Every Last Drop

Linked with Frank R. Rijsberman – Netherlands, and with the International Water Management Institute IWMI.

Published on Boston Review, by Frank R. Rijsberman, SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2008. (Same text, as a 7 pages article, on AlterNet, January 21, 2009).

Sri Lanka’s celebrated twelfth-century king Parakramabahu reportedly said, “not a single drop of water received from rain should be allowed to escape into the sea without being utilized for human benefit.”

The concern to ensure a steady water supply was pervasive throughout South Asia in his time. Thousands of small dams created cascades of connected lakes (locally called “tanks”) that made irrigation possible all year round, despite the vagaries of the monsoon climate. Comparable inventiveness produced aqueducts in Rome, elaborate systems of underground tunnels (qanats) in the Middle East and Northern Africa, and King Nebuchadnezzar II’s irrigation systems for the hanging gardens of Babylon. The Babylonian irrigation worked, but Mesopotamian society apparently failed to control the slow build-up of salt in the soil, faced a water crisis, and ultimately collapsed …

… Therefore, large-scale investments to achieve the Millennium Development Goals for water are still based on making infrastructure available, rather than on putting a service in place or, better still, achieving health. Water utilities in developing countries lack information about their customers, and they also lack the practical information they need to benchmark their own performance. Poor consumers in the rapidly growing urban and peri-urban areas often live in informal settlements, which implies that they do not have a proper address, cannot open a bank account, and are practically invisible to the formal system.

NGOs such as WaterAid are experimenting with ways to achieve accountability by providing these oft-ignored consumers with scorecards to rate the service they receive. Following similar initiatives in the education sector, others analyze government budgets and reports from water utilities in order to inform communities of the resources that ought to be available to them.

Development organizations have begun to produce benchmarking databases that water utilities use to share information on their performance and compare their work to that of their peers.

UN-Habitat, in collaboration with the governments of Kenya and Uganda, carried out detailed household surveys in fifteen towns around lake Victoria in order to create a water-service level baseline and establish the relationship between water services and health.

To support promising developments such as these, Google.org has begun an initiative that aims to improve education and health-related water services through empowered citizens and communities, responsive providers, and informed decision-makers.

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How can the world be induced to act on the water crisis? It took almost thirty years of advocacy by the climate community before the world took the climate crisis seriously. The water community knows that the best time to get people’s attention and force action is in the wake of a flood or drought. The recent Australian drought made water the country’s political hot button. A California court order to drastically reduce pumping water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta—the lynchpin of the large-scale water transfer to the southern part of the state—may trigger a similar emergency. But floods and droughts are local events that allow the large majority of the world population to ignore their own vulnerability until a crisis hits home. In the end it may be Al Gore who opened the door to far-reaching water awareness. As people accept that climate change is real and here to stay, they are likely to realize that while reducing greenhouse gas emissions is all about energy, adapting to climate change will be all about water.

Solutions to the world water crisis will not be technological fixes of the sort attempted in the past. The water-service crisis is most likely to be resolved through a combination of much-improved, cheaper, small-scale, off-the shelf water purification technology, combined with better information; a reformed public water-sector; and large numbers of indigenous, small to medium-scale private water-service providers. People affected by the water-resource crisis and their allies need to increase water productivity in a manner that maintains ecosystem services—particularly, but not exclusively, through increased green-water productivity in Africa’s savannahs—and buttresses the local capacity to manage climate risk. A tall order, perhaps, but the current world food crisis demonstrates what is at stake. While that crisis appears to have been triggered by the production of cereals-based biofuels, the next food crisis could easily be triggered by water scarcity. (full text).

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