St. Gallen, Switzerland – Alexander Likhotal, President of Green Cross International, partcipated in an intergenerational dialogue on the causes and effects of water scarcity at the University of St. Gallen.
Water Scarcity is not a new challenge to the world society, but has been exacerbating over the last decades. Why did the global community of states fail to solve this challenge?
Humanity currently uses half of the accessible 12,400 km2 of freshwater per year, of which over 70% for agricultural purposes. The bad news is that the population is growing fast and that water use is growing even faster: the 20th century water consumption grew twice as fast as the world population. As a result, a third of the world's population lives in water-stressed countries now. By 2025, this is expected to rise to two-thirds. Water shortages and pollution are causing widespread public health problems, limiting economic and agricultural development, and harming a wide range of ecosystems. They may put global food supplies in jeopardy and lead to economic stagnation in many areas of the world.
And yet we have never had greater global capacity, understanding, material abundance, and opportunities to resolve this challenge. This includes scientific knowledge, communications, technology, resources, productive potential, and ability to feed everyone on earth. We also have many successful examples of legislation, initiatives, and best practices at multiple scales on which to build.
However, we are not achieving the world we all want and indeed we are moving in the wrong direction at an increasing rate. Water crisis mounts, global greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow, humanity is using resources much faster than it can regenerate, biodiversity is diminishing rapidly, most global ecosystem services are in decline, inequality is growing, and political will is lacking. The United Nations has acknowledged that progress towards the MDGs has stalled.
All the eyes today are on economic crisis. It looks like we fail to see the forest behind the trees.
It is clear that the economic crisis will continue to dominate world attention in the years to come. But this crisis as well as the water one – is a direct result of the unsustainable, consumption-driven economic model that has been fostered by the false idols of economic growth.
In a period of great economic uncertainty, it may seem inappropriate to question the growth imperative. But, then again, perhaps a crisis is exactly the occasion to rethink the longer-term goals of global economic policy, and the consumption based-model, that has started to “consume” itself.
In reality the problem is not the water scarcity but us – our inability to change our eternal belief that the world will adapt to our needs or rather we will be able to bend it to our needs endlessly. Water crisis as all the mounting multifaceted challenges: it is not about money, but values and priorities…
Water supply: a task more for governmental actors or more for the private sector?
The problem of overcoming the water crisis comprises many complex and controversial questions. But thinking about ways of countering the global water crisis, we must first of all recognize its direct causes.
They include :
the growth of the world’s population and of agricultural, industrial and energy production, which are the main consumers of water;
the environmental consequences of economic activities and the destruction of natural ecosystems;
wasteful use of water and other natural resources in an economy driven by hyperprofits and excessive consumption;
mass poverty and backwardness in countries where authorities are not able, and often have no desire, to organize effective water management;
the arms race and the senseless waste of enormous amounts of wealth and resources in wars and conflicts.
It is therefore clear that there is a role for all key stakeholders to play. And more active participation by civil society in the discussion on water-related issues is required if we expect to find the solutions based on the principles of sustainable development and justice, on a clear understanding of water’s various functions and on our capacity to get our priorities right, giving preference to human development over state, private and market interests.
Water has a value. Should it also have a price? If yes, in your opinion, which is the best way to price water?
The famous French oceanographer and ecologist Jacques Yves Cousteau has said that nature had been damaged most by the market economy in which every item has a price but not a value.
That water is indispensable for a variety of functions is obvious to all. However, not everybody realizes that water cannot be considered as a mere commodity whose various functions represent interchangeable values.
Water for life – which is the basic function of water for all living beings – must be unconditionally recognized as the top priority so as to ensure the sustainable development of ecosystems and adequate access to water and sanitation for all.
Water for development – which is an economic function relating to production activities – concerns in general private interests and should be considered from the standpoint of its role in improving people’s standard of living. It is this function that is directly related to the problems of water scarcity and pollution arising in the world. Water supply for industries and agriculture must not only be based on economic efficiency but also take into account social and ecological aspects, and it must always be under public control so as to ensure sustainable development.
Fresh water is not a global resource. It is a regional one, available within specific watersheds. Appropriate ways and means to extend this basic human right to all people are yet to be clearly defined and deployed, and the majority of countries are yet to confirm this right in their national legislation.
In rich countries, the state has invested in water infrastructure over the centuries and progressively asked consumers to cover the cost of water services. Many developing countries are so indebted that the state is unable to invest in infrastructure without the support of the international community. We cannot expect poor people to pay for water infrastructure; most people could possibly pay a reasonable, affordable charge for their water – but only once the services actually exist. New financial mechanisms urgently need to be put in place. Decentralised financing and cooperation must be enhanced, including targeted development loans guaranteed by local authorities from the North.
Privatization is often a stumbling block in discussions about the water crisis and the management of water resources and services, be it at the level of governments or among the concerned non-governmental organizations. I would like to state clearly that Green Cross International that I represent is totally against the deregulation of water resources and services management.
