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Water Security: less talk, more action

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Professor Andrew Hamilton, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University © REACH

Water security is an increasingly urgent and complex challenge facing society, both rich and poor. Over 200 people from 20 countries met to debate using a risk-based framework to respond to the global and local challenges at the Water Security 2015 conference held at Oxford University on 9-11 December.

The Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, Professor Andrew Hamilton, welcomed Ministers from Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Kenya who led discussions on the significance and shared challenge of water security for countries in Africa and Asia.

‘Water security is an issue of life or death for Bangladesh’ said Mr MA Mannan MP, State Minister of Finance and Planning. The country’s population, especially the poor, are highly vulnerable to water hazards, including frequent floods, droughts and arsenic-contaminated groundwater.

The World Bank and Oxford University presented new evidence on the global status of water security risks, showing the scale, urgency and cost of the challenge. Findings from the OECD and Global Water Partnership report ‘Securing Water, Sustaining Growth’ provide the economic rationale for investment in infrastructure, institutions and information.

Professor Jim Hall, Director of the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University said: ‘investment finance needs to have a sense of where the priorities lie. We have developed a common language to look at the scale of the risk, evaluate the benefits of risk reduction, and make proportionate interventions and investments in water security.’

The conference continued with a focus on water security and poverty in Africa and South Asia, marking the first year of REACH: Improving water security for the poor. The programme is funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), with a £15 million investment in water research. DFID’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Charlotte Watts, flagged the programme as critical to providing robust evidence needed for designing and implementing water security interventions.

Professor Charlotte Watts, Chief Scientific Adviser, UK Department for International Development © REACH

Professor Charlotte Watts, Chief Scientific Adviser, UK Department for International Development © REACH

Gaining government support will be key for REACH to bring about transformational change beyond its focussed ‘Water Security Observatories’ or study sites. Attendance from three State Ministers from Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Kenya – the countries where REACH works – was an important step in building these science-policy partnerships with senior academic, enterprise and policy collaborators.

Ato Motuma Mekassa, Minister of Water, Irrigation and Electricity, Ethiopia, shared his country’s vision: ‘It is my Government’s ambition and commitment that all Ethiopians especially women and children have a future where they can live, learn and grow without the burden of water insecurity both in terms of water quality and quantity.’

Mr MA Mannan MP, State Minister of Finance and Planning, Bangladesh (left); Ato Motuma Mekassa, Minister of Water, Irrigation and Electricity, Ethiopia (right) © REACH

Mr MA Mannan MP, State Minister of Finance and Planning, Bangladesh (left); Ato Motuma Mekassa, Minister of Water, Irrigation and Electricity, Ethiopia (right) © REACH

The Cabinet Secretary of the Ministry of Water and Irrigation in Kenya, Mr Eugene Wamalwa, spoke of unprecedented floods taking place in his country. Referring also to recent floods in Cumbria in the UK, he said that water is a global issue that connects us all. He tweeted with enthusiasm about his support for REACH and willingness to work in partnership to find new solutions to water insecurity.

Dr Rob Hope, REACH Director, Oxford Universityl (left); Eugene Wamalwa, Cabinet Secretary, Ministry of Water and Irrigation, Kenya (right) © REACH

Dr Rob Hope, REACH Director, Oxford Universityl (left); Eugene Wamalwa, Cabinet Secretary, Ministry of Water and Irrigation, Kenya (right) © REACH

Mr Sanjay Wijesekera, Chief of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene at UNICEF, highlighted the drive towards achieving universal access to water and sanitation, as part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The need to address inequalities and target the poorest and most vulnerable is a priority across the SDGs, and in UNICEF’s work, he said. UNICEF is a global practitioner partner in the REACH programme with strong collaboration across regions and countries in Africa and Asia.

Sanjay Wijesekera, UNICEF © REACH

Sanjay Wijesekera, UNICEF © REACH

Three Country Diagnostic Reports on Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Kenya were launched at the conference. The reports illustrate significant but complex interactions between water security risks and poverty. Each Country Diagnostic Report outlines Water Security Observatories where REACH will focus its work over the next seven years.

Speakers from a session on ‘engendering water security’ showed how gender is a thread that weaves its way through all water security issues, from disasters, to water supply and sanitation, water management and technologies, and climate change resilience. The different values, needs and uses of water by men and women, and boys and girls, must be considered, to ensure that policies are effective. Eight parallel sessions convened panel discussions by senior policy, academic and enterprise leaders on issues of finance, monitoring, climate, poverty, health, data science, political accountability and groundwater.

