Non-governmental Organisations Major Group - Second World Water Forum

Background Paper for the workshop 'GOVERNANCE AND PARTICIPATION'.

Governance of Water at the Catchment Level

Kay Sexton, World Humanity Action Trust, London - 

The World Humanity Action Trust (WHAT) is a think tank focusing on the changes in governance required to ensure the long-term survival of humanity. Within this focus there are clearly considerations of ethics and values, alongside the pragmatic requirement that humanity's survival be guaranteed. WHAT defines this set of requirements as the need to create systems "that allow humanity to survive and to thrive". In pursuing its aims, WHAT established a Commission on Water in 1998. The Commission's brief was to "consider the potential impact on human survival of trends in the world wide availability of water and to present ideas on modifications to governance that should enable crucial human needs to be met." The Commission will finalise its report in the next few months and launch its findings, along with the WHAT Commissions on Fisheries Resources and Genetic Diversity in relation to Food Crops, in July 2000. This paper details some of the preliminary work of the Commission on Water, in particular, its findings and recommendations on water resource management and its views on how decisions should be made and institutions reformed to support long term decision making that will favour human survival.

The Commission has defined a series of principles; the relevant ones for this workshop are:
Water management, at national, regional or international levels, is best achieved at the catchment level
The ecosystem approach should be the platform from which water policy and management decisions are made

Effective catchment management requires all stakeholders be involved and also requires agreement on principal criteria.

Within these principles there sit a series of findings

i. Catchment boundaries do not match administrative or political boundaries.

ii. The catchment is the natural unit for water resource management.

iii. Efficient catchment management will normally require a specific budget, paid for by those living in the catchment.

Arising from the principles and findings there are a series of issues or challenges to effective water resource management. The substance of this paper is an attempt to elaborate those challenges and provide some proposals to alter, ameliorate or manage the issues that prevent sustainable water use and management. The issues are:

Managing for sustainability
Managing a catchment across administrative/political boundaries
Ensuring stakeholders are involved
Achieving effective decision making

The proposals the Commission makes in relation to these challenges are:

1. Managing for sustainability

a) The ecosystem approach and the precautionary principle

We must maintain a robust environment by working with aquatic ecosystems and not against them. More diverse, natural and stable ecosystems improve the well-being of the biosphere. Sustainable management of water resources must recognise the needs of other species. Ignoring the relationship between human populations and the needs of the living world has resulted in a degradation of the environment that has hurt the human population deeply. Ecologists observe that, generally, the greater the diversity of an ecosystem, the more stable, resilient and robust it is. Natural ecosystems are diverse, with a wide variety of species adapted to particular niches. As diversity is reduced, the capacity of an ecosystem to withstand perturbations is reduced. Eventually collapse may occur.

The precautionary principle states "Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation" (The Bergen Ministerial Declaration on Sustainable Development in the ECE Region, 7, May 1990). However, there are some instances when to be precautionary is an excuse to do nothing and when both sides in a dispute invoke the precautionary approach to support their arguments. Globally, the current understanding of water systems is inadequate. Policy at all levels of governance has to be made with a high degree of uncertainty. This uncertainty is of two kinds. First, we lack reliable data on resources, supply and demand, in terms of spatial distribution and by sector. Second, we do not understand fully the complexity of the freshwater ecosystem and its links to other parts of the natural (and man-made) world. Policy has to be made with incomplete information of uncertain validity and weak predictive capacity. However, while we may never have all the information required to manage water resources "perfectly" (that is, with certainty about predictions of risk and with a complete understanding of the complex nature of freshwater ecosystems), carefully targeted research and development, free sharing of information and good translation from technical terminology into management language together with risk analysis (and the capacity to work with water not against it) should allow for improved management.

b) Water policy and management should be based on understanding the need to work with interconnected ecosystems

In defining sustainable global water management, the concept of the ecosystem is valuable. Ecologists use this concept to express the interdependence of the planet's living components (animals, plants, micro-organisms) with the non-living components (minerals, rock, soil, water, air and energy). Civilisation and urban growth has led to humanity - and its decision-making - becoming increasingly unaware of other components of the world's ecosystems. No component, not even Homo sapiens is able to isolate itself completely from the others. Recognition of this is an essential starting point.

Flood management is an example of where habits are changing. Although constraining rivers by flood prevention dikes and bunds has been practised throughout human history, recent floods on the Mississippi and many European rivers have shown that river diking must be treated with extreme care. Disconnecting rivers from their flood plains violates ecosystem continuity and cuts rivers off from their "flood pulse" which is crucial for their health. Even more important is the risk of a bigger flood than the ones that defined the scale and scope of the dikes. Flood protection confuses people who begin to believe in flood "prevention".

c) All bodies (private and public) should contribute to a global "water knowledge system".

