2015: And now water?

Development Policy26 Mar 2013Saskia Hollander, Karlijn Muiderman

What will be the role of water in the Post-2015 development agenda?

In two years’ time, the MDGs will come to an end. They will be replaced by a new post-2015 development agenda, which will set new global development targets. The Broker online debate ‘Prioritising water after 2015’ has made a strong plea to replace the more fragmented MDG process with an integrated approach interlinking water with other related themes.

To explore the role that water should play in these targets, The Broker facilitated an online consultative debate, ‘Prioritising Water’, focusing on two main questions: What are the key challenges facing global water policy? And how can water cooperation contribute to global development? Here we take a look at the contributions to the debate and some of the conclusions that emerged.

During the debate, four main issues came to the fore: Should the post-2015 agenda extend and build on the MDG process? How should water be specified in the post-2015 framework? Should water services be privatised? Or should we adopt an integrated approach, involving all actors?

Evaluating the MDG process, many contributors argued that it was too fragmented and disproportionally oriented towards measuring effectiveness. In their view, setting a limited number of isolated and easily quantifiable targets has impacted on both the provision of drinking water and sanitation (WASH) and on the management of water resources. The issue of privatisation also gained considerable attention in the debate, with some authors seeing it as an opportunity to increase efficiency within the WASH sector and others arguing that it leads to unequal access to water and sanitation. On the role of water in the post-2015 agenda, there was a broad consensus among the participants that we need a more integrated approach, acknowledging the relationship between water and challenges like food and energy security, conflict and environmental degradation. At the same time, however, there was no consensus on the best framework for the post-2015 agenda and the specific role of water within it.

The Prioritising water debate

The Broker, in cooperation with Inner Sense and the Dutch government, has launched an expert debate, ‘Prioritising water after 2015’, as part of the preparations for the United Nations World Water Day, hosted by the Netherlands and UNESCO, on 22 March, and the Wings for Water event the previous day. This independent debate has provided valuable input for the UN’s online consultation (, in shaping recommendations for the post-2015 global development agenda on water. The conclusions in this report are also being presented to the High Level Forum, which includes members of the UN Secretary-General’s High Level Panel and will take place on World Water Day.

‘Prioritising Water after 2015’ has generated an in-depth discussion on the key challenges and priorities facing water cooperation and provided clear recommendations for formulating the post-2015 development agenda. The consultation included contributions from authors from different backgrounds: government/semi-government, civil society, business, spiritual organizations, and academia.

The Broker is following the post-2015 process closely. Besides this consultation, The Broker’s debate on inequality explores how inequality can best be addressed in the post-2015 agenda. In a few weeks time, The Broker will be publishing a post-2015 dossier analysing the process as a whole and integrating all the different themes. And finally, our debate on emerging powers offers further reading on cross-cutting themes of world leading economies.

Avoiding the pitfalls of the MDG process

Addressing the role of water in the post-2015 development agenda, many contributors implicitly or explicitly warned against repeating the MDG process, which they perceived as highly fragmented and predominantly aimed at formulating goals and targets that can be easily measured and monitored. When the MDGs were formulated, each development sector pushed hard to achieve priority for its own goals, often to the exclusion of others (see Zafar Adeel. This can lead to a lack of cohesion between the different goals and targets. This was clearly illustrated by Pieter van der Zaag, who argued that there is still insufficient recognition that the bulk of the MDGs cannot be achieved without a sustainable supply of water. While there has certainly been progress on MDG7c, which aimed to halve the proportion of the world’s population without sustainable access to water and sanitation by 2015, it is by no means certain that the billions of people who now have access to improved water sources will retain this access in years to come. The participants maintained that, because the MDG process is highly fragmented, the global development community has devoted too little attention to the long-term sustainability of our water supply (see for example Johan Kuylenstierna; Huub Savenije; Julian Doczi).

Another criticism of the MDG process expressed in the debate is the predominant focus on measurability. The main criterion for assessing progress on MDG7c is access to an improved water source, which is relatively easy to quantify and monitor. According to a recent JMP report, the sanitation goal is nowhere near being achieved, with 2.5 billion people lacking access to improved sanitation, while 800 million still lack access to safe drinking water.1 Despite this – albeit limited – progress, there was no target on the quality and sustainability of water sources, which are much more difficult to measure (see Marco Schouten). Experts, however, estimate that the real number of people who have gained sustainable access to safe drinking water and sanitation is much lower. Contributors to ‘Prioritising Water’ claimed that this focus on quantitative data has discouraged actors in the WASH sector from making progress on less easily quantifiable aims and taking account of the impact of their actions on other areas of development. Overcoming this disproportionate focus on measurability and effectiveness in WASH and water resources management (WRM) is seen as a key challenge for the post-2015 agenda. Contributors disagreed, however, on whether we should abandon the MDG framework altogether or refine the existing goals and targets with less focus on measuring effectiveness.

