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Water and Global Governance

The 5th World Water Forum has convened in Istanbul. Water is life. Everywhere and every day we need it. Water has the power to move millions of people.   People move when there is too little of it and they move when there is too much of it. People love water, they sing, dance, pray for water. They even pay to look at it, as evidenced by the values of water front properties.

The shortages and contamination of fresh water, the basis for all forms of life, are among the world’s most important problems. Solutions to the problems of over-exploitation and pollution of water require a consensus regarding the governance of 300 water basins which are shared by two or more nations, covering 50% of the land surface of the globe, and where more than 40% of the people live.

Yet, water is not the only global issue that needs global governance systems: Excessive energy consumption in some region of the world can lead to floods in some other region due to global heating. A disease neglected because it is rooted far in Africa might become a dreadful epidemic in America.   A terrorist organization backed for hitting other targets may, time come; turn the missiles to its very supporter. Humiliation and isolation of those with unconventional beliefs and opinions can result in reactions that threaten global peace.   The solution to such problems lies only in the solidarity of all humankind.   Consequently, our governance systems and attitudes must also gain a global dimension as our daily life increasingly does so.

Water use has grown exponentially in modern times. The first 80 years of the 20th century saw a 200% increase in world’s average per capita water use. This accounted to a 566% increase in withdrawals from freshwater resources. Significant portion of these resources now became unusable due to industrial and agricultural pollution. Since all life depends on water, present trends of water waste and pollution threaten the world’s basic life support systems.

History provides ample evidence of ancient cities, such as Babylon, Persepolis, Fatehpur Sikri which drank up their surrounding water and perished.   Overused aquifers cause loss of biodiversity. China’s famous Yellow River failed to reach the sea for more than 220 days in 1997.   In China at least 50 cities face acute shortages as the water table drops by 1-2 meters a year. In Jakarta and Bangkok, excessive pumping of groundwater has led to intrusion of seawater into the aquifers.

The average person needs five liters of water to survive. The minimum amount of water needed for drinking, cooking, bathing and sanitation is 50 lt per day. Average person in the US uses 250-300 litres per day for the same tasks. One in five people living today (1.2 billion) does not have access to safe drinking water, and half the world’s population does not have adequate sanitation.   More than five million people die each year from water related diseases, 10 times the number killed in wars. By 2025, two thirds of world’s people will live in countries with water shortages.

If we believe in human rights, we should also accept the principle that every human has the right to an essential minimum amount of water to sustain life and meet basic sanitation needs.   At the Rio Earth Summit the rights of all human beings to basic daily water requirements were expanded to include the environmental needs to preserve the ecosystems.

How to manage water resources is a very difficult question. In most societies water is not part of the market mechanisms that ensure efficient exploitation and utilization of resources. Sharing of water was one of the first elements in the progress towards communal living. It also has cultural and spiritual significance that requires special care in dealing with its governance.

Issues regarding basic human needs, resource sustainability and natural habitat provide a case for government intervention for establishing the policy, legislative and regulatory frameworks for managing water supply and demand.   However, we should also recognize that markets provide the best mechanism to promote efficiency and when deregulation and innovation come together, the results can be startling, as evidenced by the electricity and telecommunications industries.

Water is such a basic need that many think that water is nature’s gift and should be free. But that very same nature left it to someone else to drive the well, dam the river, lay the pipes, power the pumps, and add the chemicals to bring clean water to where we live. Water is indeed a human right, but it is a great mistake to equate such a right to be without costs.   Every right has a corresponding obligation, responsibility, and cost.   Artificially low water prices is self defeating, resulting in deterioriated infrastructure and inefficient service.

Inefficient use of water is often initiated and reinforced by government subsidies. Attendant water rights, whether formal or informal are jealously defended by privileged users. Water allocations often become locked into clearly low return uses (such as irrigation) which in turn results in high economic costs for high-return needs (such as urban utilization). Such inefficient allocations often result in non-transparent subsidies of significant magnitudes.

For example, 70% of water withdrawals are for irrigation and are often heavily subsidized. As much as 60% of the water alllocated for irrigation is lost through leakage and evaporation before it even reaches the crop, and an additional 20% may be lost at the field. There are vey few incentives to improve the efficiency of water delivery when water is free or heavily under-priced.

But, people are recognizing that water has a real market value. Conservationists rightly believe that too often the value of a natural resource is under-represented which lead to significant inefficiencies in water use and production, and reduces environmental sustainability.

Users and polluters of water should be paying for it to ensure environmental sustainability, for mobilization of necessary capital for water infrastructure (estimated need is between $70-180 billion annually), to promote efficiency improving innovations, and to empower communities (with direct subsidies whenever necessary) for promoting participatory democracy.

Beyond the basic needs for human well-being and environmental renewal, scarcity of water is largely an economic issue. The idea that water has an economic value in all its competing uses should underlie all efforts for rational water resource management. Treating water as a tradable commodity would bring greater efficiency and productivity in its use.

