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Introduction

ENVIRONMENTAL STRESSES imposed by population growth, urbanisation and industrialisation have become a prominent theme of international concern in recent years, especially since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. One of the natural resources most affected is freshwater. Demands upon the world’s finite supply of water pose threats to both the quantity and quality of a commodity essential to social and economic activity of all kinds, and to human life and health. This has conferred on water a new level of political attention, which needs translation into political commitment within and between states to the protection of a vital resource. Current fears concerning climate change merely exacerbate the urgency of the freshwater situation.

There are wide differences regarding availability of water between regions and countries, especially between those in temperate and tropical zones. It is estimated that 230 million people live in 26 countries now classified as water-deficient (mostly in the Middle East, Mediterranean and Sub-Saharan Africa), and the number of affected countries is likely to grow rapidly. Some major urban centres already face serious water shortage and water pollution crises, in which water-dependent agricultural and industrial activity play an important part. Questions relating to water resources management and usage thus cut across many productive and social sectors, including agriculture, fisheries, industry, urban development, energy and public health. At present, few mechanisms exist at suitable levels of government to mediate clashes of interest over water husbandry and use.

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There are real prospects of serious disputes within and between states over water resources in the not-too-distant future.

Water’s special character as critical to social and economic activity has granted it a special status in belief systems and, in the modern era, in public policy. Freshwater sources have traditionally been regarded as something in which all members of the human community have rights. Where systems for water supply are the product of public health or other types of engineering, they have almost invariably been provided from the administrative purse or heavily subsidised. And the use of water in the various social and economic contexts has typically been unregulated and charges made for it well below operations and maintenance costs.

There are important implications of this in an era of water stress, among which are water profligacy and wasteful, or mismanaged, investments. In the face of shortage and environmental concern, international fora have called for water to be seen as an economic good with a realistic price-tag, whose costs must be met by consumers to ensure sustainability of services. However, a view which upholds water as a commodity to be bought and sold, in which the community and especially its poorer members might thereby lose their rights, cuts across deeply held beliefs and long-established ideologies.

Lack of a holistic perspective regarding water has also led to a very dispersed and confused system of water management. Responsibilities for the management of the resource, and the construction of dams, pipelines, pumping stations, treatment plants, sewerage systems, not to mention their maintenance, are distributed around a variety of administrative departments. There is, in reality, no such thing as a ‘water sector’. Water-related activities are positioned within specific sectors and managed by sector-based institutions. Water management thus tends to become lost within sectoral interests whose priorities are elsewhere; they have to do with economic productivity - such as irrigated crop yield, or to social good - such as disease control. As the water resource is finite and its utilisation needs to be equitable, efficient and planned, all sectoral strands should be interwoven. However, integrated and cross-cutting structures are notoriously difficult for governments and donors to create and administer. Water-related schemes and activities are no exception.

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The need to examine in tandem the entire range of uses to which freshwater is put, and to design services which neither squander precious resources nor fail to respect other, competing and complementary, water needs, has only become widely appreciated in the very recent past; its translation into policy and programmatic work is still in an early phase. To respect this new holistic perspective, and work out ways in which to make the management and protection of water resources compatible with the development of systems serving all types of customers, is a vital part of the challenge facing water-related development co-operation today.


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