Water issues

The water issue in six short items.
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Drinking water shortage

It hardly ever occurs to us, but "water" also has its limits, especially drinking water. Since 1975 the demand for water has doubled worldwide. We produce, harvest and draw water at a great pace to feed, dress and provide with comfort the rising number of people on our planet.

teweinigdrinkwater.JPGAs a result, the pressure on a scarce but indispensable and vital resource increases steadily. The lack of pure potable water is a fact for 768 million people!

  • Every day 20.000 up to 30.000 people die from lack of pure water, that’s one every 8 seconds.  Many of these are children. In the Least Developed Countries 30 to 50% of infant mortality is caused by a lack of pure water.
  • Worldwide, 80% of diseases are due to a lack of pure water and good sanitation and hygiene: consequently, among other things, 250 to 300 million working days are lost annually.
  • Two up to three billion man- (generally woman-) days get lost annually to the search for water. The accompanying production loss is estimated on approximately 5 billion euro.
  • In countries such as Bolivia, during the dry season schools close in the morning because the children go and get water for the family. Women in West-Africa cannot develop activities of their own because every day they spend hours walking for water.

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Little progress

Considered globally, the percentage of "water-poor" remains approximately stable. In spite of the efforts that have been made during the two water decades to give everyone access to sufficient water by 2000, little progress is noticeable.

This stagnation has several causes:

  • the restricted level of investments within the sector, especially in the third world. Annually an estimated 25 billion euro needs to be invested to achieve the Millennium Development Goals for water.
  • the population growth. The absolute number of people who have access to drinking water increases but in terms of percentage there is no improvement. This phenomenon counts especially in the big cities in Asia and Latin America, where water supplies cannot keep up with the rapid population expansion.
  • the bad management and maintenance of many water pipes and wells. As a result a lot of financial resources and energy have to be invested in reparations.
  • the redefining of the role of the State, especially in the South. In the eighties many governments assumed with changing success the distribution of drinking water. However, the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAP's) that were imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund obliged most governments to reduce their social services. In the current decentralisation process local governments in the South now become responsible for the provision of drinking water, but most do not have the resources nor the required know-how for it.
  • the cost of drinking water is often too expensive for certain population groups in the South in comparison with their income. Consequently too big a share of the income is spent on water (sometimes up to 20 %).
  • the frequently missing access to sanitary installations and a good hygiene. Of course clean water is essential for personal and environmental hygiene. But somebody who suddenly gets access to drinking water does not automatically change his or her hygienical behaviour. As a consequence diseases such as cholera, worms and diarrhoea can quietly continue to proliferate. The number of deaths and cases of a disease as a result of "water-related" sicknesses can only be reduced significantly by simultaneously making drinking water available, foreseeing sufficient sanitary installations and adapting hygienic practices.

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The water crisis

Despite the vital and irreplaceable character of drinking water 900 million of people still don’t have access to it. The lack of access to water especially touches people in rural areas and in the rapidly growing suburban areas of cities in Latin America, Asia and Africa. At the beginning of this century the lack of pure water worldwide is still the biggest cause of sickness and death, of absenteeism at work and at school.

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Water conflicts

At present innumerable communities are threatened by a shortage of water, which is a problem for the maintenance and further development of their prosperity and well-being and of international stability.

Today there are an estimated 25 million “water refugees” in the world. They are fleeing from droughts and floods, mostly caused or worsened by human intervention. The growing inequality in the distribution of water also leads to internal tensions and international conflicts.

Worldwide there are 263 river basins shared by several countries. 60% of the world population lives in river basins that flow through different countries. Today this already contributes to tensions between Israel and Palestine, between Iraq and Syria, between India and Pakistan....

Rivers that flow through several countries, such as the Mekong, Ganges, Jordan, Tigris and Euphrates, Nile ... but also the Rhine, Meuse and Scheldt tend to become a source of economic conflicts, and in less stable regions possibly armed conflicts. Thus the water shortage of the common Jordan is now a source of conflict, then a means of blackmail between Israel and its neighbouring countries. No wonder if you know that Jordan has as good as exhausted its groundwater supplies, and that 90% of the water pumped up in the western bank of Jordan is used by Israel.

More examples:

  • the Cucap-indians in the North of Mexico are threatened with extinction because their rivers are pumped dry by Arizona's cotton fields and the swimming-pools of Los Angeles.
  • in the Sahel stock breeders, nomads and farmers are fighting for the control over water wells.
  • in Turkey, Philippines and in China the massive dam projects chase away entire population groups.

Conflict management, development and environmental protection go together. A thorough change in mentality, founded on ethical grounds, urges itself upon us to create the right conditions for a sustainable and solidarity policy.

Therefore the water problems in the South are our problems too. They cannot be solved without us revising the economic and power relationships between North and South. In addition, the water problems in the South are not only an injustice, they also constitute a threat to our world.

Finally one realises more and more that the conflict of interests between water users provokes rapidly mounting tensions not only in the South but also in the North: between environment and agriculture, between current and future generations, and between downstream and upstream users. Wherever in the South one experiments with new forms of water management, sometimes out of necessity, sometimes proceeding from one’s own cultural or social set of values, the North too can draw lessons from it in order to learn to treat this vital resource differently. So PROTOS and its partners want to build these bridges. For more information you can read: "Water and conflicts" (1.5 MB) (only available in Dutch).

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Lack of water and poverty

Today millions of people in the world still have to do serious financial and/or physical efforts to obtain water. As a consequence they have fewer opportunities to escape from poverty.

