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RDV Core Training Program FY98 Activity 2.2

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Comprehensive Assessment of the Freshwater Resources of the World --- an UN document, 1997


A. Elements of a Water Strategy: General Considerations

98. It is crucial for water resources to be given a high priority in planning. There are some promising national efforts in water policy development, but these efforts must be spread and reinforced. Governments must reduce the fragmentation of institutional responsibilities on water issues. They also need to include water resources in economic analysis.

99. Acritical element in planning is information on the state of the water resources. Over recent decades the ability of many countries to assess water resources has actually declined because measurement networks and staffing levels have been reduced.

100. Since it will take time to change many unsustainable development patterns, urgent and decisive action must begin now. Experience has shown that the consequences of inaction, in terms of human suffering, social disruptions, foregone economic opportunities and the cost of undoing the harm caused to the resource and the environment will usually outweigh the human and financial resources needed in to engage into a sustainable development path. Many of the problems are of a local and regional nature, and action is primarily a national (and regional) responsibility. Nevertheless, it would be illusory to believe that anything short of a global commitment would provide the means to sustainability. Because some of the water crises could be very severe, the whole world has a stake in averting them.

1. Making water available to increase food production

101. The need and demand for food are rising steadily both because of steady population increases. A large amount of the world production of grains is used for meat production in developed countries and as the diet in developing countries gets fuller and more balanced, an increased demand for animal proteins is expected. This growing demand for meat means that more water will be needed since meat requires more water to produce than a vegetarian diet.

102. In many regions, water scarcity is resulting in severe constraints to the expansion of agricultural production, thus raising pressure for water policy interventions and for more efficient water use practices. Because globally little new land of adequate quality remains to be put into production, and whereas the environmental cost of converting land use is high, the largest part of future food requirements will have to be satisfied through higher productivity on existing agricultural land. Application of water through various forms of irrigation, jointly with the use of genetically improved crops and the considered application of pest management and plant nutrition systems, are main factors of the required agricultural productivity increases to feed the world. Countries can improve the efficiency of water use for irrigation with such techniques as lining canals and the use of more efficient ways of applying water to plants. However, attention must be drawn to the fact that water use in the entire river basin can be highly efficient even though the individual irrigation schemes within the basin are inefficient, in which case seeking a higher irrigation efficiency in one scheme is bound to result in further water scarcity in the downstream schemes. Under such situations, water savings have to be sought in the use of a less water demanding mix of crops and in shifts of the cropping period into a less evaporation-intensive season.

103. Besides new cropping patterns and conventional first-generation irrigation, many other "drought-proofing" techniques exist. They include high-efficiency irrigation, water harvesting, inland valley swamp development, low-lift pump schemes, peri-urban irrigation with treated urban waste water and conjunctive use of surface water and groundwater. Irrespective of what method is chosen, it would imply a consumption of water now passing through the landscape, meaning that water would not be available downstream for other uses.

104. If treated waste water is used for irrigation, it will mean that the amount of fresh water that could be used for other purposes would increase. In those water scarce countries that, because of the domestic water shortage will become heavy importers of basic food stuff, wastewater may well represent in the future the predominant long-term water supply for irrigated agriculture. Water harvesting, which means small-scale projects to capture runoff, can also improve soil moisture and food production.

105. Desalination of seawater is an option for such relatively low-volume, high-value, users as industries and homeowners with at least a moderate income. But, even with technological advances, wheat production with desalinated water is economically prohibitive.

106. As water prices rise, small scale farmers will face increasingly difficulties competing for the scarce water resources. There may thus be a need to help the small irrigation farmer, particularly with partnerships that will give them access to capital, technology, know-how and markets.

107. However, there are limitations to how much these techniques will improve the situation, especially in arid countries. Countries may have to turn toward increasing food imports, as is already the case for a number of arid countries, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. Countries may have non-economic reasons to pursue a course of substantial food self-sufficiency. From an economic point of view, they may find it advantageous to shift their production pattern toward less water-intensive and higher income-yielding products, either in agriculture or the industrial sector. This transition is already taking place in a few countries. In Israel, the water use within various sectors is very efficient. Water availability is, however, so limited that allocation choices between sectors competing for the water resources are increasingly necessary. In this situation, the previous high priority to irrigation is reduced and urban users are pronounced. In most countries, this shift will require training of the rural population to acquire skills needed in other sectors of the economy, and an infusion of capital to create new economic opportunities.

108. The world needs to move towards achieving the objective of global food security. In some countries, this could be done through a transition from food self-sufficiency (a capacity to produce all food within the country) to food self reliance (a capacity to provide food from national sources and through purchase from the international market). However, such an integration of the world economy is unlikely to be painless without proper consideration of world market conditions, and the potential impact on the poorer strata of the population of developing countries. Countries can only make such transition if they can rely on the world agricultural markets to provide a dependable and efficient source of supplies at stable international prices.

