Q&A: As Water Scarcity Becomes the New Normal How Do We Manage This Scarce Resource?

In south west coastal Satkhira, Bangladesh as salinity has spread to freshwater sources, a private water seller fills his 20-litre cans with public water supply to sell in islands where poor families spend 300 Bangladesh Taka every month to buy drinking and cooking water alone. Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS

By Manipadma Jena
STOCKHOLM, Sep 11 2018 (IPS)

Growing economies are thirsty economies. And water scarcity has become “the new normal” in many parts of the world, according to Torgny Holmgren executive director of the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI).

As climate change converges with rapid economic and urban development and poor farming practices in the emerging economies of South Asia, water insecurity for marginalised people and farmers is already intensifying.

By 2030 for instance, India’s demand for water is estimated to become double the available water supply. Forests, wetlands lost, rivers and oceans will be degraded in the name of development. This need not be so. Development can be sustainable, it can be green.

Technology today is a key component in achieving water use sustainability – be it reduced water use in industries and agriculture, or in treating waste water, among others. Low and middle income economies need water and data technology support from developed countries not only to reach Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 on water, which relates to access to safe water and sanitation as well as the sound management of freshwater supplies, but several global goals in which water plays a critical role.

Speakers at SIWI’s 28th World Water Week held last month in Stockholm, Sweden, underpinned water scarcity as contributing to poverty, conflict, and the spread of waterborne diseases, as well as hindering access to education for women and girls.

Women are central to the collection and the safeguarding of water – they are responsible for more than 70 percent of water chores and management worldwide. But the issue goes far deeper than the chore of fetching water.  It is also about dignity, personal hygiene, safety, opportunity loss and reverting to gender stereotypes.

Women’s voices remain limited in water governance in South Asia, even though their participation in water governance can alleviate water crises through their traditional knowledge on small-scale solutions for agriculture, homestead gardening, and domestic water use. This can strengthen resilience to drought and improve family nutrition.

Holmgren, a former Swedish ambassador with extensive experience working in South Asia, among other regions, spoke to IPS about how South Asia can best address the serious gender imbalances in water access and the issue of sustainable water technology support from developed economies to developing countries. Excerpts of the interview follow:

Torgny Holmgren, executive director of the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), says as water scarcity becomes the new normal, traditional knowledge must be combined with new technology to ensure water sustainability. Photo courtesy: SIWI

IPS: What major steps should South Asian economies adopt for sustainable water services from their natural ecosystems? 

TH: South Asia is experiencing now a scarcity of water as demand now grows, thanks to a growing economy and also growing population. For the region specifically, a fundamental aspect is how its countries govern their water accessibility. We at SIWI have seen water-scarce countries manage really efficiently while those with abundance mismanage this resource.

It boils down to how institutions, not just governments but communities, industries at large govern water – how water systems are organised and allocated. We have instances from Indian village parliaments that decide how to share, allocate and even treat common water resources together with neighbouring catchment area villages.

One good example of this is 2015 Stockholm Water Prize winner Rajendra Singh from India who has worked in arid rural areas with local and traditional water harvesting techniques to recharge river basins, revive and store rain water in traditional water bodies and bring life back to these regions. These techniques can also help to manage too much water from more frequent climate-induced floods.

Even though the largest [amount] water is presently still being consumed for food production, more and more water is being demanded by industries and electricity producers. As competition for the scarce resource accelerates, soon we have to restructure user categories differently in terms of tariffs and allocation because households and food production have to be provided adequate water.

Even farm irrigation reforms can regulate and save water as earlier award winning International Water Management Institute research has shown – that if governments lower subsidies on electricity for pumping, farmers were careful how much and for how long they extract groundwater, without affecting the crop yield. Farmers pumped less when energy tariffs were pegged higher.

IPS: What is SIWI’s stand on the issue of sustainable water technology support from developed economies to developing countries?

TH: Water has key advantages – it connects all SDGs and it is a truly global issue. If we look around we see similar situations in Cape Town, China and California. Water is not a North-South matter. Africa can learn from any country in any region. This is the opportunity the World Water Week offers.

It is true that new technology is developing fast, but a mix of this with traditional technology and local knowledge works well. We also need to adapt traditional technologies to modern water needs and situations. These can be basic, low cost and people friendly. And it could encourage more efficient storage and use of ‘green water’ (soil moisture used by plants).

Drip irrigation has begun to be used more in South Asia, India particularly. There is need to encourage this widely. Recycling and the way in which industries treat and re-use water should be more emphasised.

Technology transfer is and can be done in various ways. The private sector can develop both technologies and create markets for them. Governments too can provide enabling environments to promote technology development with commercial viability. A good example of this is mobile phone technology – one where uses today range from mobile banking to farmers’ access of weather data and farming advisory in remote regions.

Technology transfer from different countries can be donor or bank funded or through multi-lateral organisations like the international Green Climate Fund, but any technology always has to be adapted to local situations.

Training, education, knowledge and know-how sharing – are, to me, the best kinds of technology transfers. Students and researchers – be it through international educational exchanges or partnerships between overseas universities – get the know-how and can move back home to work on advancing technologies tailored to their national needs.