Privatisation: greater efficiency or greater equality?

The focus on raising efficiency in the provision of water and sanitation has given rise to a paradigm of privatisation, with services being outsourced to private companies. This has taken place on a large scale in Latin America, especially in Mexico (see for example Marcela Olivera, Claudia Campero), but also increasingly in Asia and Africa (see for example Mary Ann Manahan). Contributors from different sectors and disciplines disagreed whether water sector privatisation has indeed improved efficiency. Those in favour of privatisation argued that increased private funding, mandated by international lending institutions like the World Bank, has helped improve water infrastructure systems (see Bekele Geleta). With the poorly developed public sector in many developing countries failing to provide access to water and sanitation services, public authorities had no choice but to involve private companies. This has resulted in public-private partnerships (PPPs), in which public utilities and the private sector cooperate to provide drinking water and sanitation. Another argument in favour of privatisation was that, if people have to pay for their water, they will become more aware of how much they use and will be less likely to waste water. According to this perspective, private companies can contribute by, for example, raising efficiency in production processes, pricing mechanisms and awareness campaigns (see for example Tex Gunning). contributors who were not in favour of privatisation argued that it has a number of vital negative implications for access to drinking water and sanitation and the management of water resources. They claimed that PPPs have failed to fulfil the expectations of increased efficiency, for example because of incongruence between the profit motive of private companies and the responsibility of public authorities to provide water services for all on an equal basis (Emanuele Lobina & David Hall). Latin American and Asian advocates of water justice emphasised that privatisation is a serious threat to guaranteeing the human right to water. They observed that, as a result of full cost pricing and payment for ecological services, water tariffs in many countries have risen to such a high level that poor communities are deprived of water supplies (see for example Mary Ann Manahan; Maude Barlow & Meera Karunananthan;

Marcela Olivera; Claudia Campero). Furthermore, UNDP has shown that, in relative terms, the poorest pay the highest prices for water.2 During the past two decades many attempts have been made to regain public control over water, a famous example being the ‘water war’ in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 2000. For a detailed outline of water privatisation, see the box below.

Besides the direct effects of water privatisation, a number of authors emphasised the indirect effects of privatisation in other sectors, including the food industry (see Arjen Hoekstra) and mining (see Anthony Turton), which ‘privatise’ water by dumping toxics or using large volumes of water for production at the expense of water use elsewhere. Maude Barlow and Meera Karunananthan argued that, in the implementation of UN resolution 64/292, multinationals have pushed hard for mechanisms to secure access to limited water supplies, under the guise of ‘water cooperation’, at the expense of domestic consumption. Multinational corporations have also gained considerable access to decision-making on water issues, undermining citizens’ participation and democratic control. Mary Ann Manahan argued that investments in water infrastructure, under the guise of the green economy have allowed the further privatisation and commodification of water.

The push to privatise water services

The UN declared water as a human right, others defined it as a public good – or an aspect of a public good, namely a joint product or a club good. Sometimes it is seen as an economic good. But what does this mean?

The first two definitions aim for full access to the good (water) and collaboration over how it is used, while the last definition is at the other extreme: water has economic benefits by being used as an competitive asset for trade and production. The middle two definitions fall somehow in between: joint products and club goods are regulated and accessible to a certain group of people, and not to others.3

In an effort to identify the policy implications of public goods, the World Bank applies a rather production-oriented definition, seeing them as something that can be produced in sufficient supply only through cooperation and collective action by developed and developing countries.4 The UN’s definition is based on consumption: public goods are distinguished by non-rivalry in consumption and non-excludability, their benefits being enjoyed by more than one group, country or generation.5 As such, water should a public good, as we all need it for both production and consumption and no one truly owns it, as it is regulated through a hydrological cycle. But while policy papers see watersheds as joint products and canals and waterways as club goods, there is no clear consensus of how we should classify water as a whole. Global development efforts, either to make water more accessible to the poorest groups in the population or to promote the economic development of a country, have explored different strategies.

Most of the debate on privatisation, also in The Broker, refers back to the interventions of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to privatise water resources in developing countries.6 The thinking behind this strategy was that developing countries would benefit from the privatisation of water services for several reasons: it would encourage the market to become more efficient, promote entrepreneurship, lead to higher quality products and therefore result in economic growth.

Before then, the World Bank’s development assistance had been targeted at governments, providing financial aid through state-led programmes. But state-owned water services suffered from high costs and poor performance and were difficult to expand to other areas.7 A competitive and consumer- driven market would foster a decentralised water supply providing higher quality and better service- coverage.

