Home > Blogs > Director's Blog > Water scarcity or inequitable access to water resources?

As I have written many times in my recent blog posts, and as evidenced by our research, there is more to gain from sharing the benefits of water resources than focusing on only sharing the resources of a river basin. Consider water for example; sharing limited water resources in a basin will always be a zero-sum game where the poor and vulnerable are likely to lose. Alternatively, sharing the social and economic benefits generated from water resources has much better chances to provide win-win solutions through a basket of options for those living in the basin.

Mekong filmThe same logic applies when considering the water-food-energy nexus. Recently, CPWF was invited by the organizers of the forthcoming 6th World Water Forum to co-convene a High Level Panel on this particular nexus in Marseilles. After discussions with the CPWF Basin Leaders, we agreed this was a good opportunity to advocate for this concept of generating and sharing the benefits from river basins. This would highlight basins where the water-food-energy nexus is at the center of the innovations we develop, namely the Andes and the Mekong river basins.

What are the issues at stake when considering this water-food-energy nexus? As recently reminded by the Bonn 2011 Conference on this topic, development pressures on natural resources have grown to such an extent over the past 50 years that they are challenging the effectiveness of conventional planning and decision-making. Trying to meet demand through single sector approaches in response to what are inherently inter-linked and inter-dependent processes is limiting our ability to provide basic water, food and energy services to the poor. Concurrently, there are signs of constrained growth, raised social and geopolitical tensions and irreversible environmental damage. Failing to recognize the consequences of one sector has on another can lead to serious imbalances. For example, decisions made on the type of energy generation to be promoted can significantly influence water demand and in the case of biofuels, displace food production. The way water is sourced, treated, priced and distributed can raise or lower energy requirements. Choices made regarding food and diet influence both water and energy needs.

Despite significant progress, security of water, energy and food supplies remain far from being globally achieved. Basic services are not available to the “bottom billion” deprived of their human rights and trapped in poverty; about 1.1 billion are without adequate access to safe water, close to 1 billion are undernourished and 1.5 billion are without access to electricity. And for many others who do have access to a very basic level of service, the system does not yet offer the resources needed to improve their livelihoods and emerge from poverty.

Ganges genderWith 70% of the global population of 9.2 billion people predicted to be living in cities by 2050, demands for water, energy and food will increase exponentially. Some projections suggest a 70%  increase in agricultural demand by 2050 and energy demand increase of 40% by 2030. Water demand projections to satisfy agriculture and energy production are of a similar order of magnitude.

Conventional planning and decision-making often fail to address what are inherently inter-linked and inter-dependent processes. They limit our ability to provide basic water, food and energy services and generate sustainable growth. A new ‘nexus’ approach is needed, one that better understands the inter-dependencies across water, energy and food—an approach that identifies mutually beneficial responses and provides an informed and transparent framework for determining benefits and risks. This is the challenge for our world today.

Together with the EDF group, a leading energy player actively involved with all major electricity businesses, the CPWF acknowledges that the nexus challenge requires the attention of high-level decision makers. We are therefore jointly convening a High Level Panel covering water, food and energy during the 6th World Water Forum in Marseilles, to be held on the afternoon of Friday 16 March 2012. The invited Panel Members (Ministers, CEOs, presidents of NGOs) will draw on their extensive experience to illustrate the inter-connectivity and inter-dependency of water, food and energy through a diverse range of examples. They will be challenged to identify nexus solutions—in particular, how to create enabling policy environments, attract sources of finance and build capacity for sustainable outcomes. Two themes will permeate the discussion:

  • How to achieve balanced development that increases the productivity of water, food and energy while sustaining the contribution of ecosystems services.
  • The importance of collaborative processes to support the sharing of benefits and risks.

We anticipate that the conclusions and commitments made by the panelists will also be of use to other key events in the coming year, namely Planet Under Pressure, Rio+20 and Stockholm World Water Week 2012. We will keep you posted with our involvement in those major events!

But time will be short in Marseille, so why not start the discussion here and now? At the heart of the nexus discussion is a recognition that resource scarcity is not the limiting factor, but rather it is the institutional commitment and capacity to manage scarcity by equitably sharing resources and enabling them to be used. Do we all agree on this? Are resources scarce or is it an issue of inequitable access and bad management?

Alain Vidal, CPWF Director

February 2012

View the tentative 6th World Water Forum agenda.

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2 Comments

  1. Suman says:

    Alan,

    While the agenda seems fine, the FWE problem-solution framework perhaps needs a tweak…
    You might find some preliminary thinking in that direction useful…
    The link for reference : http://wp.me/p1XaQ4-4C

  2. Stephen Brichieri-Colombi says:

    Welcome aboard!
    The need to abandon river basins in favour of national boundaries as the means to make “best” use of water resources in a democracy has been explored in my book “The World Water Crisis: The Failures of Resource Management” (IB Taurus, London). It takes the Nile and GBM basins as examples, and argues in favour of the maxim “good management begins at home.”
    We spend too little effort on improving national water management, where WR managers are beholden to national voters, and too much on international water management, where WR managers are beholden to no one but themselves.
    Good national management, in the wider context of International Relations that States pragmatically tend to respect, obviates much the need to resolve water problems within the narrow scope of transboundary water resources. The wider context of IR offers trade-offs not available to WR managers, as, for example, the Ganges Water Treaty (increased trade for increased water). On the Nile, Egypt’s greatest water management problems arise from water misuse within the country, not from upstream threats.

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