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Different perspectives: North and South

Climatic conditions and water priorities

The ‘new’ idea that water must be seen as prized commodity is far from new to the majority of developing countries

Although there is a highly-evidence of a global consensus on the critical importance of water there are nonetheless wide differences between regions - and within them - concerning the priority issues. At the global level, this is reflected in a broad dichotomy of view between North and South about priorities.

The ‘new’ idea that water must be seen as a highly-prized commodity - an idea which has only recently come to dominate international thinking - is far from new to the majority of developing countries. Many are located in semi-arid areas, have semi-arid regions within their borders, or suffer from dry and wet season extremes. In some - India, Iraq, Sri Lanka, China and others - ancient civilisations were built upon hydraulic engineering to manage water flows, and water management remains central to social, political, and spiritual life. Problems of water scarcity, and of over­abundance at times of seasonal flood, are a day-to-day reality. Water has always carried political weight; its management and conservation are clearly essential to development and all economic policies take water needs into account.

Of the OECD countries only Australia, Mexico, Western USA and parts of southern Europe experience water stress problems similar to those of many developing countries - and they have the resources to resolve them. Most industrialised countries are situated in temperate zones; until recently, they have taken their water supply for granted and its volume has not been a matter of concern except on occasion of temporary flood or drought. This lack of industrialised world concern long influenced international attitudes; the 1987 Brundtland Commission Report on environment and development - Our Common Future - did not even consider water resources as an issue. By the time of the 1992 UN Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro, attitudes had begun to change, but mainly because of water quality concerns. Although water was not prominently discussed, the inclusion of a chapter on Freshwater Resources in Agenda 21, the key Summit document, did provide a catalyst for future action.

Although water scarcity and seasonal flood remain the priority issues for much of the developing world, quality issues are beginning to intrude on their agenda, just as scarcity issues are becoming more prominent in parts of the industrialised world. Rapid population growth in the South and an even more rapid process of urbanisation have recently exerted new pressures on what is fast becoming an over-stretched resource. Cities in the Middle East, Asia and Latin America are facing critical water problems as a result of overload on sources, improper waste disposal, contamination of rivers and streams and the reckless extraction of water from depleted aquifers. Agriculture remains the major water user in many countries and the diversion of water to other uses has implications for agriculture and food security. In addition, the discharge of increasing volumes of untreated waste water from towns and cities into rivers has downstream implications for agriculture and rural life.

While welcoming an overdue recognition of the importance of water at the international level, some professionals in the developing world have had reservations about the sudden pre-occupation of the industrialised world with environmental issues generally. The expression of these concerns has appeared to demand the imposition of constraints on the exploitation of the natural environment to which the developed countries were not subjected during their own industrialisation process. Since the Earth Summit, the views of North and South have moved closer together, but reservations towards blanket prescriptions about resource management have not entirely disappeared. These need to be taken into account, and underscore the challenge of matching an international consensus on principles to the realities of local situations.


Implications for water policy

Contained within the international consensus on the principles that should govern the response, is the recognition that problems must be identified according to the local context and solutions developed which take local particularities into account. However, the implications of putting into effect some of the most important features of the international consensus - given the particularities of water realities in the developing world - have not always been given due recognition by donors. The growth of international unanimity of view does not preclude - indeed it demands - flexibility concerning the practical application of policy principles. Universalist programmatic models need to be abandoned, or the principles themselves will be repudiated.

In the context of development co­operation, the implications of issues given emphasis by donors, such as institutional reform, realistic pricing and user participation in service management, have ramifications - especially political ramifications - which pose special problems to many recipient country governments. Many still need to be persuaded that measures which clash with customary views about rights, or which undercut entrenched interests and existing systems of administration, are ultimately in their best interests. There are also significant technical and resource constraint differences affecting the means whereby and degree to which the consensus emerging at the international level can be made operational. Factors such as climate, hydrology, terrain, human settlement patterns, infrastructural capacity, investment requirements and sources, economic considerations, and the socio­cultural setting all have to be taken into account. These factors help to explain why there is so far a much stronger rhetorical commitment to the Dublin and Rio principles than there is evidence of their practical realisation on the ground.

Developing countries tend to be more concerned with increasing supplies through new infrastructure rather than with water efficiency or managing water demand, and traditionally seek support from the donor community for infrastructure projects; indeed they fear that the new agenda around which international - which is primarily donor-driven - consensus has coalesced will lead to a reduction in capital investment for such projects.

Officials are becoming more aware of the need to manage resources efficiently, and that the construction of new infrastructure has to take into account environmental and social impacts, and the fundamental need for systems to be economically viable for maintenance purposes. However, they may be inhibited by the political implications of Cities in the Middle East,

such a change. Asia and Latin America are facing critical water problems as a result of overload on sources, improper waste disposal, contamination of rivers and the reckless extraction of water from depleted aquifers.Realistic water pricing is likely to be very unpopularamong those withserviceconnections, andhowever essential, the introduction of fees may therefore be politically painful. Therefore, they may continue to rely on donors to fund water projects desperately needed for the enhancement of supplies or coverage, but be reluctant to address the longer-term problems. Given these difficulties, reconciling the views of donors towards cost recovery with those of recipients is a major challenge.

Likewise, there may be differences of view concerning the involvement of the private sector. A perception has developed that donors regard the turning over of state-run water-related functions to the private sector as a panacea for efficiency gains. Many developing country governments are wary of so doing. In parts of Asia and in Latin America, the private sector is relatively developed; elsewhere, it is weak and poorly regulated. Apart from the desire not to relinquish power over a valued asset, it may genuinely be the case that transfer to the private sector is either not viable or undesirable. Where regulation is limited or unenforceable, an uncontrolled private sector can be predatory, exploiting the vulnerability of the poor. At present, up to 30% of urban dwellers in the developing world buy their water from unregulated vendors at several times the cost of water from a mains supply; this situation needs to be redeemed not administratively reinforced.

While there is clear evidence that, under regulation, some kind of private sector involvement is beneficial to users, different circumstances have to be taken into account. This also applies to the involvement of community-based organisations in management of services. The ability of small-scale farmer associations and village groups to manage complex water schemes without expert help is limited. Their capacity is confined to the management of low-level technologies, such as small catchment dams, gravity-flow schemes, rainwater harvesting, handpumps and simple sewerage systems. Through the mediation of NGOs and sympathetic water authorities, such approaches have been successfully implemented in many parts of the developing world. However, they are very difficult to bring into a systematic area-wide or nation-wide framework.

For many reasons, therefore, developing country governments consider water resources planning and management to be a central part of government responsibility. This view is consistent with the international consensus that promotes the concept of government as facilitator and regulator. The challenge is to reach mutual agreement about the level at which, in any specific instance, government responsibility should cease, or be partnered by autonomous water services management bodies and/or community-based organisations.

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