Friday, February 3, 2012

Concepts to understand 'water crises'

A synthesis paper: How to classify the crises in water
Priti Patnaik, January 2012

Water crises across the world are specific and local in nature. But what is common to most of them is an acute lack of development in the region they manifest in. In some sense, water crises are indicators of ‘development stresses’.

Right to water is integral to development for it determines health, livelihood and therefore survival. Affecting livelihood are concomitant factors such as climate change, population pressures and geopolitics.

The crises in water are emblematic of mismanagement, denied opportunities and exclusion. Political opportunism and short-sighted economic interests rooted in a certain social setting shape the crises of water availability and accessibility.
In the diagnosis of a water crisis, it is important to identify the scale the problem. Whether the watershed or a river basin should be the ‘natural’ unit of analysis has been questioned. (Julie Trottier, Water crises: political construction or physical reality? June 2008)

The crux of identifying the problem as one of management and not of physical scarcity is to estimate the actual physical quantity of water. How much water is available for usage? What are the official and unofficial arrangements for water use and how does this information help in designing policies? What are the distributional bottlenecks? Has pollution for example, rendered the physically available water unfit for use? Who controls the water? Does the state have limited intervention? If yes, to what extent is water managed by private parties?

While water can be scarce in countries like Egypt, it is, however, usually a problem of water mismanagement and a lack of political leadership to effectively diffuse the problem of ‘artificial scarcity’. There are political motives inherent in framing the problem as one of water scarcity and not one of management.

Making the case for the Sardar Sarovar Porject on River Narmada, the state of Gujarat in India, made an effective argument projecting ‘increased’ water access and availability for the parched regions of Kutch. But in reality, very little water has actually reached the region. Water has instead been diverted to the more prosperous areas. So future ‘water availability’ proved to be a selling point for the government amongst water-stressed voters. In this case, data as an instrument of politics was wielded successfully. While it is difficult to accurately determine ‘variability’ of water cycles, without solid and authentic information, the state government was directly able to use misinformation to achieve its ends to push through the proposal of the Sardar Sarovar Dam Project. (Dilip Dsouza, Narmada Dammed, 2002)

This brings us to the question of whether water can be classified as a common good or as a commodity having an economic value. Perceived as a common good, water rights are crucial in agricultural areas. Loss or erosion of entitlements can undermine livelihoods and result in exclusion from agricultural opportunities. After all, the concept of water equity is integral to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). However, if water is a common good and the right to water a fundamental right for everybody, it could result in the tragedy of commons – a situation where rational consumers will maximize their preferences to achieve optimization, while effectively depleting and deteriorating the common good. A case in point, is the shrinking of the Aral Sea by more than 60% during the Soviet era, where mindless water use, diverted for cotton production in Central Asia, resulted in one of the gravest environmental disasters in history.

In most cases, water is both, a common good bestowed by nature, and a precious commodity with an embedded economic value. Depending on the situation, there is a degree of variation between these two classifications. In Brazil, for example, water is an economic good to sustain large scale production of ethanol from corn.
The notion that water is simply not water, but an intermediate good necessary for producing an economically significant end-product leads us to ‘virtual water’. The ‘value’ of virtual water becomes even more important, if for example, commodity price fluctuations are considered. If food prices increase, the pressure to increase productivity goes up, as a result, water used for irrigation will increase. Going back to ethanol production in Brazil, it has been recognized that production of biofuels is a major driver of food prices (A Note on Rising Food Prices, Donald Mitchell, Policy Research Working Paper 4682, World Bank, July 2008)

If water is a commodity having an economic value, how then should water be priced? What are the instruments that can be used to improve the efficient use of water? Progressive taxation and subsidies are examples of such instruments. In reality, the poor consumers of water effectively end up paying more than the richer households especially in countries with great inequalities. Often, the poorest consumers are just outside the legal water distribution system, making ‘access’ illegal and therefore more expensive. (Another example, where dominant power structures perpetuate social inequities as discussed by Trottier, June 2008)

Even as progressive taxation on water could be an answer, subsidies for water can have unintended policy consequences. To be sure, market instruments can regulate only certain aspects not all aspects. I recall, one instance where a politician in Southern India offered farmers free power for irrigation. He won an election on that promise, but made the state exchequer bankrupt with bloated power bills not to mention encouraging inefficient power use especially amongst rich farmers.

Therefore, the important decision and distinction to be made is whether there is an absolute need for water or is there a relative one? Is there anything called ‘optimum’ water usage?

The classic case is of Central Asia, with conflicting seasonal requirements for water, where upstream countries need hydropower during the winter even as downstream ones make demands on the same water resources for cotton irrigation in the summer. Who determines that there is a greater absolute need for water to generate hydroelectricity to keep the poor Tajiks warm in winters, than there is a smaller relative need for Uzbeks to practice water intensive cultivation for cotton exports. To be sure, both Kyrgyztan and Tajikistan have dismal human development indicators, while Uzbekistan is relatively prosperous. So it would do well, to change its cotton exports-led growth strategy, a Russian colonial remnant in any case, in favour of a more sustainable agriculture, that takes into account upstream requirements.
Water has become a tool for negotiation, an instrument in a barter system. In Central Asia, a metric between water from upstream countries in exchange for power from downstream ones was worked out. As my colleagues who made a presentation on the downstream countries in Ferghana Valley mentioned, “The exchange was defined in terms of kWh-to-kWh exchange reflected through their corresponding values (accounting for energy prices)” However, this mechanism fell through when prices of hydroelectricity and fossil fuels diverged. Clearly, with well-endowed fossil fuel resources, Uzbekistan can be the price setter. So even as hydropower is constant and has been priced at 2-3 cents per kWh, the downstream countries have raised coal prices to about USD 40/ton for coal and more than USD 200/m for gas. “Diverging prices made it impossible for upstream countries like Kyrgyzstan to use the income from hydropower exports to buy sufficient level of energy from downstream countries.”

