The new music of water

Published : Apr 29, 2000 00:00 IST

The Second World Water Forum and Ministerial Conference on Water at The Hague highlights issues relating to the new economics of water.


WATER is a commodity. It is a scarce commodity. Responsible governments, natural resource investors, and local communities must now seek and identify the most efficient institutions - property rights and markets - to buy and sell water.

But is water a commodity? If water is life, then these future water markets hold no water. If water is a scarce resource, then the institutions set up to resolve the water crisis could in terms of high theory be based on the market mechanism. But if, on the contrary, water is plentiful but the resource is mismanaged and mal-distributed, then the institutions meant to resolve the water crisis can simply not be market based or profit oriented.

The Second World Water Forum and Ministerial Conference on Water (The Hague, March 17-22, 2000) starkly highlighted these philosophical and ethical contrasts in the new economics of water. The report of the World Water Commission and the ministerial decl aration presented at The Hague, openly evoked and advocated the philosophies of productionism and stewardship.

Productionism could be broadly translated as a belief in the ideology of maximising commodity production and consumption, while stewardship as a concept assumes that enlightened self-interest in tending nature is an adequate safeguard against its abuse. Ecologists have consistently rejected both these concepts as unethical and anti-environmental philosophies.

However, the commitment of the Water Forum to these philosophies was amply revealed in the vogue that slogans such as "more crop per drop" enjoyed, as also in the hype surrounding the concept of the responsible "Water User Association", and the exaltatio n of the private sector (even if entities in this sector make a whopping profit) in the provision of water services.

One of the major concerns of the Forum was to project and allocate the investment requirement in the water sector for the year 2025. According to the World Water Council's prediction, an annual investment of $180 billion will be required in the water sec tor in 2025 (as against $70-80 billion in 2000). The main agenda of the Forum was to develop measures to make these investments in the water sector "more productive" and to "mobilise new investments".

The Forum was, however, marked by the presence of several participants (some of them international celebrities) who believed in the philosophy of sustainability. From them came the alternative viewpoint, that there is no moral pride in production and tec hnocentric productionism. For them, the philosophy of stewardship was an inadequate safeguard against heavily irrigated monocultures, urban over-consumption and massive power and irrigation projects, where the availability of technology and the acquiesce nce of the state encourage users to exploit unmercifully their natural resources.

AT The Hague, the dissident fringe found stewardship (where resource users tend nature even as they draw upon it for their livelihood) limited to users in the most marginal ecosystems, which inculcates a survival-oriented sensitivity to the critical bala nce between livelihoods and ecosystem maintenance. They contended that water, its use, management and conservation, has to be informed by the philosophy of sustainability and holism.

In short, the Water Forum was torn between two different worldviews - between those who believed in stewardship entirely centred on prevalent values of use and production, and those who believed that this enlightened self-interest of stewardship does not permit life or nature to be valued on its own terms.

The Water Forum did not surprise anybody. Yet the extent of appropriation abuse was alarming. The most visible casualty was 'participation'. The entire process leading to the Hague Water Forum was based on several consultations (seminars, symposiums) con ducted in all the participating countries at the regional and national levels, on different aspects of water.

There were separate consultations on water and - health and sanitation, food and rural development, rivers, dams, gender, youth, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), urban design, megacities, energy, valuation, investment and sustainable development, p artnerships, indigenous peoples, politicians, local governments, social charter, ethics, science, economics, equipment and materials, financing infrastructure, tourism and nature. This was perhaps the most widely discussed and consulted natural resource forum since the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

Participation, however, was rather selective. The consultations at The Hague chose not to go very far beyond the valuable opinions of the bureaucracy and management, especially those from the developing countries, which had over the past few decades, thr ough centralised and expert-led decisions and processes, been instrumental in precipitating the current water crisis.

As an instance, the vision document on Water for Food and Rural Development considered it unnecessary to consider the opinions of small-scale farms, peasants and women in water policy or technology decisions. Knowledge inputs in water science and technol ogy and policy were reserved for technocratic experts and policy-makers.

Coming after decades of what is euphemistically called "participatory research and technology development", the skewed character of the participation evident at the Forum was disappointing. Dissent against these "participatory" processes dominated by tec hnocratic top-down thinking was expressed at the Forum, verbally and in writing. The vision documents on all the themes were sparse on basic democratic values, such as franchise (sheer numbers and varieties of voices), scope (the areas and issues open to democratic decision-making processes), and authenticity (the extent to which peoples' voices actually - rather than symbolically - exert an influence) in natural resource decisions. Consequently, the framework for action that emerged from the discussion s based on these vision documents paid little attention to democratic values and processes.

"Participation" of this selective nature gave legitimacy to the processes, which in conclusion emphasised the need for large-scale investment, privatisation, biotechnology and free trade as the answers to the water crisis. In an era in which multi-discip linary and multi-sectoral approaches are being promoted to tackle basic development problems, isolating water as a separate field of study is certainly an investors' idea. These isolated water visions presented at the Forum dispense with concerns about f ood security or the ecological impacts of modern agriculture, and put technological and trade solutions in the foreground. In accordance with this vision, new technology will reduce energy prices and enable the application of more inputs and better irrig ation. But the less developed economies that cannot afford large-scale irrigation for cereal production can depend on imports from the developed countries, where farmers can afford to pay the full cost for water and electricity. The less developed econom ies can produce and export high-value non-staple crops which do not need much water. Thus world water vision tells us that trade can help resolve the food and water problem in the less developed and developed economies alike.