In final remarks, REACH Director Dr Rob Hope said: ‘REACH will generate outstanding science to support policy and practice to improve water security for millions of poor people. The focus is on research with purpose and not producing academic papers that will gather dust.’

A call for partnerships and action was crystallised with the launch of the REACH Partnership Funding.

Presentations, audio and video will be available on the conference website soon – www.watersecurity205.org.

See the social media summary of the conference on Storify

Conference photos

Sustainable finance for universal rural water services

Achieving the global goal of universal water services in rural Africa requires new and sustainable financial models. Oxford University and partners convened a special session at World Water Week 2015 in Stockholm, to present new evidence and debate emerging approaches being tested across rural Africa.

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Operation and maintenance costs for waterpoints in rural Africa are estimated at around USD 1 billion per year, according to new cross-country evidence (Foster). Mobile money platforms provide a promising but largely untested approach to improve rural water cost recovery (Nique). Public and private sector initiatives in rural Rwanda and Kenya illustrate emerging impacts and wider implications for Africa (Sano, Mikkelsen, Hope) with UNICEF supporting many initiatives across the region.

The session on 25 August saw Oxford University collaborating with partners from UNICEF (East and Southern Africa Regional Office), the Government of Kenya Water Services Regulatory Board (WASREB), Rwanda’s national Water and Sanitation Corporation (WASAC), Grundfos and GSMA (mobile industry).

The following conclusions were drawn:

  1. Water service regulation and financial support in Africa largely focusses on urban piped services with insufficient attention and support to promoting sustainable models in rural areas.
  2. The legacy of uncoordinated investments in rural areas has wasted significant resources with competing infrastructure cannabilising sources.
  3. The non-functionality rate of millions of rural handpumps is twice as high without revenue collection.
  4. Communities struggle with low probability, high cost repair costs often leading to use of more distant, dirty and often expensive water sources.
  5. There are affordability concerns for vulnerable groups. Interventions must leave no one behind through a universal service delivery approach.

Next steps identified include:

  1. Institutional investments to promote coordination and regulation of existing and future infrastructure assets and financial models.
  2. Information systems that provide timely and reliable operational and financial data to inform more robust institutional design and performance.
  3. Understand the potential of private sector engagement in testing new models at scale in partnership with government and civil society.
  4. Generate evidence of novel financial instruments that optimise rural water sustainability blending user payments (tariffs), donor contributions (transfers) and government (taxes).

 

Presentations

Why financial sustainability matters – evidence from Africa
Tim Foster, Oxford University
presentation slides

Mobile water payment systems
Michael Nique, GSMA
presentation slides

Financial sustainability of rural water wupply
James Sano, Water and Sanitation Corporation (WASAC), Rwanda
presentation slides

Public private partnerships for sustainable rural water supply
Rasoul Mikkelsen, Grundfos Ltd.
presentation slides

Financial sustainability for universal rural water services
Rob Hope, Oxford University
presentation slides

Understanding financial flows for rural water services in Africa

Financial sustainability is a necessary but often forgotten condition to advance global goals of universal, reliable, safe and affordable water services. Oxford University researchers are designing and testing new financial models to find out what works for the rural poor in Kenya.

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In rural Africa people are four times more likely to get their water from an unsafe source than those living in urban areas. Around one in three handpumps are broken at any one time.

The Water Programme at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment is trialling novel financial models to improve rural water sustainability and results from ongoing research in Kenya are published in two new Working Papers.

The unpredictable timing and magnitude of costs associated with operation and maintenance is a chronic problem for communities. The first study assesses the case for handpump insurance to reduce financial risks, and is supported by a grant from the UK Department for International Development and the Economic and Social Research Council.

While it seems unlikely that a standalone insurance product would offer a viable business model, the concept of pooling finances and spreading risk across multiple communities could help them pay for services that last.

The second study supported by UNICEF, builds on the teams earlier work and tests a model where water users pre-pay for a professional maintenance service that uses mobile-enabled data on handpump use. The report argues that improved institutional coordination and investment, and improved monitoring systems are necessary conditions for achieving universal rural water services.

The two papers will be launched at World Water Week 2015 in Stockholm, Sweden.

Read the reports

Insuring Against Rural Water Risk – Evidence from Kwale, Kenya
Financial Sustainability for Universal Rural Water Services – Evidence from Kyuso, Kenya

The Oxford Water Network at World Water Week

Oxford University will be active at this year’s World Water Week in Stockholm, Sweden on 23-28 August 2015, with several presentations and an Oxford Water Network booth.

water and development

The annual World Water Week is widely considered ‘the’ place to be for researchers, business, decision-makers and practitioners interested in global water issues. This year’s theme is Water for Development and the event takes place just weeks before world leaders adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the successors of the Millennium Development Goals.

