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Matching the reality and rhetoric surrounding water resources and services – how to achieve an informed public debate.


Keynote address to the Asia-Pacific Forum of Environmental Journalists, Dhaka, Bangladesh, May 8, 2006

What we Say
University Lectures

I want to explore with you today some of the most important issues in the water sector and discuss why I believe that the public and especially the people whose health and livelihood depends on improvements in the sector are too frequently deprived of objective information and commentary.

Greater public understanding of the management of water resources and services can facilitate improved policies and practices.

In most countries in Asia and the Pacific there are powerful vested interests. Some of these people may support reforms, but others may, in order to serve their own ends, slow down or seek to halt reforms which may, nevertheless, be in the best interests of the greater population.

It is critically important for the news media and others who are in a position to inform the general public and people who stand to benefit or lose out from reforms to explain all the implications objectively. Only when all arguments of the debate are accurately portrayed, and in a way which is transparent, especially to poorly educated people, will the rhetoric, which too often exaggerates and misinforms, come into line with the reality of what reforms actually entail.

With one in three people in Asia going without safe drinking water and one in two being without adequate sanitation facilities, failure to deliver these services has a severe impact on the health of nations, especially the poorest members of society. But where are the resources to be found to provide clean water and sanitation? Too often the debate about how to pay for these essentials for a healthy life is characterized by one-sided advocacy that does not objectively address obstacles and opportunities.

There is also insufficient informed debate on the management of water as a resource. By 2025 average per capita water resources will be 25% of what they were in 1950. Neglect of forested watersheds, loss of wetlands and growing pollution have contributed to this loss.  A river basin approach – integrated water resource management – is essential, but is too often inadequately understood by people other than specialists. Conservation of water for irrigation and better disposal of waste water for industry are both required.

Greater transparency and a more balanced debate with less heat and more light can create an environment that will permit improvements to take place to the benefit of many more people, especially the poor.

I will start with the issue of water as a resource to be managed, looking at Integrated Water Resource Management, and also explore the issue of trans-boundary water disputes and the notion that wars will be fought over water. The use of large amounts of water for irrigation will be touched on and then I will move to the major issue to be addressed of drinking water and sanitation and the role of the public and private sectors.

Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM)
IWRM as a process to improve the planning, conservation, development, and management of water, forest, land, and aquatic resources in a river basin context, to maximize economic benefits and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital environmental systems. It is typical for IWRM to be undertaken in a river basin context because river basins or, in some cases, groundwater basins, form the natural unit to manage water resources.

Yet, too often in the past, consideration has not been given to the different uses of water – outside each individual and each group’s sphere of interest. There has been too much of a focus on the short-term, and on producing water for specific ends rather than paying attention to managing the resource for the long-term.

Competition for water from upstream and downstream users inevitably has been accompanied by acrimonious debate.

Too often reporters are seduced by the arguments of one party and lose sight of the other side of the debate. As a result, the public at large and affected stakeholders specifically, become confused by reading or hearing widely different and often exaggerated points of view, as if they were the only arguments in play.

Governments have a key role in formulating national water policies, enacting water resources legislation, encouraging and regulating the private sector and promoting dialogue with neighboring countries.  Linked closely to the role of government is a need for a reallocation of water among competing uses. Governments need to adopt participatory approaches for water allocation, with regulatory agencies helping to develop water rights in a manner that protects the rights of the poor to equitable water services.

With competition for this scarce resource, it is critically important that all stakeholders are exposed to accurate and non-inflammatory information so that the sharing and fair allocation of resources is recognized as being for the good of all.

Will there be Water Wars?
The BBC recently conducted an online vote of 2,500 people asking the question: “Will the wars of the future be fought over water?” An overwhelming 80% think wars will be fought over water.

The fears of wars over the sharing of water between nations, upstream versus downstream demands, the impact of dams on neighboring countries, are real, but there is a danger that the rhetoric makes the situation worse. It shifts energy and resources from local priorities to foreign affairs. It scares off investment where it is most needed.