Is it possible to negotiate long term contracts on water allocation when energy prices or even food prices fluctuate in the short term? The price of water, becomes a function of prices of commodities. Further, subsidies to encourage fossil fuel use, or even the subsidies for renewable energy such as hydropower could also impact the price of water.

Complicating these dynamics of water management is climate change. Scientists have their own ideologies while framing a problem and collect information accordingly. Politics is embedded in science without being conscious of it. For instance, should or should not policy-makers seriously take cognizance of possible repercussions of climate change three decades hence, while allocating water resources in an international river basin today? Globally, more than a billion people live in river basin areas where water use exceeds sustainable levels. There are indications that global warming is accelerating the melting of glaciers. Consequently, water availability is expected to decrease in the long term due to melting of the glaciers that feed main water courses. The long-term impact of the decreasing glaciers will be a permanently reduced runoff. This will be aggravated by a rise in water consumption due to population growth and intensive development. It is a challenge for institutions to formulate treaties based on these uncertainties.

Institutions whether local, regional, national or supra-national play a crucial role in defining access to water for the end-user. The Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) approach, delegitimizes informal institutions that have for centuries managed water at a local level. By empowering states, this approach gives unprecedented power to governments to manage water resources. It is especially attractive for governments that did not do so earlier, as in the case of Ferghana Valley, after the Soviet breakup. (After all, every border is a historical and political construction – Trottier, June 2008) In a transboundary water governance situation, these institutions become a platform where regional power equations play out. In Central Asia for example, regional water authorities are allegedly manned by officials that are more biased towards economically stronger downstream countries like Uzbekistan which have greater clout compared to poorer upstream countries of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. It is natural that an international body overseeing the allocation of water within countries will reflect the power asymmetries within in the region.

Non-state actors like civil society groups can also be instrumental in influencing the dynamics of a water problem. The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), a people’s initiative in the Narmada Valley, is one such example. Although the movement gained critical mass to protest against ill-thought out rehabilitation of displaced persons in the region as a result of the construction of dams, it was not widely successful in upsetting power relations vis-à-vis the state. In fact in this case, even the Supreme Court, the highest judicial authority in the country, was at loggerheads with the group. The Court was labelled as being anti-poor when it slapped contempt of court notices against prominent members of the NBA who were castigated for being ‘anti-development’.

This brings us to the conflicting definition of development as seen by the people compared to the one imposed by the state. ‘Dams as temples of modern India’- a vision of India’s first Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru has been used as an unquestionable dictum for more than sixty years after independence. Large hydro-agricultural programs have been criticised for poor economic returns and worse, for their negative environmental impacts.

So what will work? It is clear that a multi-dimensional approach is important while assessing and formulating the extent of water crisis in a region. A way to untangle an intractable water problem, could be to explore a solution outside the realm of water markets, for example, by addressing land reforms, or creating a power hub. Water use is dictated by agriculture. Worldwide agriculture accounts for 70% of water withdrawals. There is a need to address land reforms to improve entitlement, efficiency in resource management and better utilisation of water resources. Also, a regional power hub, in Central Asia, for example, can be critical in reducing the dependence of upstream countries on fossil-fuelled power from downstream ones.
In the case study that examined the exclusion of smallholders from irrigation projects in Southern Niger, it was suggested that low cost investment strategy could allow access to irrigation by small farmers as against large projects. In this case, the larger goal of poverty alleviation could be achieved by providing credit facilities, thus empowering smaller farmers to access irrigation and hence livelihood. Similarly in Central Asia, it can be said that that there is ‘value’ in more sustainable agriculture which means moving away from cotton cultivation and reduction in the use of fossil fuels by downstream countries. Who should win the game between subsistence farming versus commercial farming? But, to be sure normative approaches to solving water crises do not work.

A big part of any ‘solution’ is the law of the land. Sometimes, existing legal frameworks in a region may be insufficient to rectify water allocation or efficiency. What kind of laws must be put in place? Are ‘modern’ water laws inconsistent with local cultures (Julie Trottier)?

In the Nile basin region, the way agreements will be formulated in future will be a function of the evolution of the regimes in the countries along the Nile. Geopolitics influences political realities in contentious regions. The role of China and India in the Nile region, Russia and China in Central Asia, are examples on how larger regional powers could affect the outcome of water allocation in these areas.
Notwithstanding the popular conception of the ‘global water crises’, there is a need for local approaches taking into consideration political realities. It is important to first accurately problematize the situation, and take into account local politics. A large part of the limited success of multilateral organizations operating in zones of water crises can be attributed to their apolitical stance. Critics have accused international organizations of taking a political problem like water crises, for example, and framing them in technical and nonpolitical terms. By calling an approach technical, far removed from political realities they seek to propose solutions. “The identification of a problem is closely linked to the availability of a solution”. (The Will to Improve, Pg:7, by Tanya Murray Li). (Solutions that cater to States, large infrastructure companies and technology companies working to enhance potability and efficiency of water use)

It is important to deconstruct the power relations in any ‘solution’. Any approach must first cater to the end-users while respecting the social context that users are located in. Experts should necessarily make space for alternative view points to accommodate local realities. This shift in the conceptual framework, may help address water poverty – a condition that is mostly man-made.


This was a part of an assignment for a class at The Graduate Institute, Geneva:
Water Management: Global Theories and Local Realities: taught by Prof. Ronald Jaubert

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