilateral development co-operation and the transfer of (food) production to developing countries (soy), water consumption is very high and is resulting in an indirect “water export”.
Problem area IV: Privatising drinking-water supplies
With resources becoming scarcer, unequal access and a lack of participation, competition for distribution between different types of use and user groups is growing. Both internal and inter-state conflicts concerning water are threatening to increase. Several current and potential conflict regions are in the countries of the South. In some countries, the state has not fulfilled its task of providing water for everyone on acceptable terms. This may be due to poor management, corruption and bad investments, but also to public poverty owing to wrong or hasty structural adjustment policies, over-indebtedness, dwindling development funds or flagging export revenue.
For some years, a number of governments, as well as development organisations, have opted predominantly for attempting to solve the water problems by involving private supply companies operating on a global scale.
These companies are expected to provide funds for new plants or upgrading old ones and necessary technical and management know-how, and ensure increases in efficiency and long-term commitment. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and bilateral development politics including German Development Co-operation are supporting this approach, which demands that the state restricts itself to improving the framework conditions for the activities of private investors.
Partly, international creditors couple this with demands for a restructuring of economies serving the security of the investors and, at least in the short term, calling on the poorer sections of the population to make the biggest sacrifices. At international level, attempts are also being made via the World Trade Organization (WTO) to liberalise world trade in their services sector by removing obstacles to competition (GATS Negotiations) and integrate water management into global capital market structures.
Economising and commercialising water management has a number of disadvantages. The marketing strategies turn water into a commodity, the marketability of which is not adjusted to people’s requirements and the natural resource conditions but to the profit orientation of shareholders and the power interests of large concerns. In practice, these combine with the interests of clients with purchasing power, especially in the metropolis regions, in industry and in intensive agriculture, while the poorer sections of the population, the urban slums and the rural areas, lose out. Private concerns have also shown little interest in urgently required improvements in the wastewater situation in developing countries and in maintenance measures for older plants.
The strong capitalisation of water management in the hands of private industry almost always favours expensive projects involving elaborate technologies. They increase the economic dependence of poorer countries and neglect precisely those projects and forms of development that offer prospects for sustainability. These are above all low-cost, decentralised, grassroots and historically tried and tested solutions, such as rainwater harvesting. It is only these technologies that are adapted to the needs and requirements of poorer sections of the population and poorer areas.
Concentrating capital and technology in private hands weakens the local alternatives, i.e. the advancement of local economies, the formation of co-operative organisations, the steady establishment of knowledge based on experience, solidarity among consumers and democratic participation in decision-making processes.
Private water companies will not be able to fulfil the claim they have made again and again to solve the water dilemma of the poor and tackle the world’s water crisis, for:
Liberalisation and privatisation
- result world-wide in a loss of community, democratically legitimised control of water supply,
- favour an extended formation of monopolies by buying up and merging firms,
- increase dependence on foreign investors who will nevertheless attempt to pass their business risk on to others,
- promote a one-sided orientation of strategic options for water procurement and water treatment on economic criteria and interests,
- jeopardise local water cycles by high outflows of water for long-distance water supply,
- add to the loss of specialist know-how and traditional knowledge,
- pose a threat to a local interest in preventive protection of natural resources and sustainable resource management.
In the German Federal Republic, water supply, 85 percent of which is still in public ownership, has attained a very high level of quality on an international scale. This refers to the quality of drinking water including compliance with the minimisation requirement for harmful substances, quality monitoring of raw and purified water, the safety and quality of plants, technical and organisational competence and efforts to maintain area protection of bodies of water and, in particular, groundwater. Water supply is seen as part of an integrated local environment policy.
This system, which is also strongly embedded in local government legislation, has come under pressure from acquisitions and participation of private concerns and from political efforts to introduce competition and ostensible cost-cutting. Many sides fear that liberalisation and privatisation together with the resulting commercialisation of water supply will above all lead to a decline in water quality, the prevention of water pollution, tried and tested diversity and a sustainable perception of water management.