2. Access to drinking water supply and sanitation need to be increased dramatically

109. Without adequate quality and sufficient quantities of water for human consumption and for personal and domestic hygiene, billions of people will continue to suffer from diarrhoea and enteric diseases, helminthic infections and other illnesses arising from unsanitary environments, improper excreta disposal and polluted water. Even though most of the suffering takes place in developing countries, the whole world will suffer. Diseases can be communicated easily over long distances. Economic stagnation resulting from ill health affects the global economy.

110. There are a number of relatively simple and inexpensive techniques for supplying drinking water and sanitation. If they are to succeed they must be chosen in consultation with the users, and they must use technologies that can be installed and maintained at the community level. They must thus be user friendly, affordable and appropriate.

111. Top priority needs to be given to the African region, Latin America and South-east Asia. Recent estimates are that $54 billion would be needed between 1990 and 2000 to provide universal coverage only in the urban areas of the regions most in need. The resources required are more than three times the rate of present expenditure. There is no sign this amount of funding will be made available in the near future in the form of reallocation of internal government spending in nations, or in development assistance from abroad. Experience shows that in many cases additional funding for water supply and sanitation systems could be raised by charging users even modest amounts of money for the water they draw. Countries need to apply a higher degree of demand management.

112. When it comes to making decisions on water supply and sanitation systems, it is vital to involve all users. For example, women already play a crucial role in providing water and in decision on hygiene in families. They should be closely involved in decision-making as well as implementation of the water and sanitation supply programmes.

3. Water pollution must be reduced to protect human health and the rest of the environment

113. If not controlled, untreated sewage from cities, industrial discharges and non-point pollution from agricultural activities and urban runoff will continue to damage rivers, aquifers and coastal zones, with devastating effects on our freshwater resources and oceans. Even though pollution prevention sometimes has a higher initial cost than discharging wastes untreated, experience shows that in the long run it is cheaper than clean-ups. Waste water, especially that which is not heavily polluted, can often be used for other purposes, such as industrial cooling and sometimes for irrigation. To encourage pollution prevention, it is important to apply the Polluter Pays Principle.

114. It is important to build on the water quality management experiences of different regions. For example, Nigeria has Interim National Water Quality Guidelines and Standards that are used to set water quality standards. The United States and Canada have adopted controls on discharges that take into account the effect on downstream ecosystems, such as the Great Lakes. Canada looks at impacts on the marine environment when setting water quality objectives for rivers flowing directly to the seas.

4. The need for cooperation is clearly demonstrated for transboundary waters

115. Some of the world's more than 300 major river basins and a number of major aquifers that cross national boundaries are in regions where serious water quality or quantity problems are or soon will be evident. A wide range of transboundary water agreements exist, dealing with rivers, lakes and other water bodies. While a number of these agreements refer to river basins, most of them deal with specific waterworks, water uses and measures to control and regulate water flows. A few deal with pollution. In 1995, a Protocol was signed by the eight heads of member governments of the Southern African Development Community on regionally shared watercourses. The member states recognized that a failure to develop water resources in a sustainable manner could hamper economic productivity and social development in the region. The agreement promotes the equitable use of shared water resources, including the development of integrated water resource development plans. The Rhine Action Plan has led to pollution control objectives that are to improve water quality to the point that sensitive species can once again live in the river. It is also aimed at reducing pollution to the North Sea. The 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty between Canada and the United States has led to a series of agreements over the sharing of waters and controls on pollution, particularly in the Great Lakes.

116. The need for a comprehensive legal instrument for international water bodies has been voiced by several countries. The Draft Articles of the Law of the Non-navigational uses of International Watercourses were adopted by the International Law Commission in 1994. The Commission recommend the elaboration of a convention by the General Assembly on the basis of the draft Articles.

117. This report, like many others before it, has identified the river basin as the logical unit for water management, as any activity in one part will influence other parts of the basin, especially downstream. Thus, there is a clear need for cooperation in the management of international and transboundary watercourses to maximize mutual benefits for all riparian countries.

5. Water needs to be considered as a resource having an economic value

118. Water has economic value, and should be considered an economic as well as social good. Like any valuable commodity, water use has a cost either in terms of its development or foregone opportunities. The cost of using or misusing water does not disappear, but is paid either by the user or by the community at large or through a depletion of the existing natural capital. As water demands increase, it becomes more important to see that water is put to the high-valued economic uses. It is important to see that there is full cost accounting, full cost recovery for the provision of water, and that users pay for the water used for economic purposes.

119. At the same time, it is essential for water planning to secure basic human and environmental needs for water. Otherwise, there will be a risk of shortages, which impose costs on society both in terms of health impacts and losses in economic performance. An example is Brazil which is undergoing social reform programmes, including in the water sector. The country still needs to settle some controversial issues, but the direction is toward a recognition of water as an economic good while also stressing that provision for human consumption must be given top priority.