The mobility of water through the hydrological cycle has made it difficult to establish ownership and control rights. However, one of the first elements of establishing market mechanisms is establishing property rights. Therefore, conditions for trading water require clear definition of water rights that does not exist in most countries.

Institutional arrangements should be put in place to allow emergence of international water markets. Economic interdependence based on water trade will help avoid conflict. Innovation prompted by market forces can contribute to improving the quantity and quality of water.   Technologies are available which could cut water demand by %40-90 in industry, 30% in cities and 10-50% in agriculture without reducing economic output and quality of life.

Governments have dominated water policy making. But recently NGOs have taken an active role in advocacy, fieldwork, capacity building, and research. NGOs help bring legitimacy through society’s involvement; they bring innovation, monitoring (as in the case of human rights), and through research, free availability of information. Civil society is taking an ever increasing role in poverty alleviation and improving the quality of life by helping people secure access to safe and affordable water and sanitation.

Success in public policy making would be increasingly difficult, if one misses the meaning of this transformation.   This is so, because the international community and the NGOs are instrumental in shaping the global standards, in the gathering and dissemination of the information that feeds decision making, and in problem solving.   Most importantly they bring participatory democracy to life. They also help establish new markets and innovative implementation mechanisms.   The task of the international community and the NGOs is not to replace elected representatives or governmental organizations, but to support and improve their performance through a participatory approach.

Surmounting the issues related to this vital element, water, requires common understanding and joint decision making at the international, regional, sectorial, and stakeholder levels. For such a participatory decision making all stakeholders including women and minorites must have a voice.

The gender division of labor in many societies allocates to women the responsibility for collecting and storing water, and maintaining sanitation. Providing clean and dependable water close to home can substantially reduce women’s workloads and free up time for their more meaningful participation in economic activities. Recently women in a Turkish village made a collective protest to abstinate from sex until their husbands ensured sufficient investment to bring water to the village. And it worked!!

I would like to propose a global water tax on each person who uses more than 50 litres per day to pay for providing water to those that do not have access to clean water at a rate of their over use. This would mean that an average world citizen who uses five times as much as the minimum daily requirement, would pay for four deprived individual’s access to clean water, until each human being gains access to minimum 50 litres per day.

Human beings’ mutual interdependence is ever increasing as we all share the fate of this common earth. We shall all recognize that exploitation of a global resource, water, requires global decision making and caring for others. We shall also recognize that technological developments will continually force us to behave in a more responsible way.

For example, advances in communication technologies translate the “God sees everything” principle in many religions into “the global society sees everything.”   Some information not revealed in CNN can surface in El Cezire TV, or on the internet to the access of millions of people.   Consequently, inconsistencies, whether personal, corporate, or social, are no more sustainable.   Technological developments and freedom of thought accompanying democratic governments lead to transparency in management.   Increasing transparency in turn forces societies to be consistent in both internal and external policies.

Higher transparency leads also people and institutions to be consistent in their behavior.   Sound management is built on the nurturing of mutual trust by consistent behavior.   It requires a certain wisdom reflecting true justice.   The philosophy rooted deeply in the Anatolian tradition is best summarized by Yunus Emre, the great poet and thinker of the 13th century, who advised “Regard the other, as you regard yourself, this is the meaning of four holy books, if there is any.”

In a world where global citizenship is becoming prominent, neither human rights nor democracy is perceived limited to their traditional meanings. Traditional human rights rise on the main principle that no person should be discriminated against their gender, color, race, language, religion, social class or political views. Similarly, democracy is generally defined as right to vote, freedom of expression and related rights.

However, nowadays both human rights and democracy are outgrowing these concepts.    Now what matters is the participation of people in the global decision making processes shaping their own future.   This transformation lies at the heart of the change of focus from management to governance, emphasizing participation and mutuality.

A major prerequisite to such a participative management approach is that large masses be interested in the incidents affecting their lives, have the necessary information, and possess the tools to participate in decision making. To this end, they must belong to the information age and access information technologies. It is a global responsibility to make the necessary steps to satisfy these needs. It is an overarching responsibility that crosses national boundaries, one to be assumed by the international community as a whole.

If we are to solve the global water issues or other issues relevant to the future of human kind, and if we really believe in human rights and democracy, we should strive for the education and bringing up of all people of this earth to instill the “world citizen” notion and their participation in decision making processes.   We have to understand that sound governance is serving all humans, not merely the strong.

For sustainable development and peace on earth, we must comprehend how our decisions impact others. We must understand that good governance is, in fact, self-governance.   To ensure sustainability of water and life on earth we should reach a level of wisdom where we would open our eyes and hearts to new perspectives, and “regard others, as we regard ourselves.”

Dr. Argüden
yarguden@arge.com


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