Of water and wars

Print edition : April 24, 1999

India's National Magazine from the publishers of THE HINDU

Interview with Dr. Ismail Serageldin, Senior Vice-President, World Bank.

"Many of the wars this century were about oil, but those of the next century will be over water." So said World Bank Vice-President Dr. Ismail Serageldin in a 1995 interview to Newsweek in order to, as he says, "ring the alarm bell for the impending water crisis". With 80 countries and 40 per cent of the world's population facing chronic water problems and with the demand for water doubling every two decades, Serageldin's warning is neither ominous nor far-fetched. It is very real.

Rivers, the main source of water, crisscross countries, friends and foes alike. With over half the population living in 250 river basins which are shared by several countries, their potential as a weapon cannot be overstated. For instance, soon after the Gulf war, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein began draining the marshes to the south of the country by constructing a 565-km Third River Canal in a bid to quell the rebellious "marsh" Arabs. The Jordan basin, the fresh water source for four nations, is West Asia's biggest source of dispute.

Nearer home is the long-drawn-out dispute with Bangladesh following the construction of the Farakka Barrage on the Ganga. And within the country, the most notable of disputes is that between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over the Cauvery waters.

Apart from the disputes, the other causes for concern are the enormous waste and pollution of water. In India, for instance, 70 per cent of the water is polluted; only 5 per cent is collected in Class 1 cities; only 25 per cent of the collected water is treated; industrial waste accounts for 25 per cent of waste water and over 50 per cent of the pollution load. While globally agriculture uses two-thirds of all water, in India it is over 80 per cent. This depletes the groundwater supply leading to acute shortage of drinking water.

If these problems are created by human kind, there are others inherent in nature. For instance, of the annual average rainfall of 1,200 mm in India, 90 per cent is lost in seepage, evaporation and run-off to the sea. The water crisis, thus, needs to be tackled at different levels - by focussing on the various issues that impact water-use such as energy, biotechnology, industry and environment, and by bringing together various experts and heads of governments - says Serageldin. And to tackle this huge task, he has not stopped with preaching but set up, some months ago, the World Commission for Water, which he chairs.

Serageldin holds the chairmanship of the Global Water Partnership and is associated with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and the Consultative Group to Assist the Poorest (CGAP). Serageldin, who has a Ph.D. from Harvard University, has served the World Bank in various capacities since 1972.

With over 35 books and monographs, and 200 articles, book chapters and technical papers in various areas - including science, education, economic and human resource development, environment, architecture, Islam and culture - to his credit, Serageldin is a spokesperson for the poor. He has been in the forefront of building partnerships among international organisations, governments, scientists, educationists, communicators and society at large.

Recently in Chennai to participate in a dialogue organised by the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation on "Climate, biotechnology and food and water security" - one of the various efforts in preparation for the elaboration of the Global Water Vision - Serageldin spoke to Asha Krishnakumar on the coming water crisis, the danger it poses to food security, the role of biotechnology, patents, and the mandate of the World Water Commission. Excerpts from the interview:

Can you give us an idea of the coming water crisis?

A simple fact is that 97.5 per cent of the total volume of water available on this planet is salty. Of the remaining 2.5 per cent, two-thirds are locked up in the ice caps as glaciers and is not available for human use. And of the remaining - one-third of the 2.5 per cent, which is 0.81 per cent - large quantities are far beyond the reach of human settlements. Of the remaining which is accessible, 80 per cent comes in bursts, as monsoons.

Thus the quantity of water you are left with for use is small. Of that we have recaptured and harvested a certain quantity. But we still need approximately 12,000 cubic kilometres of water per annum for sustenance. And over 54 per cent of that quantity is already being used today.

We will have at least three billion more people on this planet before the population stabilises. And the crucial question is: given their water needs, will they have access to enough food? Water is crucial for survival. We need water to grow food, for drinking, for industry... This is basically the dynamics we are talking about. We have been mismanging our scarce water resources and this needs to change.

In what ways is water being mismanaged?

On three grounds. One, we have a fragmented approach to water. There are those who look at it on the basis of its use for irrigation, for industry, for hydro-power, for municipal use, as part of the environment, as wetland, rivers, or lakes. People do not even think of the underground water, the aquifers, how they are recharged and so on. They just assume it is there. But, in fact, nature functions as a comprehensive, interlinked system. And the lower catchment areas of the river systems, the river catchment areas and the aquifers seldom correspond exactly to the administrative boundaries of sovereign states. So, you have multiple users and many decision-makers. That all of us need to use the scarce resource which knows no boundary is one aspect of mismanagement.

The other aspect is that we have always considered it to be freely available. That it will always be there. Therefore, we have not bothered to use it carefully.