120. There is a need in many countries to begin or to continue a shift from the government from being the provider of water services to being the creator and regulator of an environment that allows involvement of communities, the private sector and non-governmental organizations in the provision of water supply and sanitation services as well as in the development and utilization of water in other sectors of the economy. Uganda is undergoing water reforms and is moving away from a centralized system to a system where communities will actively take part in the decision making and where choices of solution to water services will relate to local affordability and needs. Thus, the new Water Action Plan and Water Statue aim to facilitate a flexible and coherent water resources management at all levels in the society.

121. The introduction of water markets and pricing mechanisms can encourage the private sector to play an increasingly important role in providing the necessary financial resources and management skill needed for the successful development and utilization of the resources. Governments need to establish laws and regulations for the fair and efficient operation of water markets. Wherever subsidies or income transfers are deemed necessary for social or other national considerations, the objectives of such subsidies or transfers should be well defined and the incidence of the subsidy should not fall on the public or private utilities providing the service.

122. It is essential that economic planning incorporate the idea of water as natural capital whose services can be depleted, as in using up groundwater or polluting water sources. Those services can only be restored at high cost. In the long run, a failure to include the state of water resources in economic analysis, particularly in macro-economic analysis, leads to unnecessary, wasteful and costly investments in water supply developments, mis-allocation of water resources among competing uses and, in some cases, to the actual collapse of schemes.

6. Building human and institutional capacity to solve our water problems

123. Capacity building is an essential step in preparing sustainable water strategies. It includes education, awareness-raising and the creation of a legal framework, institutions and an environment which enables people to take well-informed decisions for the long-term benefit of their society. Women, youth, non-governmental organizations and indigenous people need to be brought into capacity-building strategies, as they are essential in building a sustainable water future.

124. If people, particularly in poor and water scarce countries are going to come up with solutions to problems such as how to attain food security, they must be educated and given access to the information that will help them make the decisions. The world needs more well-trained people, especially more women, to assess and develop fresh water supplies, and to manage water projects for sustainable use. Capacity building should be aimed at giving professionals from different backgrounds and working in different sectors the skills to effectively participate in the intersectoral dialogue during the planning, design and construction of water resources projects. There is further a need to create new or strengthen existing institutions capable of integrated water management and to build networks linking institutions with expertise in land, water quality and water quantity.

125. Many governments will need to assign a high priority to their capacity-building efforts towards institution building, legislation, and human resources development. National efforts in this regard need to be supported by international, regional and national external support agencies, and by the non-governmental community, including the private sector.

7. Access to reliable data is presently inadequate

126. Effective water resources assessment and management are not possible without adequate information, including hydrological information, water use and quality data, demographic data (separated by gender where relevant), forestry and land management, and capacity to assess the data. There is a need for national and internationally agreed upon and harmonized information systems that provide data needed for decision making, as well as common ways of analysing the information.

127. Ideally, the river basin or watershed should constitute the geographical unit for data collection and analysis. Even though some countries have hydrological data available, usually on river basin level, almost no country has socio-economic data sorted at a comparable level.

128. The experience with the current assessment demonstrates that the capability to provide accurate water quantity and quality data is sorely lacking in the majority of countries. For years, the capacity of hydrological offices in many developing countries, particularly in Africa, has been declining when it comes to the operation, maintenance and extension of hydrological networks. Few, if any, developing countries have a significant capability for water quality monitoring, which would give important information from a health perspective. It is very difficult to obtain reliable, systematic information on water resources management and irrigation in most developing countries. There is also poor data on land degradation related to water use. Even developed countries have been reducing their environmental monitoring systems as part of general budget cuts in recent years. Despite problems in finding resources for data gathering, there have been some encouraging signs. As part of the Southern African Development Community protocol on water resources, there was agreement to create a Water Sector dealing with integrated water planning and development of shared river basins. India's National Water policy calls for the development of a standardized national information system with multi-disciplinary units for water management.

129. Support from international, regional and national external support agencies is urgently needed. The WHYCOS programme, developed by WMO with support from the World Bank and other donors, is an important first step with regard to the strengthening of hydrological networks. The UNEP/WHO/GEMS water programme provides international support for the monitoring of water quality. The WHO/UNICEF Global Drinking Water Supply Monitoring Program collects and analysis information involving water supply and sanitation coverage in developing countries. FAO's AQUASTATs programme assembles information on rural water use in participating countries, and make it available in a standard format. UNESCO's International Hydrological Programme includes the FRIENDS (Flow Regimes of International Experimental and Network Data Sets) programme that places a strong emphasis on water resources management. Despite these important programmes, international support efforts concerning information management remain fragmented and incomplete.

Click for a complete copy of the UN document Comprehensive assessment of the freshwater resources of the world

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