GROUPS concerned about sustainable agriculture and development noticed a glaring omission. The food and agricultural production estimates presented in the water vision for 2025 did not consider the impact of full cost pricing of water. The vision strongl y affirms its support for the concept of full cost pricing of water and water services. These services, the Water Commissioners say, must be provided by transparent and accountable private water companies, competing in the open market, and located in nat ional and international regulatory frameworks with well defined water rights and a pricing formula.

Several changes in current agricultural protection policies and agri-environmental reforms will be necessitated by any decision to implement this recommendation to privatise water. An important change would be in the de-coupling of agricultural productio n and ecological protection. The 'policy space' gained by the green lobby is critical at this juncture; and all the advocates of alternative agriculture would wish for an end to the subsidisation of intensive agriculture (in the developed and less develo ped countries alike). How would farmers react to full cost pricing of water, diesel, other fossil fuels and electricity? Obviously they will not devote the same quantum of area to intensively cultivated cereals and will reduce the use of currently subsid ised inputs, especially water. There will be an immense overhaul of the cropping pattern in Punjab and Haryana, ecologically semi-arid regions that devote 87 per cent of the net sown area to rice - a crop that requires standing water in the kharif season .

If cost pricing of water were to stop rice cultivation on this scale, farmers will likely switch to gram, pulses, bajra or jowar. But then, what would be the global impact of full cost pricing systems remaining in place for, illustratively, five years fr om now? What would be the implications for land use and cropping patterns? Surprisingly, the vision document makes no effort to estimate figures of food and livestock production that could follow the implementation of its own recommendation.

THE Water Forum highlighted how perceptions of reality in different contexts can be sharply divergent. In the South Asian vision, there is no discussion of the subsidies provided for irrigation and what these subsidised irrigation systems do to the South Asian ecology. Subsidies are important in the European and American contexts too, though in South Asia they are targeted towards the basic requirement of food security rather than the appeasement of the farm lobby.

The population card is still an ace, and was used by the pro-dam bureaucracy even in the session on Water and Ethics. But this "population" is an abstract concept, and it seems to mean little in concrete terms. For instance, a population of 79 million in Bangladesh, it is believed, will be affected by arsenic poisoning in five years time - the source of poisoning being groundwater made available with aid of international loans. Experts now recommend, and spend time negotiating, another loan to reduce t he damage and provide other sources of drinking water.

Similarly, the millions of people displaced by large dams in India or the Philippines do not count. Maintaining or improving the meagre destitute livelihoods of these displaced populations is an insignificant issue when compared to the fear that energy a nd water intensive consumption patterns in the developed West may have to change in the future.

The year 2002 has been earmarked by the World Water Council as the year for "stimulating the water development financial market". This gave a clear message to the private sector, governments and the supposedly empowered local communities. Governments wer e essential to ensure the appropriate legislative and regulatory frameworks and allow true public-private partnerships. This would include transparent and consistent rules, enforcing accountability from the public and private sector alike and the impleme ntation of the polluter/user pays principle.

In this framework, ideally the government will have to distinguish between 'commercial and welfare functions', leaving commercial areas such as water supply and pricing to the private sector and activities such as targeted subsidies for the poor, conserv ation, environmental protection and the like to the public sector. The NGOs and their local communities were in demand to take over some of the locally marketable functions of the erstwhile state departments. The role of the NGOs as 'capacity builders' h as been praised. Their assignment will be to 'participate' in improving the efficiency of the private sector services provided.

The unstated agenda is clear. Governments must act as legal guarantors and subsidisers of all private sector commercial activity, pay for all the externalities generated by these commercial activities, and pay directly for the 'full cost priced' water an d electricity and environment necessary for those who cannot afford to buy these commodities. And all this comes from the World Water Commissioners who proclaim that "water is life"!

This, again, is no surprise. It makes news only for its flagrant naivete. Fortunately, the common citizen does not approve of the policies set off or abetted by the experts of the World Water Commission. Most of the governments whose representatives 'par ticipated', may not agree to sell water rights to international private investors. There is evidence that several countries including France and Indonesia have cancelled their private water services contracts after years of suffering massive losses and i nefficiencies. The less developed countries, even when required to liberalise and invite investment, will be cautious in encouraging private investments in the water sector. Responsible ordinary citizens who believe in a sustainable future will seek inst itutional reform in public water services before water and life itself are sold to international investors.

Water today is the consultant's paradise, or more politely, the expert's domain. It has replaced what food was in the 1960s, energy in the 1970s, the environment in the 1980s, and structural adjustment in the 1990s.

Water has now come a long way, from Dublin to Marrakesh to Paris to The Hague. The keys and tenor of this water music have been tuned to the hypnotic anti-democratic drone of multinational natural resource investors. When water drowns itself in this musi c, we will announce the World Oxygen Forum.

Let us look forward to the measures for equitable distribution of safe oxygen!

Rajeswari S. Raina is a scientist at the National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies, New Delhi. She was a participant at The Hague conference.

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