Commission Calls for Sweeping Changes to Achieve Global Water Security: Warns of Major Water Crises and Shortages Unless Reforms are Adopted

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(Ismail Serageldin, Chairman of the World Commission on Water for the 21st Century, will be available for interviews on Monday, March 13. Please call 703-820-2244 to schedule time.) The full Commission report can be found at


The World Commission on Water for the 21st Century warns that the current water crisis — in which one billion people do not have access to safe water and two billion people go without adequate sanitation — will worsen and affect millions more, unless action is taken now.

In a new report, A Water Secure World: Vision for Water, Life and the Environment, the Commission outlines the seriousness of the current water crisis and makes recommendations on how we can achieve “global water security,” where “every human being, now and in the future, will have access to safe water for drinking, appropriate sanitation, and enough food and energy at reasonable cost and where ensuring adequate water to meet these needs is done in an equitable manner that works in harmony with nature.” These recommendations include:

  • More than doubling global water investment from the current figures of $70-80 billion annually to $180 billion, with almost all the increase coming from the private sector, which means no increased spending by governments;
  • Strengthening the regulatory and enabling framework to manage water holistically at the basin level and to give the people final say over water;
  • Allowing the private sector to take over the bulk of the financing and service provisions;
  • Protection of the poor and of the environment must be assured, which are essential functions of government.

Besides a holistic approach and participatory institutional mechanisms, the report also calls for:

  • Full cost pricing of water in order to promote conservation, stop waste and foster the adoption of appropriate technologies and mobilize private investment. But tied to that is a commitment to provide targeted subsidies for the poor to ensure adequate access to basic services.
  • The systematic spread of best practices and the promotion of innovations in technology, financing and institutional arrangements are all needed.

“Our attitudes on managing water must change,” says Ismail Serageldin, Chairman of the World Commission on Water for the 21st Century, and World Bank Vice President for Special Programs. “Decision making must be undertaken at the basin level, even if it crosses political and administrative boundaries. The participation of users — especially women — must be assured in decision making.”

The Commission says that humanity will increasingly confront problems of quality and quantity, pollution and droughts (despite periodic floods in many parts of the planet). The world will need more water to grow the food to feed the 8 billion that we will have on the planet by 2025; expanding cities and industry will also require more water. The Commission believes that these needs will require more than doubling current annual investments estimated at $70-80 billion to $180 billion. These needs must be met while protecting the environment from land-based pollution and not overdrawing ground water.

By increasing these investments, the Commission estimates that the number of people without water and sanitation services can be reduced fairly quickly by 75 percent to about 330 million.

“To provide clean, safe water, the private sector must take the lead in providing services because of the large amounts of money that is needed,” says Mr. Serageldin. “Governments will have to become enablers and regulators, protecting the environment and ensuring water access for the poor through targeted subsidies and support for community action.”

The Commission also thinks that the latent energies of people can be mobilized through community-based action, as has been done in two projects described in the report, the Orangi and Pilot Project in Karachi, Pakistan, and the Condominial sewerage system in Brazil.

The Commission emphasizes that many of these reforms will run into opposition from those benefiting from the status quo. For this reason, the Commission believes that political will is needed. “Governments remain the key actors in the solution, by what they do or do not do, and how they choose to do it,” the report says. The Commission also calls for a widespread public education and awareness campaign to ensure behavioral change by all.

The World Commission will present its report on a vision for the future of global water resources and their management at the Second World Water Forum, to be held March 17-22, 2000 in The Hague, the Netherlands. The theme will be ‘From Vision to Action.’ Agreeing on strategies and actions to restore the health of the world’s freshwater will be the primary goal of the Conference.

Precious resource

“Water is life,” the Commission’s report begins. “For water is the basis for all living ecosystems and habitats and part of an immutable hydrological cycle that must be respected if the development of human activity and well being is to be sustainable.”

The report warns that though many countries have made “considerable progress” in recent years with their national water problems, “at a macro level the arithmetic of water still does not add up.”

