Water is no longer business as usual

Development Policy26 Mar 2013Frans Bieckmann

Eight years ago I wrote a little booklet, analysing the speeches of the Dutch Queen:‘Creation itself is at stake’; Queen Beatrix’ views on the world, following a longer study on the involvement of her late husband, Prince Claus, with Africa and development. In the booklet I wrote that ‘Crown Prince Willem-Alexander, encouraged by his father, has specialised in water management in developing countries. This latter choice reflects the tricky equilibrium the royal family has to maintain: on the one hand this appears to be a rather technical and neutral subject – no one can object to commitment to such a worthy cause – but on the other hand it does contain all the major global debates. 

Water management is an essential part of environmental policy, preventing conflicts about scarce resources, agriculture and food supply and geopolitical interests. In this context a Dutch comparative advantage, its great experience in the field of water management, can be extolled abroad. This way everybody is happy.’

This analysis is no longer entirely valid: water has become increasingly political. The honoured guest at the Wings for Water event and World Water Day 2013 in The Hague Peace Palace on 21 and 22 March, soon to-be king Crown Prince Willem-Alexander, will deliver his last speech as Special Advisor on Water & Sanitation to the UN Secretary General. Even this most technical aspect of the water discussion, sanitation, appears to be too controversial for a king to maintain an advisory function. A king has to stand above political and other differences.

Water is business, others would say, some welcoming, some condemning it. Indeed, one of the inconclusive questions in our debate is whether privatising water is a good thing or not. Giving it a price means that, as a scarce resource, water will be used more economically and effectively, but at the same time it will be denied to those who have less to spend. Creative entrepreneurs may come up with smart water solutions, but the benefits may be distributed unequally. Some claim, therefore, that water should be seen as a global public good. The debate shows these confronting interests and differing ideologies: water is business, and that makes it political.

Is this a trend, that issues that used to be considered in a benign and neutral way are now being increasingly contested? For example, the decades old quest for poverty reduction is now being challenged by those who favour greater equality, stressing fairness and systemic changes rather than charity and aid. Or take the issue of food security: it is no longer seen merely as a matter of putting more effort, technical advice, or perhaps money into achieving more effective agricultural production, but is increasingly related to systemic economic failures and unjust global relations.

The same applies to water. In the online debate on The Broker website, Prioritising Water after 2015, which is summarised in this special report, a majority of the contributors look at water not as a specialised, separate issue, but as an integral part of a broader agenda. They stress the nexus between water and issues like food security and agriculture, environment, and health. This is an implicit, and in many cases explicit, criticism of the approach adopted for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The MDGs were coined in a period, the end of the 1990s, when economic globalisation was generating both great optimism that the trickle-down effect would mean prosperity for all and growing opposition to the process, expressed by mass protests all over the world. This resulted in an agenda that was ambitious in terms of the goals that were set, but open-ended in terms of HOW such changes in the lives of the poor and marginalised should be achieved. The MDGs succeeded symbolically, by drawing attention to poverty reduction worldwide, but their quantitative criteria were not enough to address the systemic causes that underlie poverty in many countries.

Now, as we prepare for what has to follow the MDGs, we have entered a totally different setting. The global economic project, characterised by the privatisation and liberalisation of especially financial services, has been showing serious cracks since 2007 and not delivering what it promised, except to a happy few. That is why there has been a growing focus on inequality, in income, in gender, or in access to basic needs like health care, work and education. Or in access to water. At the same time, scarcity has become more and more pressing. Scarcity of resources and energy, resulting in growing competition, conflicts and geopolitical tensions. Scarcity of clean air, forests, and other environmental necessities. Scarcity of food for a growing global population. And, related to most of these issues, scarcity of water.

Scarcity and unequal access to water. These challenges can only be met by an integrated approach. Water cannot be separated from the pursuit of other targets, with which it is now competing in the global arena of the UN consultations for the post-2015 agenda. Does that mean that water should NOT become a separate goal after 2015? No less so than many of the other issues that are currently being discussed in that context.

Much more important may be the conclusion that we need something totally different than the old MDG approach of setting a limited number of separate and quantitative targets. This is, I think, the main message that this Broker consultation delivers to the High Level Panel members who will advise the UN Secretary General: think up a new approach for the global agenda in the coming decades. One that addresses systemic causes of the challenges that we face, in an integrated manner. And, at the same time, formulate it in a way that powerful stakeholders (states, multinationals, international organisations) really have to deliver. The Broker’s Prioritising Water debate underlines both the logic and necessity behind such an integrated approach.

The Broker will be following the wider post-2015 debate closely, so visit our website to stay up to date with the discussion.