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Governance of water: the urgent need to change attitudes and practice

Water, contrary to oil, is a vital and irreplaceable resource.

And contrary to misconceptions, it exists in limited quantities on earth. It is only the cycle that has been in existence for 4.5 billion years that allows it to be recycled, and gives us this illusion of an infinite resource. In spite of the fact that earth is often called ‘the blue planet’, fresh water only represents 2% of the water that covers our planet. This water is also very unevenly distributed at planetary level. Six countries have half the world’s water: Brazil, Russia, Columbia, Canada, Indonesia and China. Yet the latter, with 21% of the world’s population has only 7% of its fresh water reserves.

Climate change

The International Scientific Council has considered the questions of water shortage as the most critical problem of the 21st century for over a decade, placing it just after that of climate change.

Considering this as two separate issues is possibly no longer valid, as the two phenomena are closely related.

The scientific report produced by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change composed of 500 experts who met in Brussels in April 2007) foresees that water shortage could triple with the impact of global warming. Warming rhymes with famine and water shortage (IPCC report to decision-makers, February 2007). As well as the rise in temperature, rainfall is expected to increase in the upper latitudes, and decrease in the sub-tropical zones. Droughts will be longer and more intense in tropical and sub-tropical zones. Tropical cyclones will be more intense. Climate change will affect disease-carrying insects whose biology is related to rainfall and temperature. They may be affected in terms of their geographical destruction, their biology, their survival, their fecundity. Less than one century ago, malaria existed in Corsica, in Southern Italy and the Balkans…

Today, one in every four people has no access to drinking water (UNESCO). UNEP has warned that in the future two out of every three people will live in a country affected by «water stress » (structural imbalance between the limited water capital of a country and its’ consumption ; according to some schools of thought, the stress level can be situated at over 100l/person/year, all forms of use included.)

In order to overcome these difficulties for agriculture, drop-by-drop irrigation would have to become widespread as well as development of varieties that require less water, nor that would allow water containing salt to be used for irrigation. This could be carried out in much the same way as the GMO varieties that are herbicide resistant or certain selective medicines. We need to develop forms of old-fashioned seed that are more resistant: before colonisation, Chad boasted over fifty varieties of barley and wheat. One of these was highly drought resistant, another cricket resistant, whereas a third had a high tolerance to the hot wind – the « Khamsin » that blows from Sudan. Commercial varieties took over from them by sheer force of the market.

Likewise, in Turkey, there were several tens of varieties of melon, and Tunisian wheat that was renowned for its fungus-resistant characteristics is now the cash cow of Australian cereal growers… By rehabilitating these old varieties, we could economise some the water that is so rare and precious.

Agriculture also needs to introduce the use of recycled used water from towns that are heavy consumers of water.

Virtual water could, in certain very specific cases prove to be a great help in rationalising the way the resource is used. It would enable a region or a country that has enough water to export agricultural products to another region or country where the resource is rare or limited. The counterpart could be exports to these countries of high technology products or industrial equipment, bringing about a win-win situation.

Public policy should encourage (even impose) drastic measures as far as water saving in agriculture is concerned, as this sector is the greatest consumer of water at global level. (60% on average and up to 90% in certain developing countries.) In 2006 the report commissioned by the French Ministry for Agriculture from the INRA had a most revealing title : « Drought and agriculture. How to reduce the vulnerability of agriculture to the risk of water shortage »
(c.f. http ://

There would seem to be some slight movement within the World Bank. According to the site of the newspaper Le Monde (20th April 2007), The World Bank is coming back to examine the question of agriculture (according to the Annual Global Report on development, due to be published in September 2007) and states: « The acceleration in climate change, the imminent water shortage crisis [1], the slow introduction of biotechnologies… are creating new uncertainties as to the conditions in which food will be available within the global economy ».

What we can note is that climate change has already started to have an effect on water… and not only in the South. In the International Herald Tribune on the 5th of April 2007 (p2) there is an article that reports on the drought and water shortage ravaging the West of the U.S.A., which is causing hostilities between the various states, Montana, Utah, Nevada and California, with some of them going as far as the Supreme Court to settle their differences on the questions of « water ownership ».


