Ravi Narayanan, Director of WaterAid
Bill Cosgrove, Director, Vision Management Unit, World Water Council
This event discussed the present global situation and the limited supply of freshwater available and the extent of the human impact on this resource.
1. Ravi Narayanan introduced Bill Cosgrove as co-author of the 'World Water Vision - making Water Everybody's Business'. Mr Cosgrove divided his talk into a short presentation of the findings of the vision exercise followed by an examination of some of the recommendations made in the report.
2. Outlining the context to the present global situation, Mr Cosgrove emphasised the limited supply of freshwater available and the extent of the human impact on this resource in terms of consumption, pollution and its use by other species. Whilst population growth had tripled, water used by humans had increased six-fold, he noted. The resulting global patterns indicated that scarcity was increasing where people were already poor, effectively worsening their situation. Over abundance too, could also impact on the poor, as illustrated by the floods in Mozambique. Over a 19-year period he estimated that some $700bn dollars of losses had been caused by flooding alone. In terms of water supply for domestic use, a billion people still lacked access to clean water. Another major problem area was harm to the environment (e.g. the Aral Sea) with the threat to freshwater species, including fish, being particularly severe.
3. One of the main problems was that the price being paid for water did not reflect its true value or the uses to which it was being put. Even the costs of distributing water were not covered, let alone the economic value that could be given to water, he stated. Lack of awareness of the severity of the situation resulted partly from water professionals failing to 'get the message across'. There was also a need to involve people outside the sector in order to address the problem. The vision exercise - which was part of this process - derived from a meeting in Cairo in 1996 of the International Water Resources Association out of which came the World Water Council. As a starting point the WWC acknowledged the need for a vision of 'where we want to be in the next century'. The World Commission on Water in the 21st Century was also established to help to draw attention to the Vision exercise, the specific objectives of the latter being: 1) to develop knowledge; 2) raise awareness about the problems; 3) to develop a shared vision of where we want to go; 4) for the Global Water Partnership to translate the vision into action plans.
4. The process itself involved people from outside the water sector and, overall, was highly consultative. The final document reached a compromise, he said, to serve as a "discussion point" at The Hague. The vision statement was of '… a world in which everyone has access to safe and sufficient water resources to meet their needs and rights, including food, in ways to ensure the maintenance and integrity of ecosystems. To accomplish this vision and as part of the vision the world's freshwater resources should be managed in an integrated way'. In addition to World Water Council vision the World Water Commission had completed its own staff report based on the Vision material, the focus of which 'was not quite the same', he said.
5. Moving onto ways of addressing the problems Mr Cosgrove emphasised the significance of water pricing. The poor lose out on subsidies for household connections, he said, but at a minimum, cost pricing of service provision was required. Governments should get out of infrastructure provision and instead put money into mechanisms which ensure that the poor have access to water. At a basin level too there was a need to learn how to co-operate in management across basin boundaries (shared basins accommodated 40% of the world's population, he noted). But governments had to recognise the need to restrict sovereignty in order to manage water. In general overcoming problems of water resources development would entail massive investment in infrastructure, in the order of $180 billion a year.
6. Concluding, he stated that the further the vision process progressed the greater the realisation that poverty was one of the major issues to be addressed by water professionals. Governments should convince 'elites', he said, that it was in their interests to be concerned about the issue of the poor. The concluding message of the vision was that world's water resources were in serious trouble, but that we now had a vision of 'where we can get to'.
7. Introducing questions and responses to the presentation the Chair emphasised the importance of the speaker's emphasis on attitudinal/behaviour change. The ensuing discussion covered rights, political issues and participation. Asked about the issue of water as an economic and a social good, Mr Cosgrove stated that at The Hague some people would undoubtedly make the case for water as a 'right' and that it should never be commercialised. However, moving from a need to a right which should never be charged for would 'lead us to disaster'.
8. The importance of politics was underscored. Was it not in fact in the 'interests of the selfish elite' to rob the poor? Would not real progress require the overthrow of the power elite and the installing of governments at a local/national level to represent interests of their people? Mr Cosgrove emphasised the importance of participation and the legitimacy lent to the process by the evident interest shown in regions such as West Africa and SADC. The West African group of ministers had assembled to discuss the vision of the West Africa, WWV and FFA prior to The Hague Ministerial Conference. This would itself be unique, he said, in dispensing with ministerial speeches and emphasising instead 'interaction with stakeholders'. The hope was for a draft declaration and ministerial commitments to action plans for their respective countries before Rio (+10).
9. On the institutional politics of The Hague 'process', he was asked which institutions would drive the process forward 'post-Hague'? Almost all thought they were qualified and would put themselves forward, he replied, but emphasised that it was not a question of one organisation 'taking the lead'. The environment movement, for instance, spoke 'without a head' but managed to move the environment debate forward. But was the Vision presented for the developing world or a vision for those living in the 'North' as well, he was asked? And what does 'sufficient' water mean? The question of 'sufficient' had to be one answered by communities, he replied, as well as deciding how much water they want, how much they can afford. Again, in terms of sustainability, he stated that participation was the only way. The key message he ended with was that a 'more commercial approach to managing water' was essential. In addition participation meant trying to go beyond governments, but there was therefore also a risk that this could reduce the government's responsibility. Participation by voters would 'keep them [governments] on the hook' he said.
10.Summing up, the Chair stated that the importance of the vision was that it had 'brought water onto the agenda'. Whilst it was possible to argue about the solutions, it was important for as broad a group as possible discuss their interests at The Hague. Processes were always 'difficult and messy', but one was beginning to see a wider degree of participation and people were beginning to express their concerns.