Only 2.5 percent of the world’s water is not salty, and of that, two-thirds are locked up in the icecaps and glaciers, the Commission says. Of the remaining amount, subject to the continuous hydrological cycle, some 20 percent is in areas too remote for human access, and of the remaining 80 percent, about three-quarters come at the wrong time and place — monsoons and floods — and is not captured for use by people. The remainder is less than 0.08 of 1 percent of the total water on the planet. “It is precious indeed,” the report says.

About 70 percent of this water is used in agriculture to grow the food and fiber on which human society depends. About 30 percent is used for municipal water use, for households and industry. Water is also used to generate electricity (hydropower and cooling for thermal power) for navigation and leisure. Finally, water is required to sustain rivers and wetlands, to dilute pollution, and to wash away salts that would otherwise destroy farmlands.

The gloomy “arithmetic of water”

The report gives a stark view of how this “gloomy arithmetic” adds up to a burgeoning crisis for all humans: “In the next two decades it is estimated that water use by humans will increase by about 40 percent, and that 17 percent more water will be needed to grow the food for the growing populations than is available. In addition the water demands for industry and energy will grow rapidly. And we know that aquatic ecosystems throughout the world have been degraded and will need greater protection and that water quality is deteriorating in poor countries. In short, with current institutional arrangements and current technologies, the arithmetic of water simply does not add up.”

The Commission says that only rapid and imaginative institutional and technological innovation can avoid the crisis. The report recommends that a Water Innovation Fund (WIF) be established as an important step in incubating innovations and spreading them and scaling up their application, all needed for moving away from business as usual.

“‘Business as usual’ will not do,” the report says. “With the commitment of all, however, the problems can be overcome, a water-secure world is possible, but we must change the way we manage water, starting now!”

Details on the Commission’s Recommendations

“To achieve these goals, drastic changes in the manner in which water is managed will be needed,” the Commission’s report says. Namely:

The holistic approach — The report says that people have generally considered water only in terms of their particular use for it: water for municipal use, for industry, for irrigation, for environmental needs. The report says the environmental use should not be viewed as a competing use, but an inherent part of maintaining the entire ecological system on which all water services depend. The report also describes as outmoded those institutions that look at political and administrative boundaries as the basis of decision-making when such boundaries seldom conform to the catchment and basin areas that nature prescribes as the management units for water.

“But it is as much by activities on land that we impact the quality and availability of useable freshwater as by the direct withdrawals that humans make,” the report says. “A holistic approach means taking these issues into account and linking the quality and quantity aspects of water management. Water is affected by everything, and water affects everything and everyone.”

Participatory institutional mechanisms — The old model of ‘this is government’s business’ must be replaced by a model in which stakeholders — those who use water — participate at all levels, the report says.

At the local level, community groups and users’ associations have a major role — sometimes in self-providing and managing their local sewerage or irrigation works, sometimes in monitoring the performance of public and private service providers, sometimes in managing land use in their local watershed, the report says.

At higher levels, the Commission calls for “users’ parliaments” in which water users would have a major role together with the national government in managing aquifers and river basins.

“Experience shows that this participation must be real and not symbolic and shows that these users’ associations and parliaments must have a decisive role in deciding what is done, how it is done, and who pays for it,” Mr. Serageldin says. “Experience also shows that what works is partnerships between governments and stakeholders, with governments playing a vital role in creating the enabling environment, and in providing technical and enforcement support. Empowering women’s groups, the poor, youth and the community-based groups to have an adequate voice in the participatory decision making is a necessary pillar of this approach.” Enacting such an approach would see the role of government as ‘enabler’ and ‘regulator,’ thereby increasing the flow of private investment and mobilizing community resources and labor.

Pricing and subsidies — Full cost pricing of water services is needed to promote conservation, stop wastage, and foster the adoption of appropriate technologies, including re-use of water. Enforcing the “polluter pays, user pays” principle will be vital. Full cost pricing will also attract the massive private investments required. But it is essential that as full cost pricing is being generalized, targeted subsidies are put in place to ensure access for the poorest and to empower community action, especially women’s groups.

The Commission says that the subsidies should be delivered directly to the people themselves, not service organizations. “They must be delivered in a manner that is transparent and well targeted,” the report says.