Third, we have tended to pollute water not realising that this reduces its use potential.

Do we not have a system to monitor and regulate water use?

Yes. There are what have come to be known as the Dublin principles. These principles were reaffirmed in Rio, Agenda 21, Beijing, Marakkesh and so on. All recognise water as a free commodity which has an economic value. They recognise the economic, ecological and institutional principles of empowering people, the community and so on. All these principles are adopted by sovereign states. But they are not being implemented adequately.

Why are these principles not adopted?

Because most of the problems concerning water seem long-term. And most of the advantages for its use are short-term. This is what I mean by mismanagement.

In most developing countries, agriculture by far makes the largest use of water. And irrigation systems are not as efficient as they should be. Globally, agriculture uses up to two-thirds of the available water. In countries such as India it is close to 90 per cent. So, the efficiency of water use in agriculture becomes an important factor.

Do you think factors such as free electricity, power subsidies and so on play a role in efficient use of water?

Let me give you an example: In my country, the water-scarce Egypt, we have 1,000 cubic metres of water per person a year - half that of India's average. In the oaklands, where water is free, they still follow conventional irrigation methods which use more water than necessary, resulting in water-logging, a common feature in the past. Now as water is a prized commodity in Egypt, most people have invested in drip-irrigation systems in order to conserve water. They are also careful about selecting crops which have high value so that they get more value per crop. These are the kinds of results you get if you are careful about water use. So people have to adopt and adapt technologies that use water in a better way.


In Egypt, we have a certain advantage in that there is very little evapo-transpiration along the Nile, and all water goes back into the river. So, if water goes into the fields and is not properly used there, it goes back into the Nile and is used again. So, the core word for water is efficiency.

Coming back to your question on subsidies, contrary to general statements, subsidies have been defended in the name of the poor. But they do not, most often, benefit them. Subsidised water rates in cities are, for instance, defended in the name of the poor. Yet, water does not reach everybody. The poorest of the poor usually have no access to piped water. They end up buying water, paying 10-20 times more than those who get water by just opening the tap. And yet, the rates for using tap water is defended in the name of the poor. That is really unfortunate. It will have a dramatic impact on the livelihood of the poor. The rich will manage to insulate themselves in any situation. It is the poor who will suffer.

So these are the kinds of questions that need to be addressed. I am not against helping certain sections. But it should be done efficiently and should also be well-targeted. It should empower people and not destroy the livelihood of the people in the long term.

What are the implications of a water crisis on food security?

I can give you some dramatic numbers to explain this question. Assume three billion more people on this planet - in India it is quite stark at 500 million - before the population stabilises. To meet the food requirements of the three billion more people, assuming that there is no increase in per capita food consumption, and further that only 40 per cent of the additional food comes from irrigation (which is a very conservative figure because during the Green Revolution 80 per cent of the increase in food came from irrigation), you will still need 17 per cent more water to irrigate - though there is a 70 per cent increase in irrigation potential - than what you are getting now.

At the same time, you know that the urban population is going to double, and that industry and pollution will grow - it may at best remain constant in spite of increased industrialisation and a rise in urban population. With that sort of figures, I wonder if we will have enough water to produce the quantity of food needed. So we have to do something much more dramatic in terms of improving the efficiency of water use and agricultural productivity. There are then the local, regional and global issues which cannot be divorced from one another. They have to be looked at in a holistic way to maintain global balance. That was precisely the reason for creating the World Commission for Water.

When was the Commission set up and what does it envisage for India and the rest of the world?

The Commission was set up on August 11, 1998. And we intend to finish our work (Global Water Vision) and present it on March 22, 2000 (the World Water Day) when the World Water Conference is to begin in The Hague.

The Vision aims to look at the future, asking the kind of questions we have just discussed. The idea is to evolve an approach that will lead to solutions accompanied by action plans; to link the local and global aspects, and provide a workable framework for water management at different levels.

We have five thematic panels that look into many other issues which will have an impact on how water is managed. The five panels are:

One, transformations in information technology, which is going to make major strides in communication.

Two, those concerning energy - such as hydro-power and so on.

Three, issues of biotechnology. This panel looks at the application of genetics to develop plants that are drought-tolerant, that use less water, and so on. It also looks at developing expertise, tools and ways of reducing the requirement for water-borne sewerage and waste water; water re-use in the case of high-value agriculture; drinking water use in cities, and so on.

Four, institutional transformations. In this we look at the role of pressure groups, civil society, private sector, the government - all actors relevant to the institutional arrangement of water management.

Finally, we are looking at data, analyses and forecast models.

Then we have three conventional sectoral panels - water for food; water for people's use and industry; and water for the environment.