In the industrialised world 70,000 different chemical products are used in the various sectors (agriculture, industry, households…). Sooner or later these substances –or their metabolites- find their way into the hydrosphere.

In a report published in February 2003, the French Institute for the Environment (IFEN) states that the rivers and the underground aquifers in France are continuing to be heavily polluted by agricultural pesticides: only 5% of samples taken in recent years from rivers are of very good quality, and therefore compatible with the risk-free development of the various life-forms found in water and with the use of this water as untreated drinking water. In 40% of the cases, the presence of pesticides results in lowering of the quality of the water and the need to introduce specific treatment to make it fit for drinking. No fewer than 148 different pesticides were detected in the surface waters, and 62 in subterranean water.

The research centre at Dubendorff in Switzerland has demonstrated that rain water in Europe is no longer suitable for drinking, due to pollution by pesticides, exhaust gas, heavy metals… The deep aquifers are affected. This pollution of water has an impact on flora and wildlife. It acts on the hormones of human beings, and has serious effects. The residue of medicines consumed by people is also polluting rivers. An example of this is the small river Lee, a tributary of the Thames, carries one hundred kilos of aspirin per year…not to mention contraceptives, medicine for reducing blood pressure, pain-killers, medicine to reduce cholesterol…
In the countries of the South (China, India, Malaysia, Egypt…) the situation is often worse still, as there is terrible organic pollution added to the chemical pollution, with all the water-carried diseases (cholera, typhoid, bilharzias, trachoma, sleeping sickness, river-blindness, malaria…) due to the total lack or poor quality of sewerage systems and water sanitation networks.

Solutions and policies can be introduced to stop the chemical and organic pollution of the hydrosphere. The Reach programme recently introduced in the E.U. is a step in the right direction, in spite of its timid beginnings.

Public policy needs to promote biodegradable or green chemical and plant-based products.

There are existing solutions, as many studies have shown, particularly the work carried out by our friend Suren Erkman (Geneva) and more recently by Professor Perry McCarthy of the University of Stanford who is due to receive the Water Prize in Stockholm on the 16th of August next for his magnificent research on the de-pollution of water using bioengineering techniques (bio films, enzymes…) amongst others. Nanotechnology should also prove to be a valuable support in the fight against pollution.

International Solidarity

1.2 billion people have no access to drinking water and 2 billion no access to sanitation. No water, no dignity. No water, exodus to the shantytowns of the great metropoles (c.f. Cairo, Lagos, Casablanca,…) before trying to move on to a richer country. No water, no schooling for girls, who are often the “community aqueducts” of Africa, for example in the Dogon tribe in Mali…

The Johannesburg summit set the goal of halving these figures by 2015. But people are already aware that this objective will not be met. (Loïc Fauchon, World Water Council, held in Lorient last October).

A world of such inequalities is a dangerous place.

In France, the Regions and the towns are making magnificent efforts, and performing great feats, which sadly are not enough, given the magnitude of the task in hand and the lack of co-ordination. France is also making good use of the law called the Santini Law to help developing countries in the field of water. States need to get together to relieve the suffering of these human beings, and bring peace to the world.

There are also traditional techniques relegated to obscurity by colonialism and technocrats that should be revived. Our friends Sunita Narain and Anil Agarwal (Centre for Science and Environment of Delhi) have demonstrated how these methods could solve the crucial question of bringing water to Indian villages. But the way to hell is paved with good intentions: providing free electricity to enable water for irrigation to be pumped in rural India led to over-usage and the subsequent drying up of many well, and later, in certain regions to the terrible tragedy of the appearance of wells contaminated by arsenic in certain geological layers. In Bangladesh twenty million people are exposed to this arsenic-laden water, leading to cancers of the skin, the digestive system and a crippling disease that can even be fatal, black foot disease.

Collecting rainwater is back in fashion in the Maghreb... (c.f. Imaginaire de l’eau, imaginaire du monde with a preface by LB, published by Editions la Dispute and Conseil Général du Val de Marne, March 2007).


The question of governance lies right at the heart of the Water problems. More than two hundred water basins in the world flow across political borders. But water-related difficulties have local, regional and international specificities.

