World Water Day theme ignores the ‘nuts and bolts’ of progress

21 March 2014
Articles and blogs

I sometimes wonder whether we’re re-living past debates on water and dressing them up in fancy new clothes.

The theme of this year’s World Water Day: the water, energy and land nexus.     

I can’t argue with the principle: we need to recognise the links between energy, land and water investments, as action in one area can have spillover effects in others. 

Nor do I underestimate its importance as we made clear in the 2011/12 European Report on Development, Confronting scarcity: managing water, energy and land for inclusive and sustainable growth

After all, the projected water demands for electric power generation needed to meet carbon emissions targets are roughly twice those for conventional power generation, and the trend towards alternative transportation fuels – biofuels, oil shales, oil sands, etc  – can be three to ten times more water intensive than traditional fossil fuels. 

Green growth? Perhaps not that green. 

People rather than systems  

So what's the problem? If ‘the nexus’ can get us all thinking about the inter-connections between water, energy and land, so much the better Better still if the result is enlightened policy that strengthens the claims of poor people in the management of natural resources. 

But my worry is this: what if sector professionals once again get hung up on integration and process, and lose sight of objectives? Is the adoption (by whom?) of a nexus approach an end goal, or a means to an end?     

We’ve been here before. And the vision of how water resources should be managed alongside other resources has been debated for decades. Water should be treated as both a social and an economic good – allocated to its most valuable uses whilst protecting the environment and ensuring basic needs are met. 

Water withdrawals, use and waste disposal should be integrated to account for interdependencies and externalities, and administered through licensing and pricing systems. And more broadly, management and governance should be integrated across sectors and scales, moving away from decision-making silos in land, water and energy to greater policy coherence. 

The problem is, implementing it remains elusive in most countries, and is still couched in language that suggests optimisation can be achieved at zero cost, and without prickly and politically contentious tradeoffs. Indeed a focus on ‘integration’ as an end goal rather than a means to an end can get in the way of more pragmatic, problem-focussed solutions that put people rather than systems or sectors centre stage.     

China and the more ‘crop per drop’ example

China might seem like an odd place to start in a discussion on sound environmental policy. After all, Premier Li Keqiang has just declared a ‘war against pollution’ at the National People’s Congress in Beijing. However, new work by ODI is looking at how China’s ‘learning by doing’ approach to water reform is playing out at the urban-rural interface.

In a series of pilot schemes along the Yellow River, farmers and irrigation managers release water to downstream cities because they are compensated for doing so, with government investing heavily in land and water management (more ‘crop per drop’) to ensure farmers don’t lose out.

 In some cases, the money has come directly from downstream industries and municipalities keen to use or bank savings. A similar problem-focussed approach has been adopted within irrigation districts, with a variety of contracting and user association (WUA) models piloted to see what works best for local operation, maintenance and cost-recovery. 

China is hardly a paragon of sound land and water stewardship. But in each case we see engagement with the ‘nuts and bolts’ issues of rewards and incentives, the clarification of roles, responsibilities and accountabilities and, above all, getting results in terms of improved services, better fee collection and more crop and income per drop. 

Sub-Saharan Africa: a different challenge

Despite misleading metrics on water scarcity, many countries in the region have generous endowments of surface and groundwater. The challenge is to harness those water assets for power, food production, industry, livestock and rapidly growing towns and cities in ways that strengthen rather than undermine the claims of poorer people – those with a stake but little voice in allocation decisions. A subject we'll be discussing further in our all-day event on 21 March - available to watch live

This will require investment in water resources management – long neglected by donors and governments – as well as investment in the infrastructure of water storage, distribution and supply

But investment in the institutional plumbing of water allocation needs to start from an understanding of problems and pragmatic solutions, not from an idealised vision of how management should work in nexus nirvana. Let’s move on.