Lack of water really does entail insufficient possibilities for development. At the end of 2002 research workers of the British Centre for Ecology and Hydrology published the first Water Poverty Index (WPI). The WPI-index was developed in association with more than 100 water experts from all over the world. Its aim is to assess the water management in countries and communities according to an international standard. The index, a simple figure, gives an idea of the relations between water supplies, integrity of the environment, health, poverty and social neglect.

wpi.jpgWater and poverty: a complex link

The link between water scarcity and poverty speaks for itself, but is nevertheless more complex than is generally assumed. The installation of a pump or water pipe does not necessarily imply that women and children can take optimal advantage of the nearby and pure water. Because of their position and role within the family or community they are hardly involved in the management or training.

Also, apart from the availability of water, the fight against poverty equally has to do with how efficiently the available water is used. So the WPI-index not only takes into account geophysical and economic factors, but also social factors. Concretely 5 parameters are inserted: resources, access, capacity, use and environment.

  • Resources: measures the amount of surface- and groundwater that can be withdrawn per inhabitant; also takes into account qualitative aspects.
  • Access: takes into account the time and distance needed to dispose of a sufficient amount of safe water for human consumption; also checks whether there is sufficient water for agriculture and industry.
  • Capacity: sets how efficient the community can manage the water, and among others, also takes into account water-related diseases and child mortality.
  • Use: this parameter works in the opposite direction: the less, the better; what quantities are used for housekeeping, agriculture, cattle breeding and industry?
  • Environment: values ecological sustainability and is related among others to the quality of drinking, surface and groundwater, and to soil erosion.

The WPI-index attributes 20 points to each of the 5 categories. So the highest possible score for a country is 100.

Today’s ranking

Today Finland, with 78 points, has the highest score on the WPI-table, followed by Canada, Iceland and Norway. In those countries the drinking, surface and groundwater is largely available or can be purchased sufficiently, it is efficiently distributed and the water supplies are of excellent quality. Not only industrial countries figure at the top of the WPI-list, though. 2 developing countries are fifth and sixth: Guyana and Surinam. Some industrial countries even have a low classification, such as the US (32d) and Japan (114th). The water consumption in the US is the highest in the world whereas Japan among other things has a low availability of water. Surface water pollution also results in a lower score. This is among others the case for Belgium, which ends up 56th. In the general classification the worst scores are for Niger, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Malawi, Djibouti, Chad, Benin, Rwanda and Burundi. By far last on the list is Haiti with 35 points.

However, according to Dr. Sullivan of the British Centre for Ecology and Hydrology the ranking is not the most important. More importantly a means is now available to get a picture of where there’s still work to be done and to measure progress. Moreover Dr. Sullivan states that the WPI-index is still under construction and that it still can be/needs to be adjusted.

An addition to the Water Poverty Index (WPI) is the Climate Vulnerability Index (CVI). The latter takes into account extra geographical factors in function of the examined place. The CVI gives you an idea of the vulnerability of the environment.

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Water, no commercial good

Water is extremely valuable. The scarcity of sufficient pure water makes it even more valuable. The multinational water companies have understood this too.

In a ministerial declaration at the end of the 3rd World Water Forum of March 2003 in Kyoto it was declared that the access to water is a basic need (and not a right) and that water must be treated primarily as an economic good (and not only as a social good). It was also declared that water should get an economic value according to the market price which allows for the recovery of the total production costs (profits included).

Considering water as an economic good is a recent idea. Since the neo-liberal tide of the 1980s "the open market” has been regarded as the ideal instrument for an "efficient allocation" of goods and services, also of vital services such as water supplies. Thus for the World Bank and most international organisations, the private sector, with its capital and its technical and management knowledge, is the most suitable actor to reach the Millennium Goals. Moreover, they think that private companies function more efficiently and that as a result, the cost of water will decrease. It follows that the World Trade Organisation fully supports the process of liberalisation of the service sector and lays it down in the aforesaid GATS-agreements.

Within the framework of the SAP’s the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are now pressing many developing countries to privatise their water supplies’ management. One of their motives for doing so is to ensure that the latter would have the necessary funds to pay off their foreign debts.

Yet privatisation hasn’t by any means always provided the required result. Studies demonstrate that private companies in a non-competitive market (for mostly a monopoly situation is involved) are not necessarily more efficient than other forms of management. Abuses and corruption occur in the private sector too. In many cases in the South the water price multiplied after privatisation of the drinking water sector: e.g. Bolivia, Argentina, the Philippines... .

In "access to water for everyone" people asked to press the European Commission to withdraw the 72 calls for the liberalisation of water supply services within the framework of the so-called “GATS"-negotiations. The GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services) is one of the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) multilateral agreements on trade. In this agreement, that mostly has eyes for liberalisation, arrangements and obligations concerning the international trade in services are laid down. Apart from education, public transport, patient care, gas and electricity, water supply services too would be liberalised. Thereby the EU covetously looks at water markets in the rest of the world, but does not at all offer its water sector to others.

In March 2006 it turned out that in EU countries that liberalised the environmental services (among which water supply services) the drinking water distribution was no longer taken on. Consequently, the European Commission no longer insists on the liberalisation of environmental services within the framework of the general GATS- negotiations. However, in its individual discussions with certain countries the Commission may well continue to insist on the liberalisation of drinking water services. Moreover the common call still contains the liberalisation of effluent water purification. In many countries this service is inextricably linked with drinking water supply services, and so one thing can lead to another.

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