Water, by its very nature, tends to induce countries to co-operate, even as disputes rage over other issues. Some 3,600 water-related treaties have been signed in the past 2,000 years, versus seven minor water-related skirmishes, all of which began over non-water issues. There are strategic reasons. Of all the 261 trans-boundary waters, in only a few cases is the downstream country completely dependent on the river for water; can the upstream country restrict the river's flow; is there a legacy of antagonism between riparians; and is the downstream country militarily stronger than the upstream.
To give one example, Protocol 1 of the NATO Laws of War specifically prohibits any attack on "objects" indispensable to the survival of a civilian population such as food, drinking water installations and supplies or irrigation works, whatever the motives. Nor, for that matter, shall these be attacked if doing so releases, or removes, dangerous volumes of water from civilian populations.

No nations have gone to war strictly over water and, even with supply running low, I would like to oppose the conventional wisdom and argue that it is it is unlikely they ever will.

That is not to be blind to the very strong concerns that are felt here over, for instance, the River Linking projects in India or amongst the riparians of the Mekong over upstream dams and other engineering works.
Through steady, bottom-up co-operation, informed by sound analysis -- rather than top-down agendas driven by alarmist rhetoric -- people may discover that more can be achieved by negotiation than by confrontation.
Journalists need to bring balance to their reporting and eschew the temptation to reach for a sensationalist headline simply because it sells newspapers.

Agriculture, irrigation, managing groundwater…….

Irrigated agriculture, which accounts for up to 20 percent of the world’s farmed land, has been one of the main drivers for increased world food security, agricultural growth and rural development over the past 50 years.

By increasing irrigated areas from 100 million to 250 million hectares over the past fifty years, global per capita grain production has increased by 38 percent and the price of grain has dropped by as much as 50 percent. From the 20 percent of arable land, irrigated in the developing world, 40 percent of all crops and 60 percent of cereal production is produced.

For all the benefits of irrigation, it uses a huge amount of water. Agriculture is by far the world’s biggest consumer of water, using around 70% of all freshwater withdrawals worldwide. A single person consumes on average 150 liters of water per day, but 2,000 to 5,000 liters of water per day is required to produce enough food to feed that person. Some 60% of the water drawn for irrigation is wasted from leaky canals, evaporation, and mismanagement.

Kofi Annan, said in the Report to the Millennium Conference, in October 2000, “We need a Blue Revolution in agriculture that focuses on increasing productivity per unit of water—“more crop per drop.” 

Despite millions of dollars invested in creating large dams and canal irrigation systems, small farmers throughout Asia are increasingly dependent on groundwater for irrigating their crops.  Between them, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and China use nearly half of the world's total annual use of groundwater.

But much of Asia is today facing a serious shortage of groundwater with this valuable resource being used faster than it is being replenished. Groundwater levels in some parts of Asia are falling at a rate of one meter per year as well as being polluted by landfills, septic tanks and through the overuse of fertilizers and pesticides.

Groundwater overuse has many negative consequences, the most far-reaching being deterioration of the health of large sections of rural populations, that depend directly on wells as their only source of drinking water supply. This is particularly true here in Bangladesh with widespread arsenic contamination of groundwater.

As with other issues in the water sector, it is not surprising that a subject as emotive as hundreds of thousands of people dying from contaminated groundwater, has attracted sensational reporting in the news media and provoked widespread international attention. Here is a subject where the rhetoric and the reality have both been consistent. Public awareness is widespread. Nevertheless, as with so many other water issues, there remains a need to ensure that the data made available to affected people and to everyone else is scientifically accurate.

Water Supply and Sanitation
Ironically, much of the spread of arsenic resulted from the focus on finding safe drinking water sources. 

Nowhere is the gap between the rhetoric and reality greater than on the subject of supply of drinking water and provision of sanitation.

