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Global Water Policy: How to Reduce Poverty?

Big is no longer beautiful

The high-tech approach to water supply has failed to reduce global poverty. Small-scale water projects can reduce poverty more effectively, and at a lower cost. All that is lacking for the much-needed change in global water policy is political will, writes Peter Bosshard.


With the 4th World Water Forum in Mexico City coming to an end and one more action plan on the Millennium Development Goals being adopted, a huge challenge remains: Worldwide, 1.1 billion people do not have access to safe drinking water. More than 2 million children die from dirty water and unhygienic sanitation each year.

The response of the international water establishment to this challenge can be summarized as Big Is Beautiful. Governments, industry and the World Bank are trying to expand global water supply by investing in large dams, canals and irrigation systems. In the last 50 years, they have built more than 40,000 large dams at a cost of approximately $20 billion per year.

* Modest track record
The track record of the Big Is Beautiful approach is modest. Modern irrigation systems help produce about one third of the world's food supply. Yet most of the world's poor are not integrated in modern water supply and irrigation systems, and lack the money to buy the food which these systems produce.

Ghana, Paraguay, Zambia and Zimbabwe are some of the countries which have built the world's largest reservoirs. The reservoirs were supposed to allow these countries to make a great leap forward in poverty reduction. Yet the poor have hardly benefited from them. This is not surprising. Centralized projects target primarily the large land owners on the most fertile soils, industry and urban populations. The majority of the world's poor do not live in cities and fertile floodplains. As the UN Millennium Project points out, the "epicentre of extreme poverty" are the more than 500 million small farming families. Most of these families are not connected to modern irrigation, piped water supply, and the electric grid. They miss out in centralized water development projects.

At the same time, the focus on large-scale projects has caused massive social and environmental collateral damage. Large dams have forced an estimated 40-80 million people off their lands. They have also fractured river systems in such a way that today, freshwater habitats are the ecosystem with the highest rate of threatened species.

The Millennium Development Goals of the UN stipulate that global poverty needs to be halved by 2015. Global water policy needs to fundamentally change if these goals are to be attained. Small farmers, who produce two thirds of the world's food on rain-fed lands, must be at the front and center of global water policy. They need support for decentralized water storage, the sustainable use of groundwater, and the development of affordable, low-tech irrigation systems.

The World Bank claims that the "cheap and easy options" in the water sector have mostly been exploited, and that new efforts to build high-risk projects such as large dams are needed. Nothing could be farther from the truth. A wide variety of proven, feasible and affordable low-tech solutions to improve the access of the poor to water exist.

* Cheaper and better
In Rajasthan, an arid state in India, a social movement, the Tarun Bharat Sangh, is building thousands of small reservoirs to harvest the rare rainfalls. The reservoirs serve agriculture and recharge groundwater at the same time. As a consequence, three rivers which ran dry before have become perennial again. International Development Enterprises (IDE), a research and development group, has devised cheap treadle pumps which allow millions of small farmers to harness groundwater for the irrigation of their plots. IDE has also developed an affordable system of drip irrigation, a method
which brings water to the root zones rather than the furrows, and saves half the water in the process. Farmers in more than 30 countries are also experimenting with a new way of planting rice, in which the seedlings are not permanently covered with water. This new method requires more work, but less seeds, water and chemical inputs, and produces greater harvests.

Rainwater harvesting and treadle pumps, drip irrigation and rice intensification use traditional and new forms of technology. What these approaches have in common is that they are labor intensive and cheap. The treadle pumps cost $25, the drip irrigation kits a mere $3 for a small plot. Manufacturing them does not require imported goods, but creates local jobs instead. External support is primarily needed for the development of
further appropriate techniques, and for propagating them in remote rural areas.

Based on his experience in many countries, Paul Polak of IDE estimates that an investment of $20 billion in appropriate water technologies for small farmers could lift 100 million poor families out of poverty by 2015. The high-tech approach is much more expensive. In Rajasthan, supplying water costs $2 per person with local reservoirs, and approximately $200 per person through the ominous Sardar Sarovar Dam. Irrigating a hectare of land costs $3,800 through the Sardar Sarovar Project, and $120 through treadle pumps. Yet governments and financial institutions spend about $20 billion
on large dams every year, but have so far mostly ignored the low-cost solutions.

Decentralized, low-cost approaches to water supply are commercially and politically not very attractive. They offer few export contracts, political prestige and spoils for corruption. Yet they are an effective means for reducing poverty and can be implemented now. All that is currently lacking for a change in global water policy is political will.

Peter Bosshard is Policy Director at the International Rivers Network based in Berkeley, CA. The article is based on Spreading the Water Wealth: Making Water Infrastructure Work for the Poor, a new report authored by Patrick McCully.

Posted: 21 March 2006.

* Find more on the subject:
>>> The World Bank and Pakistan's Water Sector
>>> World Bank: Leap Backwards for Sustainable Development
>>> Five Years after Landmark Report on Dams

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