The water balance

Integrated water management is not just a laudable aim. It works. 

A desiccated floodplain in Cameroon is restored to life and again provides grains and fish to local people. An agreement in Canada has assured indigenous peoples access to water from a nearby dam. And water is now supplied to a village in Nepal, thanks to a successful partnership between users, government and a donor.

There are many similarly good examples from around the world where water has been made available to the poorest and dead rivers again harbour life. They testify to the hard work by many people to integrate economic development, social equity and environmental health into water management. And they show that our efforts for sustainable water management are starting to deliver tangible results.

Despite this progress, the general trend is still unsettling. Millions have no access to clean water; lakes and rivers are the most degraded ecosystems of our planet; and many freshwater species are under threat of extinction.

In Johannesburg in 2002, we had hoped that the campaign for integrated management of water would again receive a major boost, after the positive outcomes of the 2nd World Water Forum in The Hague in 2000 and the International Conference on Freshwater in Bonn in 2001.

But even the Plan of Implementation that was agreed to increase water supply and sanitation, did not answer the related questions still on the table before us: where and how are we going to find that water in a world where water resources are already over-used, as well as misused? And assuming we find it, how are we going to manage it? The ultimate goals have been known for years: integrated resource management based on the widely-accepted core values of equity, efficiency, sustainability, legitimacy, accountability, subsidiarity and partnership. But how to get there is more tricky. The answer can only be found through collaborative action, when organisations from all sectors work together at the catchment and national level. Civil society, professionals, government officials and scientists must join together in a coalition for action that supplies water, cleans rivers and protects the resource base.

It is therefore encouraging to see the current convergence in the discussions on water. From the perspective of my own organisation, IUCN–The World Conservation Union, the stereotype long existed that environmental organisations only wish to save cuddly species and beautiful landscapes, even at the expense of those caught in the quagmire of poverty.

Most people now realise the truth is different. Naturally, we do wish to conserve the diversity of nature because it is a source of beauty and inspiration, but mainly because nature and resource conservation are necessary to provide the security on which we all depend.

Environmentalist scientists are concerned with poverty, agricultural experts are trying to protect the environment, and dam projects make progress in working with communities. The caricatures from all sides have slowly dissipated. We now have a sound basis for collaborative action in agreed policies and positive action.

Take upper watershed forests. Their protection makes sense, whether we talk of the ecosystem approach or integrated water resources management. It reduces sediment loads in rivers, regulates water flow, provides timber and non-timber products and safeguards biodiversity. Leaving enough water in the river for downstream fish, wetlands and people also makes perfect sense from both a short and a long-term perspective.

Environmental flows are an important management intervention to ensure a more equitable distribution of water benefits throughout river basins. Many countries have implemented such flows that balance the needs and wishes of all users through resource sharing, negotiations and compensation.

Progress on pollution has also been made, although mostly in the developed world. Polluted waterways still affect people in many countries through illness, reduced access, and declining water availability. The poorest are least able to respond to these impacts. Capacities, technologies and resources must be shared to help them deal with this challenge, especially since growing populations and urbanisation, and agricultural and industrial development increase the need to prevent and treat pollution.

Experience shows us many ways to tackle the problems we face. Differences of opinion will remain, and these need to be expressed to reflect the full scale of interests that are tied to water resource use. But they are not an obstacle for change.

We can move forward with these differences by giving all stakeholders a voice to balance the different needs in an open and transparent process. Then we can take responsibility for our part of the picture, negotiate the best solutions and get to work.

The 3rd World Water Forum offers us again the opportunity to move forward. It gives us another chance to turn the blueprint for sustainable development into a working model.

©OECD Observer No 236, March 2003

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