The Millennium Development Goals represent a commitment by the international community to cut by half the number of people in the world with inadequate water and sanitation by the year 2015.

In 1776, Adam Smith wrote: “How is it that water which is so useful that life is impossible without it, has such a low price; while diamonds, which are quite unnecessary, have such a high price?”

A highly charged debate is taking place in Asia – and around the world -- on the distribution of water to the urban poor, the role of private sector water companies and the pricing policies they are adopting.

Because water falls from the skies and flows in rivers, it’s understandable that many assume it must be free.  But, of course, in many parts of the world this natural “gift” is not where and when it is most needed, and it is often polluted as well.  The reality is that the service of gathering water in reservoirs, extracting it from lakes and rivers, purifying it in treatment plants and piping it to houses or community standpipes costs money.  Often, these tasks are the responsibility of inefficient, loss-making public utility companies that deliver an inadequate service to too few people at a high cost to taxpayers.

To fill the gap, the poor are forced to pay many times the cost that the rich are paying for a small quantity of water of uneven quality from street vendors, or they have to collect it from polluted rivers and carry it considerable distances to their homes.

An increasing number of developing countries have granted private companies concessions to invest in the infrastructure to pipe clean water to consumers. Critics of such arrangements have labelled this the “privatization” of a resource to which, they argue, everyone has a right.  They worry that private companies will achieve a monopoly and then charge exorbitant prices which will place clean water out of reach of the poor.

The reality is that many private companies who welcomed the opportunity to acquire water supply concessions have found that they cannot make a profit and have withdrawn. So it has not been a success story for many of them.

What has been clearly demonstrated in many countries is that the money that people pay for metered clean water piped to their houses is generally much less than they pay to street vendors for buckets or bottles of water.  While the private sector has often been brought in because public utilities have not been up to the task, there are notable exceptions.

Phnom Penh, capital of one of the world’s poorest countries, has managed to establish a public utility that really works. In 1993, only 25 percent of the city was served by piped water, a legacy of the destruction of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge reign of terror. Today, the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority (PPWSA) is providing 85,700 homes with water and serving almost 80 percent of the population in a city of 981,805 people. Some 750 Km. of pipes deliver water at about one quarter the price formerly paid to street vendors. Of critical importance is that PPWSA is making sufficient money to invest in expanding the system to reach more poor families.

It doesn’t really matter who provides the water service so long as it is done efficiently and equitably, by an autonomous and accountable provider.  Efficiency is important to recover costs to pay for expansion, particularly to the poor. Equity is important to ensure that the rich don’t get served at the expense of the poor. In some cities, cross subsidies are employed so the rich pay more, thus making water more affordable to the poor. Too often, though, subsidies have been poorly targeted and have tended to benefit those who are better off.

In the end, the poor can benefit whether they get their water service from a public or private provider. Public utilities must turn their backs on corruption and become more efficient. Private companies must make corporate responsibility a reality rather than rhetoric. Ensuring a return on shareholders’ equity and providing an equitable public service need not be mutually exclusive aims. And governments must establish sound and independent regulatory bodies to ensure that everyone from providers to consumers is treated fairly.  With these preconditions, the vision of water for all can become a reality.

This is where the water debate been most polarised. The advocates of private sector involvement often oversold their arguments. Likewise, it was easy for the opponents to grab emotive headlines. The argument that free water is a basic human right is very appealing, ignoring the fact that it must be paid for if enough money is to be generated to spread the network to more people. Often critics have described a concession to manage a water service as the selling of water as a resource to a private company. In other words, the rallying cry is against “water privatisation” which it is not.

I would urge journalists to look very closely at exactly what is involved when the private sector becomes involved. Before you write the word PRIVATISATION ask yourselves just what you mean and what your readers my think you mean. People need to know that a country’s resource is not being sold, rather than the concession to manage and supply the service is.