It is essential to separate welfare concerns (the responsibility of governments) from business concerns (the responsibility of water utilities and service organizations). Transparency in the allocation of subsidies has been shown to reduce waste, encourage efficiency, and reduce the possibility of subsidies being ‘hijacked’ by the rich.

The report say that current approaches — where heavily subsidized water is provided to all — winds up resulting in the poor being ‘rationed out’ of the piped system, and ultimately having to pay 10-20 times the unit price that the rich pay for piped water. The report calls it ironic that these generalized subsidies are defended in the name of the poor who do not benefit from them. In addition, this leads to mismanagement and opaque practices in the utilities. This is why the Commission believes that full-cost pricing with transparent and targeted subsidies is the way to go.

Incentives for resource mobilization — The Commission says that incentives must be found to:

  • Mobilize resources for water-related investments;
  • Promote new science and technology to address water issues;
  • Harness the traditional wisdom of the people who have lived with nature for centuries, as well as to promote the deployment of new environment-friendly technologies.

“Existing knowledge and technology that often are not applied need to be used more extensively, from rainwater harvesting to biotechnology, traditional wisdom should be tapped along with the newest cutting edge of science and technology,” the report says.

Political will is needed — Difficult decisions and complex tradeoffs can be minimized by seeking win-win solutions, but will not be eliminated, the report cautions. It calls for a technically and scientifically informed participatory, transparent process of decision making at all levels — from the community to the river basin — to act as “the action arm” of the integrated water resources management approach.

The report says governments will be the key actors not by undertaking tasks themselves, but by setting the enabling framework for local community-based action and for a properly motivated and regulated private sector.

“Government agencies must also be involved in protecting the long-term interest of all by acting as the custodians for and champions of the environmental and social dimensions of water management, even when it goes beyond their borders. Cooperative mechanisms and consultative processes for settlement of competing claims across administrative and sovereign borders are part of this overall framework,” the report says.

Behavioral change — The Commission wants the Water Forum to raise global awareness that every citizen is involved in the management of water, “by what we choose to do or not to do.”

The report warns “unless human behavior changes dramatically, technological solutions will be for naught. Public awareness, education, identification and dissemination of best practices, and incentives for action are all part of realizing this vision of a sustainable, equitable future where all human beings, everywhere will have access to enough clean water, sanitation, food and energy.”

The World Water Forum

“We in the Commission see the launch of the World Water Council-led Vision as a continuing process,” Mr. Serageldin says. “The Second World Water Forum and the Ministerial Conference are only a milestone on an ongoing journey as we move from vision to action. The Global Water Partnership-led effort entitled “Framework for Action” is intended to help lay out a path for bringing some measure of cooperation and coordination to the implementation of the vision.”

The work leading up to the Forum has been an enormous participatory exercise that has produced many sector visions, for water and sanitation, for food and agriculture, for water and nature. It has also explored many themes, from institutions to biotechnology, from the information revolution to the energy future. Many sources of data, models and forecasts were woven together in various scenarios for discussion. All these were confronted with the local realities, as national and regional vision exercises were launched in more than 30 regions and nations. More than 100 meetings were held.

The results of all these efforts are being published with each group signing its own effort. The synthesis of many of these findings is given in a separate staff report prepared by the Secretariat to the Commission with the support and guidance of the Chairman of the Commission. While the Commission has carefully reviewed and considered these findings and exercises, this report is independent of them and does not constitute a summary of these efforts.

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The World Water Council, an international water policy think tank, has established the World Commission on Water for the 21st Century.

The Commission is co-sponsored by the following international organizations: FAO, Organization of American States (OAS), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), UNESCO, UNICEF, United Nations University (UNU), World Health Organization (WHO), World Meteorological Organization (WMO), and World Bank.

(For further information on the Commission and its partners, please see:

This report — A Water Secure World: Vision for Water, Life and the Environment — is the work of the independent World Water Commission. This World Water Commission report is accompanied by World Water Vision: Making Water Everybody’s Business, the staff report that presents background information and analysis used by the Commission in its deliberations.[/sws_grey_box]

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