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On the Wrong Side of the Global Water Divide

5th World Water Forum in Istanbul

Istanbul is currently hosting thousands of international water bureaucrats, which are convening for the 5th World Water Forum. Their official motto, "Bridging the Divides for Water", poses a daunting challenge. Almost one billion people still lack access to adequate and safe water supply. Yet financial flows to the developing world are rapidly drying up, even for the water sector. Peter Bosshard comments.


In their final declaration, the world's water ministers will call for "a significant increase" in investment flows for water infrastructure. Yet their favored model of development, which emphasizes large dams and irrigation canals, does not address the needs of people who have no access to water, sanitation, and irrigation.

* Risky business

Large dams are a risky business for people and the planet. They have displaced an estimated 40-80 million people, including hundreds of thousands in East Anatolia. They have turned fresh water into the most endangered ecosystem on the planet. Reservoirs are not climate-friendly, particularly if located in the tropics. Brazilian researchers estimate that methane from dams is responsible for around 4% of human-caused global warming. Dams can also induce earthquakes, especially if built in seismically active regions such as the Himalayas. Southwest China, and Turkey.

On average, large dams cost at least 50% more than projected and take longer to build. And for all this social, environmental and economic cost, they are not good at bridging the water divide. Most of the world's poorest people don't live in fertile river valleys, but on marginal lands and in slums - far away from centralized water supply, irrigation systems, and electric grids.

The proposed Gibe 3 Dam in Ethiopia illustrates what is wrong with the current approach to water development. Construction for the $1.7bn project began in 2006 - two years before its environmental impact assessment was approved. Contracts were awarded without competitive bidding, which is an invitation to bribery. The project will put the ecosystem of Lake Turkana, the world's largest desert lake, at risk. It will also cut off the annual floods on which hundred thousands of poor farmers depend for their livelihoods.

In spite of its social and environmental cost, the Gibe 3 Dam will not benefit the local population. It does not include a water supply component, and most of its electricity will be exported. The African Development Bank, the European Investment Bank and other funders will consider support for Gibe 3 in the coming months. Supporting this behemoth would widen, not bridge the global water divide.

Turkey deports International Rivers' staff after peaceful protest

Two International Rivers' staff members were arrested and detained yesterday for unfurling a banner at the opening ceremony of the World Water Forum (WWF) in Istanbul. They have been deported one day later by the Turkish autorities. As the opening ceremony of the WWF began, International Rivers' South Asia Director Ann-Kathrin Schneider and Climate Campaigner Payal Parekh unfurled a banner reading "No Risky Dams" in protest at the World Water Forum's promotion of destructive dams (see photo). They shouted slogans as the chair of the World Water Forum and government dignitaries were about to take the stage.

While many WWF participants applauded the protest, the police detained the two protestors. Meanwhile, outside the conference center riot police used water cannons and tear gas against 150 peaceful protestors who shouted "water for life, not for profit" in opposition to the WWF's agenda of water privatization and river destruction. Seventeen protestors were arrested.

As she was being detained, Payal Parekh said: "Large dams have left a legacy of lies and loss. Continuing to build destructive dams will bring unacceptable risks to people and the planet." Ann-Kathrin Schneider said as she unfurled the banner: "The Ilisu Dam in Southeast Turkey is a symbol of outmoded water and energy policies which destroy communities and the environment. We call on the participants of the World Water Forum to embrace smarter and cleaner solutions which are readily available." Peter Bosshard, International Rivers Policy Director, said "The response by the Turkish authorities highlights the undemocratic nature of the World Water Forum. Two protestors being deported for unfurling a banner is unacceptable. We call on the World Water Council to respect and support the rights of all people to speak freely and protest peacefully."

The World Water Forum takes place every three years. It is organized by the World Water Council, a private organization whose most influential members are private water companies and some of the world's biggest dam construction companies, funders and government agencies.

Dams are failing the poorest people today, and will not address their needs tomorrow. A water sector strategy which effectively reduces poverty will not rely on outdated, risky and expensive ways of dumping concrete into rivers. Smarter, softer, more ingenuous solutions which invest in the skills and resources of the poor are available - at low cost.

* Addressing the needs of the poor and greening the economy

For centuries, Indian farmers have built small dams to store water and recharge groundwater aquifers locally. The UN's Human Development Report estimated in 2006 that with an investment of $7bn, extending such structures all across India's rain-fed farming areas could quintuple the value of the country's monsoon crop to $180bn a year, and would empower small farmers in the process.

International Development Enterprises, a research and development group based in Colorado, is developing low-risk water technologies such as drip irrigation for $3 per plot, and muscle-powered treadle pumps for $25 per unit. Using such technologies, 100 million poor farming families could overcome extreme poverty with an investment of just $20bn. This is the same amount that is spent on large dams in one year.

UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon and Nobel Prize Winner Al Gore recently appealed to world leaders to adopt economic policies that not only stimulate growth, but address the needs of the poor and green the global economy at the same time. Energy efficiency, renewables, water conservation and improving land use were some examples of their new economic mantra. The world's water ministers should take a leaf from their book and chart a smart new course in water development when they meet in Istanbul later this week.

Peter Bosshard is Policy Director at International Rivers. The commentary has been published on 16 March 2009 in “Turkish Daily News“.

(Posted: 17 March 2009)

Recommended citation: Bosshard, Peter (2008) 'On the Wrong Side of the Global Water Divide', World Economy & Development In Brief, Luxembourg, 17 March 2009 (www.wdev.eu)

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