The International Decade of drinking water supply and sanitation launched and co-ordinated by the United Nations (1981-1990) did not meet with great success, as the Delhi Consultation recognised in September 1990, at the meeting they jointly organised with the UNDP. The results were insufficient in operational terms (numbers connected to mains supply systems, continuity of service, quality of water…) in institutional terms (few regulatory bodies created, lack of national water policies, bureaucratic heaviness) and also in financial terms (sustainability of projects, amortisement of equipment, economic viability). The policy of building big dams – which was previous in fashion- is now queried, with objections being raised due to the environmental and social impacts.

The General Assembly of the United Nations dealt with these questions in a session especially devoted to water. In order to vote a resolution. Since then there have been one international meeting after another, but face the obstacle of national sovereignty, upstream against downstream…There has however been some small measure of progress : The Nile Water Basin Organisation (ten countries agreed to work together in all matters concerning the river and co-operation, but the World Bank has balked at the idea…the United States and Canada have been holding discussions on the Great Lakes, but what has happened in terms of water transfers ?

« Good water governance » can not exist without consultation and taking the opinions of stakeholders into account, particularly those of women. But the challenge of globalisation makes relationships between actors increasingly complex, the policies of the international operators such as the World Bank, the IMF, the WTO who since 1994, have disseminated a new market-based model. Social treatment of the water question is a must, but should not become a pretext to avoid a discussion on the price of water: drinking water is an elaborate, sophisticated product.

For Humanity water governance is a major issue for the coming decades, because the water cycle is starting to become affected by human activity. It has become an urgent necessity to apply the principle of sustainable development to water.

Finally there is talk of the United Nations creating a Water Commission or a Water Agency

A vision in need of change

Heavily laden with symbols in all the beliefs and civilisations of our world, water is not a mere resource: it dictates the reverent attitude of many of our contemporaries have for this element, which has a positive impact on the resource and acts as a forms of sustainable development before its existence. Joseph Ki-Zerbo, the great African sage who recently passed away gives us several precious ideas on how to understand the symbology of water when he wrote: « In my mother-tongue we say ‘there are only crocodiles left in the water’. This shows the complexities of reality, not only because there are a thousand small animals, far less spectacular than crocodiles that are present, but also because water affects things beyond the visible, for example, life itself…».

Yet at the same time, water is still the object of many false ideas and outdated practice today.

Water does not just flow out of taps. It comes from nature, where it has followed a fantastic path of which most people are unaware – for there is little contact with nature and its laws – and it only reaches our taps after considerable treatment and implementation of a whole host of technologies. But water has become invisible.

Water is vital to industry (It takes 400,000 litres of water to make a car, 18 litres of water are necessary to produce one litre of petrol and 1,300 litres to make a mobile phone), to agriculture, households and tourism… Competition between these sectors is ferocious and will create many difficulties in the future. The resource is not infinite, as we have already stated. We need to learn how to use the same volume of water seven times over. We need to learn to use a quantity of water that is compatible with a given use. Waste water from any building of more than four floors is sanitised and recycled for flushing the toilets in the building in Japan.

Water has become an important element in the geostrategy of States. In April 2000 on World Earth Day, Madelaine Albright, American Secretary of State publicly declared her wish to see the question of water granted an essential place in the foreign policy of her country and made the following proposal that placed the question of water firmly in the geostrategic field «a global alliance of water security ». Following the war in Iraq of 2003, her successor, Colin Powell deplored the fact that «over one billion people have no access to drinking water » and that «two billion people have no access to proper sanitation », and underlined the fact that the initiative of the Millenium Challenge Account (MCA) launched by the President George W. Bush is a powerful means of «drawing whole nations into a circle of opportunities and initiatives ».

Hydrologists, ecologists, sociologists, diplomats and politicians should work together so water can bring people together be used to the greatest benefit of all. There are some encouraging examples of this in China and Vietnam (on the Mekong) and India and Pakistan (on the Indus)…. Water can bring yesterday’s enemies together and help them to overcome their bad feelings and co-operate.

Most of all we need to learn to live in a world that economises its water. This is possible as there is a great deal of wastage. Schools have a fundamental role to play, as do legislating bodies.

Paris 22nd April 2007

Larbi Bouguerra

[1Underlined by us


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