The theme is timely for us, given the recent launch of our global seven-year programme REACH which addresses water security risks in Africa and South Asia, specifically targeting the poor.

We will also be sharing insights from our Smart Water Systems research which designs and tests new mobile technologies and institutional models to transform water resource management and water service delivery in Africa.

The Stockholm International Water Institute’s report Water for Development – Charting a Water Wise Path frames the challenge. It argues that getting water management right is a prerequisite for sustainable development. Experts reflect on wide-ranging topics, such as the dedicated water SDG, reducing the risk of disasters, and the role of Information Communications Technology (ICT) for water and development.

Dr Rob Hope, Director of the Water Programme at the Smith School for Enterprise, will be leading a session on sustainable finance for universal rural water services, alongside UNICEF, the mobile operators network GSMA, the world’s largest pump manufacturer Grundfos Ltd and a water supply company in Rwanda.

An Oxford Water Network booth (located at G3 on the map) will provide a hub for people to meet and find out more about water research and education at Oxford University. If you are in Stockholm, then do come along and meet our researchers at the booth! A number of themed informal discussions have been scheduled.

Download the programme of presentations by Oxford University researchers.

Download the full schedule of activities at the Oxford University booth.

Follow World Water Week on twitter with the hashtag #wwweek and follow our activities via @oxfordwater and @reach_water

Watch the video One Water – for Sustainable Development

Schedule of presentations

Sunday 23 August

11:00-12:30, Room FH 300
Implementing the SDGs in the post-2015 development agenda
Convenors: GWP, Stockholm International Water Institute, UN-Water
Patrick Thomson presenting Implementing, monitoring and financing the water SDG in rural Africa

14:00-15:30, Room FH 300
Implementing the SDGs in the post-2015 development agenda
Convenors: GWP, Stockholm International Water Institute, UN-Water
Dr Katrina Charles presenting Can shared sanitation in slums be adequate sanitation?

Tuesday 25 August

9:00-10:30, Room FH Little Theatre
Eye on Asia: taking actions for a water secure Asia
Convenors: Asia Pacific Water Forum, Asian Development Bank, International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, World Wide Fund for Nature
Dr Katrina Charles presenting Reducing water security risks for the poor

9:00-10:30, Room NL Music Hall / Musiksalen
Sustainable finance for universal rural water services
Convenors: University of Oxford, Grundfos, UNICEF, GSMA
Dr Rob Hope will lead a session providing new evidence of models that advance sustainable finance in Africa.
Tim Foster presenting Mobile water payment systems

11:00-12:30, Room NL 357
Information technologies for a smarter water future
Convenors: @aqua, Akvo Foundation, DHI, Stockholm International Water Institute
Patrick Thomson presenting Distributed monitoring of shallow aquifer level using community handpumps
This presentation will also be part of the interactive poster exhibition in the FH Congress Hall Foyer. Poster presenters will be available for questions during the coffee breaks at 10:30-11:00 and 15:30-16:00

Wednesday 26 August

9:00-10:30, FH Congress Hall B
Water as a driver for sustainable development and poverty eradication
Convenors: Stockholm International Water Institute, The World Bank Group, WaterAid, We Effect
Johanna Koehler presenting Pump-priming payments for sustainable water services in rural Africa.

Thursday 27 August

14:00-15:30, Room FH 307
(Re)thinking governance
Convenors: University of Nebraska, Stockholm International Water Institute, UNDP Water Governance Facility, Water Integrity Network
Johanna Koehler presenting Can decentralisation improve water security and promote equitable post-2015 development?

Schedule of activities at the booth

Monday 24 August

10:30-11:00
Groundwater risk, growth and development
Dr Rob Hope and Patrick Thomson

11:00-14:00
REACH: Improving water security for the poor
Dr Rob Hope and Dr Katrina Charles

14:00-15:30
Smart Handpumps
Patrick Thomson and Johanna Koehler

Tuesday 25 August

15:30-16:00
Meet the DPhils
Johanna Koehler, Tim Foster, Julian Kirchherr

Wednesday 26 August

14:00-17:30
MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management (WSPM) alumni

Thursday 27 August

14:00-16:00
Applying to Oxford University

Pump-priming payments for sustainable water services in rural Africa

A new article published in World Development discusses ways to overcome barriers to the financial sustainability of rural water services in sub-Saharan Africa.

