Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink

Can better water governance between citizen, state and business solve the scarcity crisis?

Water is ‘kind of’ important. It makes up between half and three quarters of the human body weight, needs to be topped up on a regular basis and we cannot go without it for more than about week. As well as drinking it, we also use water for cooking and sanitation, not to mention industrial processes. Yet despite water being essential to our survival, more often than not in the West, we treat it with distain. A fact reflected in its low price (compared to petrol or electricity – things we may be addicted to but can live without?) and how the developed world fritters it away (you may leave the kitchen tap running into an unplugged sink at home but you would not pour petrol from the station pump down the drain, right?).

What makes matters worse in terms of our taking water for granted, is that despite 70% of the Earth’s surface being covered by water, only 2.5% of the total volume is freshwater resources and fit for human consumption. Coupled with the facts from the WBCSD and FAO that in 60% of European cities with more than 100,000 people, groundwater is being used at a faster rate than it can be replenished, by 2025, 1,800 million people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two thirds of the world population could be under stress conditions.

No need to reach for valium just yet however, because maybe this is all about change.

It would appear the UN’s leadership is mulling over whether or not to name 2012 as the year of water given the importance of sustainable water management in achieving the Millennium Development Goals. This should be welcomed of course. But local governance needs to be a key area of any water campaign here. This goes beyond calls for a new shadow price for water or for the world’s largest industrial water users to develop water security strategies. It requires new forms of water stewardship between citizens, municipal authorities and the private sector. Perhaps a chance to do things differently then, by looking at the learning from water co-operatives in Bolivia and Finland?

In rural Finland there are over a thousand water cooperatives serving farm businesses and villages. Whilst licensed by the government and allotted a limit to the amount of water they can extract, the cooperatives have complete control over price. This means they can offer favourable rates to their members because their decision is not influenced by fluctuations of the market. The Finnish water cooperatives also have the network benefits of other partnering with other regional associations. If for instance the water quality in one area is not sufficient, due to extenuating natural circumstances, the cooperative may buy water from a neighbouring cooperative-owned water network, thus ensuring continued low prices and supply dependency.

Taking this learning a step further should involve residents recognising and accepting they had rights and responsibilities when it comes to water. This, after all is, is a fair way to realise genuine change. Each of us would have a right to access quality water to sustain life but we also have a responsibility to not abuse it, say, by watering our gardens during times of drought – something which needs to be backed up by serious sanctions for those who cheat (ever heard of a neighbour or local golf club being taken to court by the authorities for fragrantly disobeying a hosepipe ban? No, neither have I). In short, real behaviour change will require new controls (e.g. water efficient planning rules for buildings) and incentives (e.g. tax breaks for green roofs or water butts), yes, but for some laggards, it may also require a push rather than a nudge in the right direction.

Clearly this raises big dilemmas over costly and ageing national water infrastructure, especially in an age of austerity, and so timeliness will be paramount. Take for instance the UK’s forthcoming new Water Strategy. Given parts of the UK suffers from worse water scarcity than areas of the Sudan and Syria, it is a tremendous window of opportunity for Cameron’s administration to show the world how do things better and back up commitments to both devolve power and to be the ‘greenest government ever’ by setting out a bold vision for water resiliency.


Philip Monaghan

Strategist and change manager

Greenleaf Author

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Philip is the highly acclaimed author of Sustainability in Austerity.

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