EAST SUSSEX, UK, March 20th (IPS) – The United Nations will commemorate World Water Day on Monday March 22nd. Amid a global pandemic where the presence of water in our lives has never seemed so important, its future availability has never been more uncertain.
Water scarcity is such a threat today that it is even possible to trade “water futures” by pooling commodities like gold and oil on Wall Street and traders hedge against future water availability.
While farmers and pastoralists have difficulty knowing when the next rain will fall, and women and children run for hours to collect water from distant watering points, water has been further marketed and financed, with enormous implications for fundamental rights to water.
Our future water security will only be guaranteed if we work to reflect the diverse values of water in the coming years – including social and cultural as well as economic and financial ones.
Globally, we almost don’t seem certain that women and girls around the world walk up to 200 million hours a day on an average of six kilometers to collect water. These dire facts are popping up in our news feeds on the same screens that now make it possible to trade “water futures” on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE).
Between these “two screens” there is an almost perverse connection between global politics to achieve the SDG goals according to Goal 6 and a global financial world that seeks investment gains through new financial instruments.
Today of all times is a good time to pause and take stock.
Since 1993, the international community has celebrated “World Water Day” every March 22nd. This year’s theme is the evaluation of water. Our personal assessment of the resource became apparent during the Covid-19 pandemic. Those of us who have faucets have diligently increased our hand washing with soap and water, while 2.5 billion people worldwide continue to struggle to access even a basic daily amount.
Eleven years ago, the United Nations recognized access to safe drinking water and sanitation as a human right, and yet, for many poor households, their fundamental rights – and their health – remain at risk during this pandemic.
And it’s not just about domestic use. A multitude of values associated with water converge around agricultural households in rural Africa, for example. For a young farmer staring into the clouds in Eastern Tanzania, unpredictable rainfall in an uncertain climate has a direct impact on her family’s food security, as well as her cash income for school fees from selling sorghum to the local brewing industry.
The value of precipitation is therefore diverse and varied – for your harvest and your income, for groundwater recharge for the domestic supply and, in a broader sense, for an agricultural value chain that supports an important part of the economy.
Domestic and international investors, encouraged by national policies focusing on FDI, often attempt to “seize” this land, which has implications for that farmer’s land and water rights as well as environmental sustainability.
Despite the common understanding that the value of water is much higher than its nominal price in various contexts, the economic and financial values of the landmark 1992 Dublin Conference tend to take precedence over values embedded in culture and society.
These have led to policies that include privatization, full cost recovery and “efficient” water use, often leading to prepaid meters and controversial limits, especially in poor urban areas. Furthermore, we live in a time when technical and economic principles can override the concerns of environmentalists as well as the values of the local and affected people regarding land, rivers and forests.
For example, the controversies over large dams on India’s Narmada River illustrate the enormous environmental, human and social costs that dam builders and the state have ignored in the name of “development,” although research has denied these claims.
At the center of all these struggles is a policy of value determination, in which very often the least powerful and the most marginalized lose. This essentially governance problem remains a global challenge – and not just in the global South.
For example, concerns and complaints about water pollution from poor black residents in Flint were routinely ignored, leading to a major water crisis in the city that was linked to systemic prejudices about race and class. In parts of the UK, water utilities continue to allow raw sewage to flood our rivers – affecting their environmental and amenity values.
Going forward, therefore, we need to see how a hierarchy of water values requires a process of deliberate governance that can bring together all of the priorities of our human wellbeing, dignity and environmental sustainability.
It must also avoid objectifying the resource in remote financial and other instruments and realizing how consumption patterns and values of the rich and powerful can undermine the values and fundamental rights of the poor to water.
So the next time we wash our hands for another 20 seconds on World Water Day 2021, we will campaign for the often hidden and overlooked values of water security worldwide.
* Lyla Mehta is at the Institute for Development Studies and Alan Nicol is at the International Water Management Institute
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