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Rethinking Global Agreements on Water

Hari Srinivas
Policy Analysis Series E-042. June 2915.

Understanding of the interrelated, interlinked criticality of water - both freshwater and waste water - has emerged globally only in the last few decades. This greater awareness has helped spawn a number of global summits, agreements, and norms that have explored the issue of water and larger/broader environmental processes. Issues that have come up as a result of these consultations include the promotion of a greater focus on water demand management, and conservation within the framework of integrated water resources management; encouraging a shift from the supply driven approach to meet demand on water to the demand management approach and greater efficiency to match available resources; promoting greater focus on pollution control policies within the framework of integrated water resources management to safeguard the quality of water and to maximize the safe reintegration of recycled wastewater into the water cycle as a non-conventional water source; reviewing water demand and pollution control experience across the region and identify and examine replicable strategies and models; and demonstrating the viability of water demand management and efficiency policies.

It is easy, however to talk global at the global level. The issues are too broad, too overarching, and too 'watered-down' in some cases, without specifics. But what do these pronouncements really mean at the ground level?

The real challenge lie in understanding and adopting global agreements and norms to localized, tangible, feet-on-the-ground action that has real impact, in the short-term, but also the long term. For example, we often hear the statement, "Water is a basic human right" being made in many international meetings - but what does it really mean? At the local level? To the man-on-the-street? Is it just access to water? Clean and safe water? Are there corresponding 'basic human resposibilities' too?? Read on, explore ... and keep a small card in front of you that says, in big, red capital letters, "So what??"

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Global Consultation on Safe Water and Sanitation for the 1990s, New Delhi, 1990 The New Delhi Statement formalised the need to provide, on a sustainable basis, access to safe water in sufficient quantities and proper sanitation for all, emphasising the "some for all rather than more for some" approach. Four guiding principles were postulated:
  • Protection of the environment and safeguarding of health through the integrated management of water resources and liquid and solid wastes
  • Institutional reforms promoting an integrated approach
  • Community management of services
  • Sound financial practices.
International Conference on Water and the Environment, Dublin 1992 Four Guiding Principles were formulated:
  • Freshwater is a finite and vulnerable resource, essential to sustain life, development and the environment
  • Water development and management should be based on a participatory approach, involving users, planners and policy-makers at all levels
  • Women play a central part in the provision, management and safeguarding of water
  • Water has an economic value in all its competing uses and should be recognised as an economic good
United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, Rio de Janeiro, 1992 Agenda 21 emerged from this Conference, with Chapter 18 dealing with water issues. Chapter 18 was titled: "Protection of t-he quality and supply of freshwater resources: Application of integrated approaches to the development, management and use of water resources". Seven programme areas were proposed for the freshwater sector:
  • Integrated water resources development and management
  • Water resources assessment
  • Protection of water resources, water quality and aquatic ecosystems
  • Drinking-water supply and sanitation
  • Water and sustainable urban development
  • Water for sustainable food production and rural development
  • Impacts of climate change on water resources.
Second World Water Forum and Ministerial Conference in The Hague, March 2000 The World Water Vision which was presented at the Forum, defined three primary objectives: (1) to empower people and communities to decide how to use water (2) To get more crops and jobs per drop (3) to manage use to conserve freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems. It deemed five actions critical to the achievement of the objectives:
  • Involving all stakeholders in integrated management
  • Moving to full-cost pricing
  • Increasing public funding for research and innovation
  • Cooperating to manage international basins
  • Massively increasing investments in water

The World Water Council which organized the Second World Water Forum, formulated the following Messages for a water secure world:

  • A holistic, systemic approach relying on integrated water resources management must replace the current fragmentation in managing water
  • Participatory institutional mechanisms must be put in place to involve all sectors of society in decision-making
  • Fresh water must be recognised as a scarce commodity and managed accordingly.
  • Full cost pricing of water services with targeted subsidies for the poor
  • Fresh water must be recognised as a basic need, with adequate access ensured for the poor
  • Incentives for resource mobilisation and technology change are needed.
  • Institutional, technological and financial innovation is needed
  • Private investment and community action
  • Political will is needed B going beyond Dublin and Rio
  • Governments are key actors - as enablers and regulators
  • Behavioural change is needed by all - no more business as usual

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