From Rio to Johannesburg:
Water for People, Crops, and Ecosystems
DC - July 16, 2002 - During the decade since the Earth
Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the worlds water problems
have worsened markedly even as concern about them has risen
steadily. Overshadowed at Rio by other pressing issuesnotably
climate change, biodiversity, and forestsfresh water
came under a brighter spotlight during the 1990s. A steady
stream of global commissions, conferences, and networks drew
attention to waters fundamental importance to food production,
human health, poverty alleviation, ecosystem protection, and
regional peace and stability.
Actual improvements on the ground, however, have lagged badly
behind this growing awareness. At the upcoming World Summit
on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg, South Africa,
governments and society-at-large have a new and critical opportunity
to make efficient, equitable, and sustainable use of fresh
water a top priority. Indeed, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi
Annan has identified water as one of five areas (along with
energy, health, agriculture, and biodiversity) where concrete
results from the WSSD are both essential and achievable.
non-marine life depends on fresh water for survival. Even
many coastal marine organisms rely on rivers that empty into
the sea for nutrients and the maintenance of particular levels
of salinity. Water is therefore not just a commodity, like
oil or copper, but rather a fundamental life support. Rivers,
lakes, wetlands and other freshwater ecosystems are not just
sources of supply; they are habitat for a wide variety of
plant and animal species. These ecosystems also perform valuable
services for human societiessuch as moderating floods
and droughts, purifying water, and sustaining fisheries. As
a resource for human activities, fresh water is also unique
in that it has no substitutes in most of its uses. It is essential
for growing crops, for manufacturing material goods, and for
drinking, cooking, and other household functions.
the 20th century, the principal challenge of water managers
was to satisfy humanitys rising demand for irrigation,
urban-industrial water supplies, flood reduction, and hydropower
generation. They did this by building more and larger dams,
dikes, river diversions, and groundwater wells. Just since
1950, the number of large dams (those at least 15 meters high)
has climbed from 5,000 to 45,000an average of two new
large dams a day for the last half century.
combination of rising demand and ecosystem alteration has
depleted supplies, damaged ecosystems, and placed a large
share of freshwater life at risk of extinction. Water tables
are falling from the overpumping of groundwater in large portions
of China, India, Iran, Mexico, the Middle East, North Africa,
Saudi Arabia, and the United States. Many major riversincluding
the Colorado, Ganges, Indus, Rio Grande, and Yellownow
run dry for portions of the year. Freshwater wetlands have
shrunk by about half worldwide. And, increasingly, competition
for water threatens social and political stability both within
and between countries. In recent years, violent protests have
erupted in the lower reaches of Chinas Yellow River
and Pakistans Indus River as farmers faced the prospect
of a cropping season without sufficient irrigation water.
fundamentally new approach to water and human development
will be needed during this new centuryan approach that
aims to satisfy the water needs of 8-10 billion people while
protecting the ecosystems that sustain our economies and all
terrestrial life. The key tasks are described below.
Protect ecosystem servicesthe valuable work Nature
does for free.
important work that rivers, floodplains, wetlands, and other
ecosystems do is easy to neglect because it is not valued
in the marketplace. Nonetheless, freshwater ecosystem services
are worth hundreds of billions of dollars a year, and are
particularly valuable to the poor, who often depend on natures
services directly for their livelihoods. Some jurisdictions
are now taking steps to preserve these services. South Africa
is removing thirsty alien vegetation from the watersheds of
its western Cape region, not only to conserve the areas
rich native plant diversity, but also to increase available
water supplies at a lower unit cost than other alternatives.
In order to avoid spending $6-8 billion on a new filtration
plant, New York City is investing some $1.5 billion in the
protection of the Catskills watershed, which supplies the
city with drinking water. As these examples suggest, there
are many ways in which preserving natural capital can make
good economic sense.
watersheds, floodplains, wetlands, and other natural capital
environmental flow requirements for rivers, as many Australian
states and South Africa are now doing.
or amend water management laws to require the operation
of dams in ways that preserve natural river flows and
ecosystem service protection a core mandate of river basin
Provide universal access to safe drinking water and adequate
of access to safe drinking water remains one of the leading
causes of disease and death in the developing world. More
than 3 million peoplemost of them childrendie
each year from diarrhea and other illnesses caused by contaminated
water. Between 1990 and 2000, an additional 816 million people
acquired access to safe drinking water. But the number of
people unserved remains roughly the same1.1 billionbecause
the population grew by nearly as many people as gained access.
The number of people lacking adequate sanitation rose slightly
between 1990 and 2000, to 2.4 billion.
public-sector support for the provision of servicesespecially
in rural areas, which are home to more than 80 percent
of people who lack safe drinking water. Provide funding,
training, and technical assistance to community-based
general, governments and communities should assert their
primary responsibility for providing water services, rather
than transferring this responsibility to the private sector.
Privatization can only serve the public good within a
strong regulatory framework that ensures that the basic
needs of the poor are met and that the water resource
itself is conservedconditions that to date have
rarely been satisfied.
efficiency and conservation into new supply and sanitation
infrastructure. Reduce leakage from urban water systems,
which often exceeds 30 percent.
Enable access to water for small-plot irrigation.
2.8 billion people live on less than $2 a day; 800 million
of these people are chronically hungry. The vast majority
of the worlds poorest and hungriest people live in rural
areas of South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. They have neither
the means to produce adequate food nor sufficient income to
purchase it. Enabling poor farm families to access irrigation
water can be one of the most effective ways of liberating
them from poverty. Small-plot irrigation can increase land
productivity, incomes, and household food security.
the use of affordable, small-plot irrigation devices in
poor rural areas. One model of success is in Bangladesh,
where poor farmers have purchased more than 1.2 million
human-powered devices called treadle pumps, boosting incomes
an average of $100 per $35 pump in the first year.
in community-based watershed restoration and rainwater
harvesting projects. Such projects can help recharge local
groundwater, store runoff for dry-season irrigation, and
make irrigation more widely available.
initiatives to spread low-cost drip irrigation and microsprinkler
packages for smallholders.
Double water productivityget twice as much benefit
from each liter of water extracted from the natural environment
more with less will require greater efficiency in irrigation
(which accounts for 70 percent of world water use), recycling
of wastewater, industrial redesign, and a shift toward less
water-intensive diets, landscapes, and lifestyles.
more productive rainfed crop systems.
or tax groundwater overpumping to slow aquifer depletion.
conservation incentives and goals for urban, industrial,
and agricultural users.
pricing structures that penalize excessive water use,
especially during dry periods.
tax codestax labor and investment less, resource
consumption and pollution more.
Achieve Good Governance over Water
the basis of life, water is a public trust. Water governance
must be grounded in principles of stewardship, sharing, sustainability,
the public trust as the dominant legal and ethical precept
guiding the management of water. South Africa, host of
the WSSD, passed a new water act in 1998 that does this.
It calls for meeting the basic water needs of all people
and all ecosystems firstbefore non-essential water
demands are met. This ethic should be adopted widely.
preventive diplomacy in river basins at risk of tensions
over water. There are more than 20 international river
basins in which stronger institutions are needed to avert
the World Bank, and other financiers of large water projects
should abide by the recommendations issued by the World
Commission on Dams in 2000.
and support citizen watershed groups.