However, GCI recognizes that national and local companies, as well as international corporations may contribute to overcoming the water crisis, as they steadily diversify their offer of water services. They should do it only when those immediately concerned consider it the most reasonable option from the ecological, social and economic standpoints. The implementation of such projects and works must be placed under the control of public authorities, with full respect for the fundamental principles of the human right to water.
You have been engaging on the forefront of GCI’s Campaign for the Right to Water and Sanitation. What was your intention in the pursuit of this rights-based approach to ensure the declaration of the human right to water and sanitation?
Don’t you think that the gap between ambition (accessibility for everyone) and reality (millions of people without access) is way too large to overcome it by declaring a human right? Was declaring a human right the “right” instrument to tackle global water scarcity?
Back in 1948, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was being drafted, its authors considered perhaps it so obvious that all people must have access to clean water that they did not think it necessary to stipulate this right in international legislation on human rights. I don’t think we should criticize them for that. Today, for example, we are not discussing a human right to clean air, but who can guarantee that this will not become an issue in the future?
As soon as the water crisis has started to be felt the right to water was mentioned more or less explicitly in a number of international legal documents: in the Action Plan adopted by the UN Water Conference in Mar del Plata (1977), in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979), in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) and in the Dublin Statement on Water and Sustainable Development (1992), as well as in many national laws.
Nevertheless, there was no international instrument that would guarantee to every person the right to economically affordable drinking water, oblige national authorities to respect this right and, what is even more important, provide a model and a mechanism for its implementation.
An important step in this direction was made in November 2002, when the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognized the right to water as a basic human right. In theory, the 145 countries that have ratified the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights are thus obliged to gradually ensure fair access to clean drinking water. However, the Committee’s interpretation of this document did not imply any legal obligation for governments to implement its provisions.
Green Cross International and its partners have always urged adopting the Right to Water as a human right because this would give a legal instrument to all people to defend their right to clean water and sanitation, and would oblige governments to ensure its implementation. The rights based approach should help distinguish between the different aspects of water use and the related rights and obligations of different participants in this process at the local, national and international levels. We are not so naïve as to think that the adoption of Right to water, or any other document for that matter, regardless of how thoroughly it may have been prepared, would immediately provide water to all those who are currently deprived. We are convinced however that only a law-based approach to the use of water resources can gradually make water accessible to all.
You have served as an advisor to President Mikhail Gorbachev. How did international political conditions influence the global community’s struggle against global water scarcity in the 20th century? Would we have succeeded facing global water scarcity if there had not been two world wars and a cold one?
As I have actually implied before world water crisis is not a political or ecological problem, it is an existential problem. We face this crisis not because we do something wrongly, but because we live inadequately.
However you are right, political situation can and has exacerbated the problem in the past as well as today. I would suggest that today this is more visible than in the past as the anthropogenic pressures on environment has become more obvious and tangible. But there is also reciprocal impact of water crisis on politics that should not be overlooked. So we should rather speak about interdependencies between water and politics.
There will be 220,000 people at the dinner table tonight who were not there last night—many of them hungry, thirsty and desperate and this is one of the major drivers of the undergoing change. If you couple this with shifting demographic world trends – by 2050 the population of the North will amount to just 10% of that of the world’s you will see that the world is taking totally different shape than twenty years ago. And if you map this against the backdrop of mounting water crisis and its geography it becomes clear that without resolute counteraction, the water crisis will overstretch many societies’ adaptive capacities within the coming decades. This could result in destabilization and violence, jeopardizing national and international security to a new degree. All this threatens to undermine trust in the very institutions responsible for grappling with mounting challenges.
The escalation of global problems is in many ways attributable to world politics lagging behind the real processes unfolding in the world. World politics is skidding, proving to be incapable of responding to the challenges of globalization. More than two decades after it was given a new lease of life with the end of the Cold War, multilateralism is foundering. We have squandered much of the capital of trust and co-operation that emerged at the end of the 20th Century. We surely have a deficit of leadership. The world demands new political vision, compatible with the unprecedented challenges and capable to adjust adequately existing mechanisms of international cooperation.
Ten years ago, in September 2000, the leaders of all the world’s countries declared that: “We will spare no effort to free our fellow men, women and children from the abject and dehumanising conditions of extreme poverty, to which more than a billion of them are currently subjected.” UN Millennium Declaration
Good intentions… But it is known that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In reality 20 million children have died only in the last four years, from preventable water-borne diseases. Words have predictably failed to produce the much-needed water for these children… For the 1.1 billion people who cannot reach or afford safe drinking water, for the 2.4 billion who lack access to basic sanitation, this hell is an everyday reality.
Green Cross focuses on the nexus between environment, development and security. Its Water for Life and Peace Programme actively promotes ratification of the UN Watercourses Convention and implementation of the UN-recognized Right to Water and Sanitation. Green Cross also installs systems to provide sustainable water supplies and hygiene services in communities in Africa and Latin America. GCI is an independent non-profit and nongovernmental organization headquartered in Geneva and present in over 30 countries.