Outsourcing water services to private companies has become widely acceptable. Currently, ten major corporate actors deliver water and wastewater services for profit to almost 300 million customers in over 100 countries. These services are expanding exponentially to every corner of the globe; a decade ago, they serviced around 51 million people in just 12 countries (Barlow & Clarke, 2004).

Recent debates on EU policy on water privatisation resulted in public statements from both political and civil society actors opposing privatisation (for example the European citizen’s initiative Water is a human right). Around the world, and in Latin America in particular, people have protested against private companies taking over water services. The liberalisation of the market driven by World Bank policy made developing countries dependent on aid from the richer countries. Water prices increased tremendously; in Bolivia, for example, by 300%, leading to the ‘Water War’(read further in Box 3). This especially disadvantaged poorer populations, who were forced to spend much more of their income on water, in relative terms. As Barlow and Clarke (2004) point out, the performance of the water companies in Europe and the developing world has been well documented: huge profits, higher prices for water, cutting off customers who cannot pay, little transparency in their operations, reduced water quality, bribery and corruption.

Regulating water resources is essential, also from the World Bank’s perspective. The 2004 report agrees on the need for effective regulation and tariff standards. However, is that enough? The contributors to The Broker’s debate argued that further steps must be taken towards an inclusive, cooperative nexus approach. Over-extraction, pollution and large purchases of water resources have intensified water stress in some areas. These industrial practices have disadvantaged the lives and livelihoods of local communities dependent on these resources.8 Regulatory mechanisms at all levels and in all sectors could provide the way forward to control large-scale water investments. For example, as SIDA suggested, making the regulation of water a regional or global public good in itself.

Towards an integrated approach

As the discussion on privatisation has shown, policies and actions in other sectors can impact on the how we use our water resources. Without clear regulation, this can have dramatic consequences. Many participants in the debate argued that there is insufficient recognition for these complexities and advocated a more integrated global development approach to water. The bulk of participants from the discipline of Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM), for example, stressed that the urgent need for a sustainable supply of water demands an integrated process, acknowledging the interconnection between water and other key global challenges like food and energy security, inequality, conflict and environmental degradation. They call on different disciplines and sectors to cooperate and share knowledge to maximize global economic and social welfare.

Water, food & energy security

A growing world population, and the challenges associated with it (increasing demand for food and energy, and intensifying urbanisation, industrialisation, environmental degradation, etc.), will place guaranteed safe water supplies under tremendous pressure. This will not only affect the water sector but – with the majority of production processes and human life in general being dependent on water – will also impact on other sectors like food and energy. One of the main challenges for the future is how to integrate different sectors (e.g. agriculture, industry and domestic services) and promote cooperation so as to come up with a coherent perspective on water use and promote sustainable economic development. This implies, for example, raising efficiency in agriculture (see for example Gerardo Van Halsema; Sophie Wenzlau) and energy production, as well as devising mechanisms to reduce water pollution by industry and the mining sector (see Anthony Turton).

The political dimension of water scarcity

Besides the interconnection between water and global economic development, water scarcity also has a political dimension, in that access to water and the costs of water pollution are unequally distributed around the world. According to our participants, this dimension is insufficiently recognised. The UNICEF/WHO report referred to earlier shows that in many countries where absolute levels of access to water have increased, the increase is highly disproportionate (JMP report, 2001). As several participants in the debate concluded, the poorest people in the world are less likely to have benefited from the progress made in WASH (see for example Catarina Fonseca; Laurens Higler). In addition, due to a lack of coherence between MDG3 (promoting gender equality) and MDG7c, little emphasis has been placed on gender inequalities in pursuing WASH goals. While there has certainly been progress on MDG7c in quantitative terms, this narrow focus masks the reality that millions of women and children suffer from a lack of close access to water. For them, water scarcity has clear consequences in terms of health, safety and economic development. As women are traditionally burdened with the task of collecting water, lack of access to water and sanitation prevents girls from going to school and decreases women’s potential for being economically productive, fostering a downward spiral of inequality (see for example Vivienne Bennett). Taking these regional, socioeconomic and gender inequalities into account is seen as a clear challenge for the post-2015 agenda.

Latin American resistance

A recurring theme in the debate was a clearly critical perspective on water privatisation in Latin America. What made some contributors so critical of these practices?