Locally managed handpumps provide water services to around 200 million people in rural Africa. Handpump failures often result in extended service disruption leading to high but avoidable financial, health, and development costs.

A study by Johanna Koehler, Patrick Thomson and Dr Robert Hope at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment uses unique observational data from monitoring handpump usage in rural Kenya. The authors evaluate how dramatic improvements in maintenance services influence payment preferences.

Results reveal steps to enhance rural water supply sustainability by pooling maintenance and financial risks at scale supported by advances in monitoring and payment technologies.

The authors argue that there are three major barriers to achieving regular rural water user payments to promote financial sustainability:

  • Institutional barriers indicate that the organisational structure of the user group influences the regular collection of user fees from all handpump users.
  • Due to geographic barriers handpump density in certain areas can negatively impact payment behavior.
  • Operational barriers frequently cause handpumps to remain unrepaired for an extended period, discouraging users from paying, as the source is considered unreliable. This constitutes a downward spiral with the risk of long-term failure in service delivery.

Three major findings are identified to prime rural water user payments in Africa. First, a reliable and fast maintenance service is key to sustaining rural water user payments. Second, these payments are subject to demand, which is related to the spatial distribution of handpumps. Hence, clustering should be avoided for financially sustainable services and new handpump installations determined by verifiable metrics. Third, the management of community handpumps takes several forms along the public–private spectrum. Almost half of the handpumps self-organise in clubs and choose a semi-privatised model with a higher payment structure.

Understanding operational, geographic, and institutional barriers of rural water user payments contributes to developing an innovative, output-based payment model for rural water services in Africa. The real test will be if users support the introduction of a new payment system, which acknowledges the higher value for money that the new maintenance service system creates. This research indicates that the communities support such reforms if reliable services are delivered.

The findings offer pathways toward the suggested water targets of the post-2015 sustainable development agenda promoting, inter alia, universal and sustainable access to safe drinking water and raising service standards, as well as robust and effective water governance with more effective institutions and administrative systems.

The study demonstrates the need for continuous monitoring of rural water services, as well as suggesting strategies for achieving this. Water service performance data are key to defining a baseline and measuring progress toward sustainable services at the local level, for operationalising a maintenance service provider model at the supra-communal level and testing an output-based payment model at the national and international levels.

The Government of Kenya’s Water Services Regulatory Board (WASREB) acknowledges the importance of such performance data ‘enabling WASREB to ensure that satisfactory performance levels are achieved and maintained, and enhancing transparency and accountability within the rural sector’ (WASREB, 2014, p. 79). Thus, the data can support and monitor national policy goals that promote progress toward universal access and more reliable improved water services for the rural poor.

Related links

Koehler, J., Thomson, P. and Hope, R. (2015) Pump-priming payments for sustainable water services in rural Africa. World Development, 74: 397-411.

Smart Water Systems research

The Government of Kenya’s Water Services Regulatory Board Impact Report (2014)

RCUK highlights Oxford’s ‘innovative’ smart handpumps project

The Research Councils UK is showcasing an Oxford University project which uses mobile phone technology to transmit data on handpump use in rural Kenya.

RCUK-handpump-story

Research trip to Kyuso, Kenya. L to R: Handpump mechanic in Kenya; Patrick Thomson, Oxford; Dr Rob Hope, Oxford; and Dr Peter Harvey, UNICEF.

The ‘Smart Handpumps’ project is led by Dr Rob Hope, an Associate Professor at the School of Geography and the Environment and Director of the Water Programme at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment. It is one of 13 projects funded by the seven Research Councils highlighted as ground-breaking and innovative research at the RCUK’s first ‘Research, Innovate, Grow’ conference, attended by business leaders, entrepreneurs, and policymakers.

The project, part funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, harnesses mobile phone technology to enable smart handpumps to send automated data on when and how much they are used. This flags up when they are broken so they can be fixed quickly, significantly improving waiting times for maintenance services. In rural Africa, one million handpumps supply water to over 200 million villagers. Yet up to one third of pumps are out of action at any one time.

Researchers work in two test sites in rural Kenya, Kyuso and Kwale, to resolve the problem of broken pumps and provide reliable water. From a delay of a month, the pumps at the sites are now fixed in under two days. Previously many households were paying nothing toward the service, but after a free trial many villagers are willing to pay for the new maintenance service based on past performance.

The smart pump data also show how much water the pump is using and its reliability. It is therefore possible to charge communities that use their pump less at a lower rate than those who use the pump more frequently. Equally, the first ever hourly data on observed handpump water use provides important insights into water demand and seasonal variation. For example, in both sites the researchers have evidence to show that when it rains people switch to alternative water sources which may be less safe.