Is technology transfer happening adequately? There is a need to build up on new or local technology hardware. For this infrastructure finance is (increasingly) available but needs scaling up faster.

IPS: How can South Asia best address the serious gender imbalances in water access, bring more women into water governance in its patriarchal societies?

TH: It is important that those in power need encourage gender balance not in decision-making alone but in educational institutions. Making room for gender balance in an organisation’s decision-making structure is important. This can be possible if there is equal access to education. But we are seeing an encouraging trend – in youth seminars sometimes the majority attending are women.

Finding women champions from water organisations can also encourage other women to take up strong initiatives for water equity.

When planning and implementing projects there is a need to focus on what impacts, decisions under specific issues, are having on men and women separately. And projects need be accordingly gender budgeted.

IPS: How can the global south – under pressure to grow their GDP, needing more land, more industries to bring billions out of poverty – successfully balance their green and grey water infrastructure? What role can local communities play in maintaining green infrastructure? 

TH: When a water-scarce South Asian village parliament decides they will replant forests, attract rain back to the region, and when rain comes, collect it – this is a very local, community-centred green infrastructure initiative. Done on a large scale, it can bring tremendous change to people, livelihoods and societies at large.

We have long acted under the assumption that grey infrastructure – dams, levees, pipes and canals – purpose-built by humans, is superior to what nature itself can bring us in the form of mangroves, wetlands, rivers and lakes.

Grey infrastructure is very efficient at transporting and holding water for power production. But paving over the saw-grass prairie around Houston reduced the city’s ability to absorb the water that hurricane Harvey brought in August 2017.

It isn’t a question of either/or. We need both green and grey, and we need to be wise in choosing what serves our current and potential future set of purposes best.

Be it industrialised or developing countries, today we have to make more sophisticated use of green water infrastructures. Especially in South Asia’s growing urban sprawls, we must capture the flooding rainwater, store it in green water infrastructure for reuse; because grey cannot do it alone.

Law of the Sea Convention Expands to Cover Marine Biological Diversity

Coral reef ecosystem at Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Jim Maragos/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

By Dr Palitha Kohona
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, Sep 11 2018 (IPS)

Responding to a persistent demand by developing countries, the conservation community and science, the UN General Assembly has commenced a process for bringing the areas beyond national jurisdiction in the oceans under a global legally binding regulatory framework.

Approximately two thirds of the oceans exist beyond national jurisdiction. The Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS), concluded in 1982, currently provides the broad legal and policy framework for all activities relating to the seas and oceans, including, to some extent, for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity beyond areas of national jurisdiction (BBNJ).

However, despite the comprehensive nature of UNCLOS, many feel that BBNJ is not adequately covered under it as detailed knowledge of BBNJ was not available, even to the scientific community, at the time. Advancements in science and technology have brought vast amounts of knowledge to our attention in the years following the conclusion of UNCLOS.

Today human knowledge about the oceans, including its deepest parts which were inaccessible previously, is much more comprehensive and new information continues to flood in due to significant scientific and technical advances.

UNCLOS, referred to as the ‘Constitution for the Oceans’ by the former Singaporean Ambassador Tommy Koh, came into force in 1994,and will necessarily be further elaborated as human knowledge of the oceans increases and human activities multiply.

It is already complemented by two specific implementing agreements, namely the Agreement relating to Part XI of UNCLOS, which addresses matters related to the Area as defined in the UNCLOS (the sea bed beyond national jurisdiction), and the Agreement for the Implementation of the Provisions of UNCLOS relating to the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks. The proposed treaty on BBNJ will be the third implementing agreement under the UNCLOS.

The seas and oceans, which have acquired unprecedented commercial value and have become a major source of global nutrition, have also been the subject of considerable international rule making, most of it piecemeal. An estimated 200 million people world-wide make a living from fishing and related activities. Mostly in poor developing countries.

Fish provide at least 20 % of the animal protein intake of over 2.6 billion people. A treaty on BBNJ, as envisaged, while filling a gap in the existing global regulatory framework, will also result in significant areas of the oceans being set aside as Marine Protected Areas (MPA) to provide protection to marine biological diversity, its critical habitat, including spawning areas, as well as ensuring the equitable division of the benefits resulting from the scientific exploitation of such resources, especially through the development of new products.

Under the umbrella of UNCLOS, and carefully accommodated within it and its implementing agreements, a number of international instruments (and regimes) at the global and regional levels relevant to the conservation and
sustainable use of marine BBNJ, have been put in place already.

At the global level, these include inter alia, the regulations adopted by the International Seabed Authority for the protection and preservation of the marine environment in the Area; the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD); instruments adopted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO); measures adopted by the International Maritime Organization; measures relating to intellectual property in the context of the World Trade Organization and the World Intellectual Property Organization.

At the regional level, the relevant measures include those adopted by regional fisheries management organizations and arrangements (RFMO/As) by regional seas organizations having competence beyond areas of national jurisdiction.