Demands and proposals
The natural limits of ecosystems to stand pollution cannot be extended. They have to be observed, and the ecosystems have to be protected in terms of their role in nature, as well for their key natural function in the interest of human needs.
Sustainable management of water should
- maintain networking of aquatic ecosystems over small and large areas and beyond the water resources that are in immediate use, and it should preserve their multitude of roles within ecosystems,
- avoid pollution, embanking, overuse and other disadvantageous alterations of bodies of water and marshland or, depending on the circumstances, restrict such impacts to a minimum necessary level,
- set national and international standards for preserving and restoring the quality of water and water body ecosystems wherever these are missing or are insufficient,
- define bodies of water as worthy of protection in the sense of the European Water Framework Directive in their natural context over wide areas (catchment areas),
- avoid wasting water, promote the efficient use of water in the respective area of application and maintain a sustainable management of natural resources.
What is equally important for the preservation of the freshwater ecosystems is to abstain from or minimise structural interventions that are often irreversible and usually cannot be compensated for. This applies to dams, canalising rivers, isolating flood plains, draining marshlands and large irrigation projects in areas with a shortage of water.
Generally, there should be less strain on the resources. This can mean doing away with water-intensive modes of production, especially in agriculture in areas that are unsuitable. Here, the short-term and long-term costs for the economy have to be considered.
Water management projects must not be regarded in isolation. They are not an instrument to boost exports of relevant industries and services and should not generate a return or outflow of capital from the recipient countries. A targeted political organisation based on sufficient expertise of water management in the respective countries is indispensable for a sustainable development of the water and wastewater sector. It ought to be boosted by co-operating at non-commercial levels with the aim of enabling and extending the involvement of the population and individual groups in planning and decision-making processes and promoting local know-how and securing it on a lasting basis. This is also the task of broad-based, interdisciplinary educational campaigns in which environmental and development policy activities ought to be combined.
All in all, processes in government action have to be made more transparent and more open to the integration of participatory elements at all levels.
Demands regarding development co-operation result from experience made so far.
- Since a participation of the foreign private sector bears more disadvantages than opportunities from a development policy angle, public-funded development co-operation ought to reassess its support of large concerns with development co-operation funds and, if appropriate, suspend it.
- Instead, it ought to promote the realisation of alternatives such as boosting the abilities of central and local governments to fulfil their duty to provide for the existence of all citizens, more support for public, local water suppliers and the development and implementation of grassroots solutions involving the population.
- Water consumption and water supply systems of regions with an abundance of water must not be transferred to the rest of the world as a model concept.
- The principles of the World Commission on Dams have to be recognised and implemented as a minimum standard for planning hydraulic engineering projects and putting them into practice.
The disadvantages of dams and embanking of rivers in terms of the ecology as a whole must not be ignored. We would set the following priorities in this context:
- information and transparency, especially in projects with German participation,
- lessening the social and ecological problems that have already been caused by the construction of dams,
- reviewing all large-scale dam projects that are in the planning or implementing phase and stopping further funding until proof has been provided of compliance with the WCD recommendations,
- increased promotion of alternatives in the area of sustainable energy and water supply by decentralised and small-scale projects, combined with the demand for alternative and economically and socially sustainable modes of production and products.
What has to be achieved is a world-wide recognition of the basic right to water!
Clean water is a fundamental prerequisite for human survival. Its safe and affordable provision is therefore a humanitarian and social basic requirement and a priority goal of state development. Among the conditions for this are the recognition of the right to water and local control of protection and fair distribution of the natural resources.
In addition to possible codification, a guarantee of the basic right to water requires an effective set of rules that is binding for national and international institutions as well as private and public industry.
All groups in society are called upon to contribute to water issues and their sustainable solution gaining high priority both in the countries of the North and the South and public debate on this topic being stimulated.