The case for an informed debate: matching rhetoric with reality
Governments, international organisations, private companies, NGOs and other activists, all should force themselves not to overstate their respective cases. These are very big public policy issues on which everyone should be able to form views based on the straight facts, the lessons of experience, and sound, honest, arguments. Those who are in possession of relevant data should feel an obligation to make accurate information available to the public at large and to the news media through which the public obtain most of their information.

Journalists have an obligation to their readers and television producers to their viewers to present the arguments in an objective way. I have many friends who are reporters and editors. Most will try to make an argument which comes down on one side or the other, but also will give space to the opposing view. Sadly, many more journalists will too readily accept the first press release that comes into their hands or will report the remarks of the polemicist who shouts loudest. The result is that the public is too often poorly served and are not in a position to make informed decisions on these issues if invited to do so (sadly, they are, too often, not participants in these major decisions!).

Five years ago, the World Commission on Dams published its seminal report: “Dams and Development: A New Framework for Decision-Making.” I was one of the group of 40 people who met in Gland, Switzerland, in April 1997 and proposed the creation of the Commission. Three years later, after leaving the World Bank, I became an advisor to the Secretariat. I can claim no credit for what the Commissioners and the secretariat achieved, but it was exemplary in the way the WCD took a highly emotive subject where the rhetoric had moved way ahead of the reality and found out the facts as well as explored all the arguments. This bi-partisan Commission’s work was characterized not only by the exhaustive research it commissioned and made public, but by the extraordinary level of participation by all stakeholders on which it insisted. Media coverage of the published report was generally very balanced and accurate. It had to be because the report itself lacked sensationalism and abounded in facts and balanced policy recommendations.

I have also been privileged to be engaged in another interesting innovation over the past three years. I have been managing the Asian Development Bank’s Water Awareness Program. This initiative, largely funded by the government of the Netherlands, and driven by the very active management and support of the ADB, has sought to create an environment for improved water policies in Asia and the Pacific through a range of activities to raise public awareness.

A small team of specialists has implemented a series of 14 media capacity-building workshops to help journalists to write more and better-informed articles on water issues. These have brought together expert speakers on a range of water issues to engage in an open dialogue for 2 ½ days with some 30 journalists. Each workshop, one of which was held in Dhaka in June, 2005, addresses some seven different water issues relevant to the country concerned, typically with speakers who take opposing or, at least differing points of view. One of the most common pieces of feedback is that journalists tell us that this is the first time that they have heard both or multiple sides of an issue discussed in a single forum.

Under the program, nine half-hour television films have been made which have been broadcast widely both in the region, and three on BBC World. The films, which have the collective name of Water Voices and address pressing issues through the eyes of people directly affected or involved, are also being used by NGOs in community awareness activities.

We now have a network of more than 400 journalists who have attended these workshops. Many of them regularly contribute to Asia Water Wire which InterPress Service (IPS) set up with the support of the Water Awareness Program. Many of you may be familiar with this really excellent vehicle for the journalists to have opportunities to write about water issues outside the confines of their own publications. Many Freelance journalists also write for it.

I should stress that while it receives the financial support of the ADB with funds that have ultimately been provided by the Dutch government, it is completely independent and ADB makes no attempt to influence the choice or editing of stories.

It is also not an exclusive club for people who have attended our workshops. Anyone can contribute – and get paid for their articles.

I would urge those of you who have not already read Asia Water Wire to look at it on and contribute and if you are an editor, a gatekeeper acquiring copy for your publication, that you consider running stories from this excellent resource.

It has been a guiding principle of the Water Awareness Program that it seeks to present differing points of view, accurate information and foster a genuine debate from which policy makers and stakeholders can make better informed decisions.

Water security is one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century, but how many people at all levels of society are well enough informed to understand the complexities of these issues and contribute to a debate. Clean water is naturally transparent, but discussions of water issues whether in public fora or in the news media are too frequently as opaque as the filthy water that many people have to use.


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