We also have two groups. One, the World Commission for Dams, chaired by Dr. I. Asmal, South Africa's Minister for Water and Forests, who is also a member of the Water Commission. And the other group works on National Sovereignty in Inter-national Waters. This is headed in turn by former heads of state or governments.

All this is at the global level. We start with a bottoms-up exercise by seeking regional views - in 10-15 regions of the world. Then, there is the confirmation of the regional views in the thematic and sectoral panels with two special outreach programmes, one for women and the other for youths.

This major process has been on for some months now. The whole effort is aimed at linking the various issues and synthesising them into decisions for the future with a frame-work for action accompanying it. The frame of action obviously is going to be extremely structured because there is enormous variability in water availability. For instance, in North America we have 10,000 cubic metres per person a year. Egypt has 1,000, India 2,000 and Jordan 260.

It is an enormous task you have set for yourself in a short span of 18 months. At what stage is the Commission now?

It is indeed an enormous task. And I am very encouraged by the response I have been getting in taking on this challenge. It is co-sponsored by all U.N. agencies.

What time-frame are you looking at?

We are looking at 2025 and then beyond that to 2050. Why that far? This is because we consider issues, the solutions to which take a long time to have an impact. For example, alternatives to water-borne sewerage and the use of the flush. Now, every time you flush, you use up as much water a poor family might use for a whole day. So, we need to develop alternatives for these things. It seems the solutions to these are not in the offing even by the late 20th or the early 21st century. And even if the horizon for these technologies is 2025, they may not have an impact until 2050. We do not want to say that anything that does not have an impact now is not something worth considering. From my experience in agriculture, I have found that investments in research give results only after 15-20 years. So, though we are looking at 2025, the long-term horizon is 2050.

One of the thematic panels you spoke about was transformations in biotechnology. Broadly speaking, what are the research efforts developed in biotechnology to conserve water?

The issue in biotechnology is to conserve water using plant breeding programmes. For instance, increasing drought and salinity tolerance among plants in order to breed plants that are less thirsty so that we can get more crop per crop.

The second area is to look at alternatives. For example, to look at breeding methods outside the conventional ones. Then, the issue of treatment of waste water. For example, biological remediation of water which can be used for high-value fruits and vegetables and so on. There are a number of other areas where biotechnology can be of use.

What are your views on patents in biotechnology?

This is a major issue. Patents in biotechnology and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) raise a whole lot of ethical and legal issues. Patents are in some sense justified as huge investments go into research. But what is most important is not to overlook indigenous and small farmers. So, while dealing with patents, aspects of equity, benefit-sharing, recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples and so on are very important. Also, the recognition of international agreements such as on biological diversity and farmers' rights. All these issues need to be addressed together.

Some countries have made headway in this. For instance, India is developing a legislation that tries to take into account the different regimes under the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV), the World Trade Organisation and the Convention on Biological Diversity. We need to evolve that into a more coherent multilateral system that recognises the role of the private sector to do what it does best and to recognise the importance of international and national public goods that have to remain in the public domain to protect the poor and vulnerable.

What is your position on the Terminator technology that has been patented by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Delta Pineland Company?

Let me first make CGIAR's (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) position on Terminator technology clear. Since most Third World farmers are small and marginal, who hold back seeds in one season to sow in the next, CGIAR will not be releasing seeds that contain Terminator technology.

On the other hand, there are some good things to be learnt from this technology. A complicated piece of science is involved here, and therefore there is a lot to be learnt about how to approach problems by switching genes on and off, controlling their expressions and so on. Second, it is conceivable that even if it is designed for one purpose, it could be used as a potential biosafety measure. This is certainly something worth exploiting.

Coming to the other thematic panel, an institutional transformation, what is the role of the private and public sectors in water conservation?

There is no question that institutional transformation is necessary. The idea that everything needs to be done by the state is not working out well. Private operators have a role to play. The state and the private sector have to share some responsibility. The notion that the state or the private sector is going to have a natural monopoly is not quite true. Experience shows that you can break down the pieces of the system, and it works just as well. Innovations from that idea coupled with community action, help of local groups, users and state regulation, private sector investments and a range of institutions that need to be brought in place and so on, are very important.

Do you still think that the wars of the next century will be over water?

We are taking steps to avoid precisely that. That statement of mine in 1995 in Newsweek, which was picked up by CNN, was intended as some kind of setting off the alarm for people not to continue with the fragmented attitude towards water. Since then a lot has been done in the right direction. Many programmes were started - the Marrakesh Forum was formed, the World Commission for Water in the 21st century was set up, and a whole lot of discussions initiated on ending the fragmented attitute towards water use.

Let us hope all these things, along with the developments in science and biotechnology, will help us handle the water situation.

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