Barlow and Karunananthan criticised the influence of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund on water privatisation in Middle and South American countries in past decades. Bolivia’s ‘Water War’ is probably one of the most well known moments in the history of ‘consumer revolt.’ In

2000, the price of water in the city of Cochabamba tripled after a consortium led by the US company Bechtel took over the water infrastructure, following pressure on the government to privatise from the World Bank. People took to the streets to protest against a foreign company raising water prices. Claudia Campero expressed her criticism of privatisation in Mexico and elsewhere as follows: “It dispossesses people from a common good that should be managed as such.” In 2011, the Mexican government admitted that more than 70 per cent of freshwater is polluted and less than 20 per cent of industrial drainage is treated. New forms of public- private-expert-civil society partnerships, for example the Water Resources Group, have been increasingly securing their wider water management, by collaborating with NGOs and partner governments in China, India and Mexico9 WRG believes that decision-making around WRM is no longer the sole preserve of public water authorities.10 However, the contributors argued that, in future policy, water should be managed as a commons (Campero), though public-public partnerships (Lobina and Hall), with democratic and transparent governance models based on equity and justice (Barlow and Karunananthan) and community ownership (Olivera).

A phenomenon closely linked to privatisation is ‘water-grabbing’. In many developing countries, the local population is largely deprived of water resources due to extraction by government authorities or private companies seeking cheap supplies of natural resources to maximise their profits. This has led to an unequal distribution of ‘water footprints’, i.e. the total volume of freshwater used to produce goods and services. High water footprints in one country – especially countries in the West – can lead to deprivation of water resources – and therefore lower water footprints – in other parts of the world, mainly developing countries (see Arjen Hoekstra). In addition, as several contributors argued, the predominant focus on quantifiable indicators and absolute gains in access has resulted in little attention to disparities as to who is paying the costs of water pollution and overall environmental degradation. Natural disasters caused by climate change – such as extreme floods and droughts – predominantly take place in countries that are already vulnerable. Moreover, droughts tend to hit countries that are highly dependent on agriculture, while floods occur in countries with a poorly developed water infrastructure. In other words: global environmental pollution hits the poorest the hardest (see for example Julian Doczi).

As many participants highlighted, water-related inequalities have a high potential of becoming a source of conflict. Many water-stressed countries – for example, in the Sahara, sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and the Middle East – are also considered ‘fragile states’ and governance structures to manage water-related conflicts are largely absent. As Gerard Pichel clearly showed, together with increased demographic demands and subsequent increase in water scarcities, competition for water will be a serious challenge in the future.

Environmental degradation

As mentioned above, participants in the debate criticised the MDG process for focusing disproportionately on relatively easily quantifiable WASH indicators and not sufficiently recognising the environmental dimension of water. Contributors from the field of water resource management expressed concern that the MDGs did not score high on sustainability, whether in terms of the quality of freshwater sources or wastewater management. This applies equally to the management of groundwater, which has also been given insufficient global attention(see for example Kathrin Knuppe; Marc Bierkens). In many countries groundwater is the main source of freshwater, whether for domestic use or agriculture, and it plays a vital role in maintaining the quality and productivity of our ecosystems. Yet, groundwater supplies are under enormous pressure due to increasing demands from agriculture and industry and pollution. As groundwater reserves are not renewable, overexploitation and pollution are irreversible and contribute to overall environmental degradation.

Water and the post-2015 development agenda

While agreeing on the need for an integrated approach, the contributors to the debate remained rather inconclusive as to what specific role water should play in the post-2015 development agenda. Broadly speaking, there was disagreement between advocates of the mainstream MDG route of formulating quantifiable goals and targets within a specific framework, possibly refined by more qualitative criteria, and those in favour of an alternative paradigm heralding an integrated approach that transcends the MDG framework.

Within the first option, the question remains whether a specific goal (and associated targets) on water should be formulated or whether, since the other goals implicitly contain water targets, a separate goal would be unnecessary or even counterproductive. Catarina Fonseca, for example, argued in favour of integrating inequality goals within a separate water goal. She felt that a specific water and sanitation target aimed at the world’s poorest people should be introduced to reduce global economic inequality. Julia Bucknall and Marco Schouten proposed including sustainability targets alongside targets on WASH to hold actors accountable. Other contributors, including Pieter van der Zaag, made a case for reducing the number of targets, pointing to the interconnection between water and other development dimensions.

Another approach would be to abandon the MDG framework of isolated goals and targets and to focus on broader overarching agendas like sustainability, human well-being, inequality and/or governance. Key to such a comprehensive approach is to focus on the interaction between water and these overarching themes. This would require a more context-specific approach with more recognition of underlying social structures and closer attention to systematic causes and development schemes rather than absolute quantifiable outcomes. While the participants in our discussion seemed to be moving implicitly towards such a comprehensive approach – thereby predominantly stressing the integration of water into other themes – the debate remains somewhat inconclusive about the practical implications of such an approach and the specific place of water within such an agenda.



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  8. SIDA (2007). Transboundary Water Management as a regional public good, Water Institute SIWI.
  9. 2030 WRG (2012), The 2030 Resources Group: Background, Impact and the Way Forward. Briefing report prepared for the World Economic Forum.
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