Deficiencies in our understanding of how ecosystems function should be eradicated

In particular, nation states need to extend the exchange of monitoring data and information used in water management processes. Inputting data could benefit the stakeholders in the water business both by contributing to the common good and by gaining multipliers for themselves. Best practice should be shared, and the knowledge system should be open to all, not simply to those having professional interest in, or responsibility for, water data.

2. Managing a catchment across borders and boundaries

a) Water management legislation at national, regional and international levels should be based on the catchment as a whole, recognising relevant and affected ecosystems

An example of this approach is the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, signed by the United States and Canada to "restore and maintain the chemical, Physical and biological integrity of the waters of the Great Lakes basin ecosystem". This legislation was created after a series of serious pollutions of the Great Lakes basin: the 1969 burning oil slick on the Cuyaboga river in Ohio, the 1970 mercury pollution in Lake Erie and other Great Lakes waterways and in the same year the Michigan State warning about eating fish from Lake Michigan because of high PCB residues found in fish caught in the lake. The Water Quality Agreement was "supported" by the US Congress Clean Water Act, both of which were signed in 1972. A decade after the passing of the legislation, fishing was again permitted in Lake Michigan and Chicagoans were able to swim on their beaches again. Pollutant concentrations had decreased. Today, despite population increase and urbanisation the basin ecosystem is still improved from the 1972 level. There are concerns about ecosystem changes (less large fish, proliferation of zebra mussels and sea lamprey) but the pollution issue remains manageable.

3. Stakeholder involvement

a) Decision making must take place at the appropriate level and recognise that social, economic, aesthetic and cultural values should be integrated into the decision making process

An example of values being integrated into decision making is the Annecy Lake in France. Annecy was known as "the mirror of the Alps" due to its crystal clear water. Fishermen would come to the lake to catch Omble chevalier, "the prince of freshwater fish", but by the 1950s water clarity was reduced and the Omble chevalier was no longer being caught. In 1957 the 22 municipalities in the river basin signed an agreement on sanitation of all used water. A sewer was built right around the lake, to bring used water to a single sanitation plant in Annecy. It took from 1961 to 1972 to establish the 350 km of pipes and the 33 pumping stations required. In 1993 the measured transparency of water was twelve metres in depth - as it had been at the start of the century - and the Omble chevalier had returned.

b) Education in water issues should encourage the use of a global water knowledge system open to all

Education should focus on raising water awareness. An educated and informed populace, aware of water issues, should be a partner with other stakeholders in decisions on water resource planning and management. We need to focus on education and training, so that every citizen of this planet becomes aware of the real price of water. We have to stress that water saving is a necessity, everywhere, in all seasons. It starts with cleaning teeth with a glass instead of an open tap. It goes on with a low capacity toilet, the use of water saving equipment at home, and less water being used for lawn watering. The private citizen must care for water exactly as industrialists or communities do, in order to save money, and must also recognise that saving water is more than a cost-cutting exercise, it is a drive toward sustainable living for all humanity.

South Africa's Vision 2020 schools project is an example of water awareness education that works through school children back to their homes and communities. Schools in urban areas have audited their own water use. Based on the information obtained from such projects, schools have retrofitted their water supply and sanitation systems with water saving devices. As a result the water demand in the schools has been reduced substantially. A knock on effect has been the spread of water conservation awareness into the homes of the children and their communities. Such approaches are innovative, participatory and more likely to be sustainable than one-off media initiatives.

c) Managers and institutions should make better use of technical, economic and scientific information

The role of the technical adviser should be recognised as critical, but also as an "on tap" rather than "on top" input. A global water knowledge system should ensure that technical advice benefits from best practice established elsewhere.

4. Effective decision making

a) Institutions and incentives should be revised at all governance levels to foster the change to management by catchment unit

There are more than 220 international river basins worldwide - only a minority are covered by treaties and conventions between some or all of the riverine states. However, few of these river conventions are satisfactory instruments, they rarely do more than promote data exchange and seldom have rules that are overseen by a river basin authority supported by dispute settling mechanisms and penalties for the errant parties. Integrated catchment management, which is usually upheld as a guiding principle, is handicapped just where it is most needed, namely in these international river basins.

b) Governments should ratify the 1997 UN Convention on Non-navigational Uses of Water

Future agreements for international catchments would be best designed to follow the pattern set out in the 1997 UN Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses - however this must first be ratified by the requisite number of states (30).

c) All financial investment should require proof that sustainable and efficient water use will be guaranteed. Assumptions that water will be provided for all new development must cease

The notion of water as an economic resource, subject to scarcity and dependent upon rational management is not universally accepted. However, development of a rational method of translating environmental factors into economic and fiscal terms would encourage progress towards sustainable water management. Sustainable management includes not imposing on future generations the cost of clean up or putting right historic damage. Although the cost of preventing water pollution is high, it is less than the cost of clean up.