Waters of hate

  • 30/03/1998

for an environmentalist with an interest in water, this is the time to be on a water circuit. When the governments of the world met in June 1997 to discuss the progress made in the five years after the Rio conference, they decided that the 1998 meeting of the Commission on Sustainable Development (csd) will focus on the water section of Agenda 21, the Rio plan of action for the world. Since the csd normally meets every April, this is the time when governments, especially in Europe, are holding meetings to prepare themselves for their intervention. Johan Holmberg, executive secretary of the Global Water Partnership, a network of donor agencies and water professionals recently created by the World Bank, United Nations Development Programme and the Swedish International Development Agency, says, "there is now one meeting a week". The World Bank has also announced the establishment of an International Commission on Dams headed by the energetic water resources minister of South Africa, Kader Asmal.

A meeting was held last week in Bonn by the Germans to develop intervention for the csd meet. It was an impressive exercise with three German ministers and more than half-a-dozen ministers from the developing world. In this case, the Germans organised a multi-ministerial meeting because they wanted to harmonise the positions of the different ministries of the German government itself, namely, the environment ministry, the foreign affairs ministry and the development cooperation ministry. According to Meinhard Schulz-Baldes, the meeting had yet another political agenda. As Germany is vying for a seat on the un Security Council, it wants to improve its profile in foreign policy. The Germans are a big economic power but in the international arena their role is still small and they would like to correct this. In the years to come, conflicts over water could threaten both national as well as global security, and hence the need to take preventive action. Can, therefore, Germany, a major donor for water projects, lead the way?

Not surprisingly, the meeting focussed on three sub-regions of the developing world, the Mekong Delta, the Jordan River in the Middle East, and the rivers of southern Africa. The international management of the Rhine and the Danube were used as a case study from the industrialised world. The number of shared rivers and other surface water systems like lakes has gone up from about 200 to about 300 with the disintegration of the Soviet Union. In regions with small rivers, inter-country cooperation for their management is critical. The countries of southern Africa, for instance, sit astride numerous international river basins. Mozambique shares eight river basins with other countries, Angola, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe share five basins each, and Botswana shares four. Today, this is not such a critical issue. But as industrialisation and urbanisation grow, not only the water demand will skyrocket but so also will the potential to pollute. Therefore, advance action would be a better idea than negotiating in a crisis.

This is equally true at the national level for a country like India which has states sitting astride river basins that they share with other states. And with industrialisation, urbanisation and modernisation of agriculture, India's rivers are already reaching a stage of advanced decay. But hardly any effective mechanisms exist to ensure that states cooperate amongst themselves to ensure that issues relating to both water quantity and water quality are adequately addressed.

Two other issues emerged clearly at the Bonn meeting. They are cost recovery and participation of the private sector. Governments are finding that they do not have adequate money to invest in the water sector even as water treatment costs are zooming up because of growing pollution. Even many Western governments are finding it difficult to charge the full cost of water. Many cities today supply recycled water as drinking water. Getting freshwater to drink is becoming a rarity and a privilege. So what about developing countries where water is a heavily subsidised commodity in order to ensure access to the poor? But then subsidies to water supply means the state has less to invest in new water supply systems to meet the growing needs. It is clear that in the developing world extremely innovative ways are needed to ensure cost recovery together with social justice. The current subsidy mechanisms which support even the profligacy of the rich must obviously go.

In order to solve the investment crunch, almost every agency is pushing private sector participation. But the role of one of the critical non-state actors, namely, community-based organisations, is getting submerged in this debate.

It is clear that there is an urgent need for a national and international debate on how the world's water resources are going to be managed. The next item on the water circuit is a major conference in Paris convened by president Jacques Chirac of France and then there is the csd meeting itself. Let's hope that the world gets its act together on the world's most precious and most fluid substance - one which is here today and gone tomorrow and one that has a tendency to accumulate all the muck produced by human beings.

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