A range of non-binding instruments/mechanisms also provide policy guidance of relevance to the conservation and exploitation of marine biodiversity, including beyond areas of national jurisdiction. These include the resolutions of the UN General Assembly on oceans and the law of the sea and on sustainable fisheries, as well as the Rio Declaration and Chapter 17 of Agenda 21 adopted at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation adopted in 2002 at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, the outcome document of the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, i.e. The future we want, and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, in particular Sustainable Development Goal 14 (Conservation and sustainable use of the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development).

However, despite the existence of the above regimes, the need for a legally binding multilateral instrument to govern the protection, sustainable utilisation and benefit sharing of BBNJ has been advocated by a range of interest groups for some time. A champion of this process has been Argentina.

The negotiation process. Smooth sailing or rough seas ahead?

The UN ad-hoc working group (WG) on BBNJ, established by the GA in 2004, in response to the demands of a majority of the international community, took over ten years to finalise its recommendations in February 2015. Initially, the WG made little progress and was running the risk of being terminated.

Since 2010, it was co-chaired by Sri Lanka (Ambassador Dr Palitha Kohona) and the Netherlands (Dr Liesbeth Lijnzard). While the subject was not easy, and many delegations were only beginning to grasp its complexities, curious coalitions began to form. The Group of 77 (G77) and the European Union (EU) formed a common and a powerful front for different reasons.

Many strategic negotiating approaches were discussed behind the scenes and effectively deployed by these two unlikely allies resulting in a successful outcome to the work of the WG. Basically, the G77 wanted the future exploitation of BBNJ regulated globally so that the anticipated benefits would be distributed more equitably and marine technology transferred consistent with the commitments made under the UNCLOS.

Already significant numbers of patents based on biological specimens, including microorganisms (12,998 genetic sequences), retrieved from the oceans, many from hydrothermal vents, have been registered. (11% of all patent sequences are from specimens recovered from the ocean). 98 per cent of patents based on marine species were owned by institutions in 10 countries.

The German pharmaceutical giant, BASF, alone has registered 47% of the patented sequences. The financial bonanza that was expected from the commercialisation of these patents was hugely tempting. It is estimated that by 2025, the global market for marine biotechnological products will exceed $6.4 billion and was likely to grow further.

The EU, for its part, wanted to reserve large areas of the oceans for marine protected areas for conservation purposes. Conservation in this manner would result in providing space for genetic material to replenish itself naturally. The goals of the two groups were not necessarily contradictory.

The reservations on the need for a global legally binding regulatory mechanism for BBNJ were expressed mainly by the US, Japan, Norway and the Republic of Korea. Their interest was in preserving the unhindered freedom of private corporations to exploit biological specimens to conduct research and produce new materials, including drugs, biofuels and chemicals for commercial purposes.

These corporations needed the assurance that the billions that they were expending on research would produce financially attractive results. The difficulties involved in identifying the sources from where the specimens were recovered (whether beyond national jurisdiction or within), the costs usually associated with a discovery and bringing a commercially viable product into the market place, the actual need for a legally binding instrument in the current circumstances, the possibility of achieving the same goals through a non binding instrument, etc, were some of the concerns articulated.

These concerns are expected to be raised during the treaty negotiations as well. The US which held out to the bitter end preventing consensus at the WG is not even a party to the UNCLOS. A Preparatory Committee established by the UNGA to make recommendations on the elements of a draft of an international legally binding instrument (ILBI) on the conservation and sustainable use of marine BBNJ under UNCLOS, prior to holding an international conference met in four sessions in 2016 and 2017. Treaty negotiations began in September 2018 following the organizational session (in April 2018) and the conclusion of the fourth and concluding session of the Preparatory Committee.

It could be expected that the US and the like-minded group, reflecting a recognisable private enterprise oriented policy bias, would continue to raise objections affecting the smooth progress of the negotiations. The Trump administration, which has made it a habit of distancing itself from compacts to which the US had solemnly subscribed cannot be expected to be more sympathetic to the BBNJ aspirations of the G77 and the EU any more than the Obama administration.

Deposit with the UN Secretary-General

The Secretary-General is the depositary of over 550 multilateral treaties, mostly negotiated under the auspices of the United Nations. The UNCLOS and its two implementing agreements are examples. These are customarily deposited with the SG due to the recognition that he enjoys in the international community as a high level independent global authority.

The proposed treaty on BBNJ would in all likelihood, be deposited with the UN SG, when concluded. The day to day management of activity relating to these multilateral treaties is the responsibility of the Treaty Section of the UN Office of Legal Affairs, a function which dates back to the early days of the creation of the UN. Exceptionally, a major multilateral treaty may be deposited elsewhere.

For example, the NPT is deposited with the governments of the US, UK and Russia. Under Article 102 of the UN Charter all treaties, both multilateral and bilateral are required to be registered with the UN. The UN is the custodian of over 55,000 bilateral treaties so registered, currently available on line.

Great Recession, greater illusions

By Anis Chowdhury and Jomo Kwame Sundaram
SYDNEY and KUALA LUMPUR, Sep 11 2018 (IPS)

In 2009, the world economy contracted by -2.2%. Growth in all developing countries declined from around 8% in 2007 to 2.6% in 2009 as the [...] Read more »