About the control of water —
A subject of growing concern in my mind, and possibly something you should worry about too.
About the control of water
August 28, 2013
Signatures under the revised Rhine Agreement from 1868
The following thoughts are based on extracts from a speech I gave at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, last year. The debate about who controls our water is still continuing; I therefore developed some aspects a bit further. My post is not meant to provide a comprehensive view, but ideas and facts to further stimulate a discussion to be led with as little emotion and ideology as possible.
Actually, these discussions often start from somewhat distorted perceptions. For a while it has for instance been suggested that some private companies, including Nestlé, have ambitions to completely control whole aquifers. Control of water was, for some, putting it in bottles for consumers. One may find such views also in some recent “documentaries” that had picked up the subject of corporate control of water – often far from the facts and from any understanding of orders of magnitude. And a fairly recent James Bond movie, ‘Quantum of Solace’ even had a plot about a wealthy and corrupt businessman trying to seize control of a whole country’s water supply.
So, what are some of the realities? What actually drives, and who controls, the flows and reserves of freshwater across the globe?
A key role for governments – history and present
First and foremost, water is controlled by nature – the precipitations by wind, temperature and geography; and its presence on and under the ground by geography and geology.
Secondly, it is controlled by the government, or groups of governments. For thousands of years, formal control of water was with the political authorities, with defined user rights granted temporarily or permanently to individuals, families, private companies, communities and mixed structures for fishing and transportation, to generate energy and to irrigate fields, and to produce iron, glass, leather, textiles and many other products. Water rights granted to communities would at times be divided among families, according, among other things, to the amount of work invested in the common part of the water system. Some communities introduced limited trading of these rights for an efficient re-allocation when conditions change, e.g. among farmers.
Initially, it was absolutist emperors and kings who could allocate these rights as favours to their subjects at their discretion, and often did so quite arbitrarily. After the end of feudalism people, mostly farmers, who lived close to a body of water, or who were there first, had by default reasonable rights to use that water. A buyer of the farmland acquires these rights as well. Today, where necessary, the democratically elected authorities grant water usage rights within the rule of law.
Presently, 70% of water rights to withdraw freshwater allocated globally are with farmers, 20% with industry (more than half for energy; other large users are, e.g., mining, pulp and paper, chemical industry and oil) and 10% with municipal water supply organisations. Further usage rights, such as shipping on rivers and lakes, fishing, recreation, etc. also allocated and/or regulated by governments are often overlapping with the rights to withdraw. Finally, government is supposed to ensure sufficient environmental flows in rivers and long-term stable volumes in lakes and underground aquifers.
Future shift towards an even stronger government role
The dividing line between overall governmental control, including policies and regulation, and allocated user rights, may differ from country to country. But there is a trend. In an earlier post, I spoke up for expanding the role of government further, i.e., for authorities to take a clear lead in setting up strategies to bring freshwater withdrawals in specific watersheds back into line with sustainable supply.
In particular, government intervention is needed to sort out conflicts between different users and uses. With water resources becoming scarce over recent decades, disputes over water usage rights between riparian areas in shared river basins, especially between upstream and downstream, have escalated. Conflict over the Klamath River in Oregon in the United States between upstream cattle ranchers and downstream Klamath Tribe fishermen is seen as one of the typical examples: the ranchers upstream withdraw water from the river to irrigate the pasture where they raise their cows, while the fishermen downstream say they need more water in the tributaries to protect their fishery. A couple of months ago, the state ordered ranchers near the headwaters of the Klamath River to shut down their irrigation pumps because it is necessary to protect treaty rights of the fishermen downstream.
When governments allocate water usage rights special attention is often paid to more vulnerable groups in society. For example, the Government of South Australia offers preferential water concessions for various uses to pensioners and people on a low income.
User rights and responsibilities
With user rights come responsibilities. In the Swiss Canton of Wallis, the sometimes 700-800 year old water use rights of farming families – days and hours for using water from the jointly built canal – go together with the obligation to maintain the scheme. Since there was neither paper nor pen available to these poor mountain farmers when these rights were drawn up, they carved them on pieces of wood (pictured below). One side features the family sign, the other indicates their time of water usage and, in proportion, obligations for maintenance. Research shows how such ownership in a family (with the possibility to bequeath these rights to subsequent generations) contributes to sustainability.
Another example of the responsibility of owners of user right is Agrivair, a structure established by Nestlé Waters around the spas of Vittel, Contrex and Hépar in the French Vosges. The company has a limited usage right to bottle some of the water from the spas, and the right to use the names of the sources on the bottle. To ensure safety and continuous high quality, Nestlé Waters looks after the catchment areas, working in collaboration with local farmers to establish improved, sustainable agricultural practices. Farmers no longer use pesticides and the cattle population has been strictly limited. The company contributes to required investments, and compensates for income loss to farmers. The wells are now safe from pollution.
The positive impact goes beyond the small percentage of the water in the area bottled for consumers (globally, Nestlé bottled water represents 0.0009% of total freshwater withdrawn for human use): safety and high quality of the Vittel and Contrex aquifers are benefits shared by all users of tap water in these towns; the town people draw their water from the same underground aquifer. Because unlike oil, you cannot exclude others from using the same aquifer – and we do not have any intention to do so.
This brings me to municipal water supply. Nestlé is not active in public water supply; and overall, formal operators where private interests are involved are rather an exception. Only some 3% of municipal water in developing and emerging economies is distributed through pipes managed in public private partnerships. More than 90% of municipal water worldwide – and more than 97% in developing economies – is distributed by fully publicly owned and publicly managed entities. And they are confronted with a big challenge. According to an article by Gérard Payen, chairman of Aquafed and Member of the United Nations Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation, at least 1.9 billion people use water that is unsafe and dangerous for their health, while 3.4 billion people use water of doubtful quality, at least from time to time.
Water for basic human needs is a human right – water that is safe, accessible, acceptable, affordable and can be obtained without discrimination. Here again, government control and responsibility are necessarily at the forefront. It is important that they take concrete action, such as, for instance, the South African Free Basic Water policy introduced by the government in 2001.
Dams and hydroelectric power plants are another form of water use. Again, control over concessions is fully with governments, and rights to run the plants throughout the world are generally with governmental or mixed entities. The three biggest dams in the world – the Three Gorges Dam in China, Itaipu Dam between Brazil and Paraguay, and Guri Dam in Venezuela – are all owned by public entities. In China, the largest hydroelectricity producer in the world, all dams are publicly owned and managed. In the United States, although the majority of dams are privately owned, in general, very large dams are owned by the Federal Government.
Transboundary cooperation of governments
Transboundary cooperation between nations in shared river basins, negotiated and implemented by governments, is a particularly fascinating area of governmental water control. It has already long history. The final act of the 1815 congress of Vienna is one of the first international agreements on cooperation between riparian nations of a shared river, namely the Rhine. According to a paper by Ine D. Frijters and Jan Leentvaar of the Water Management Inspectorate in the Netherlands: “the Central Commission for Navigation on the Rhine is the oldest European organisation that is still active.” Pierre Huisman writes about the further developments: one of the “many milestones in the history of this agreement was the creation of the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine against Pollution by the Federal Republic of Germany, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland in 1950”.
A future of increasing water scarcity will no doubt further add to the importance of water control by governments – in watersheds, nationally, and across borders. Political leaders, and in their support, stakeholders, must make sure that this control will be executed in a predictable, non-arbitrary and transparent way, considering all dimensions of this societally complex substance. Up to now, performance of governmental control of water is not always very encouraging.
I welcome your thoughts on these issues.