Professor Rick Rylance, Chair of RCUK, said: ‘We are delighted to be holding such an exciting and engaging event to show how the UK is a world leader in research and innovation, with a reputation for excellence of which we are immensely proud. We truly punch above our weight on the global stage in terms of the quality of research we produce and its high impact on economic growth and prosperity. Strong, sustained investment in the UK research base is essential to strengthen and let fly the excellence, creativity and impact of the UK’s world leading researchers, innovators and businesses. We need to invest now to secure its future.’

The Government of Kenya has identified the translation of the research into a business model as an important contribution to their efforts to find new and sustainable ways to maintain water services. Local businesses set up by the project now gather data that monitors the performance of the agencies delivering water services in a measurable and accountable manner.

The work is expanding in Kenya, with other countries in Africa and Asia interested in adopting the model based on the evidence the project has provided on innovative engineering solutions and institutional design, including mobile water payment systems.

Research from the project has recently been published as an open access article in the journal World Development.

Koehler, J., Thomson, P. and Hope, R. (2015) Pump-priming payments for sustainable water services in rural Africa. World Development, 74: 397-411.

Read the Oxford University press release

The RCUK Research Innovate Grow event

Eleven projects featured in the RCUK event

Dr Rob Hope

Smart Water Systems research

Developing a new tool to manage groundwater risks in Africa

Oxford University is embarking on a four-year research project to improve the management of groundwater in rural Africa for economic growth and human development.

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Groundwater drilling in Kwale County from a shared aquifer used by communities, mining and agriculture.

Dr Rob Hope at the Smith School of Environment and Enterprise leads the £1.9 million project ‘GRo for GooD’ (Groundwater Risk Management for Growth and Development) which will provide new evidence on the status of groundwater and help institutions better manage this important resource.

Groundwater is a critical source of drinking water for rural populations in Africa, but is poorly understood. Groundwater systems face increasing pressures from explosive urban growth, expansion of irrigated agriculture, industrial pollution, mining, rural neglect, and environmental risks. As demand for groundwater intensifies, there is a high risk that the poorest communities will lose out. The GRo for GooD project seeks to answer the question: ‘how groundwater can be sustainably managed for the benefit of the economy and the rural poor?’

Researchers will design a new Groundwater Risk Management Tool to help governments and groundwater users understand the complex interactions and trade-offs between economic activities, demands for water, and poverty outcomes. The tool will be tested in Kwale County, Kenya, but will be adaptable for other countries and contexts.

GRo for GooD follows on from a successful catalyst project which generated a wide range of data on groundwater level and quality, water use, and indicators of health and welfare, in order to gain a better understanding of poverty and groundwater governance in Kwale County.

The Groundwater Risk Management Tool will take inputs from multiple sources across different disciplines, including epidemiological data, poverty metrics, and data on groundwater levels generated from a novel distributed system for monitoring shallow groundwater that is being developed by the research team.

The project sees Oxford University partnering with the University of Nairobi, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology and Rural Focus Ltd., all in Kenya, as well as with Universitat Politècnica de Cataluñya in Spain.

Within Oxford University, expertise is drawn from multiple departments: Rob Hope, Caitlin McElroy and Patrick Thomson from the Smith School of Enterprise and Environment; Katrina Charles and David Bradley from School of Geography and the Environment, and David Clifton from the Department of Engineering. In addition, DPhil candidates Johanna Koehler, Jacob Katuva and Farah Colchester are supporting critical elements of the project.

GRo for GooD is part of the seven-year UpGro programme (Unlocking the Potential of Groundwater for the Poor), jointly funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

Report shows how water insecurity is a drag on the global economy

A new report shows floods, droughts and a lack of investment in providing good quality, reliable water supplies is dragging down the global economy. The report, published today and entitled ‘Securing Water, Sustaining Growth’, was written by an international Task Force chaired by Claudia Sadoff and co-chaired by Professors Jim Hall and David Grey from the University of Oxford.

cover with borderThe Task Force was established by the Global Water Partnership (GWP) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The report and new scientific analysis examines not only water’s destructive force but also how it contributes to human health and prosperity. It was launched at the start of the Seventh World Water Forum in South Korea, the international summit at which the world’s water challenges are addressed.

The report draws on research led by the University of Oxford and feeds into a policy statement released by GWP and OECD calling on governments to invest in strengthening the world’s institutional capacity to manage water security, with much improved information systems and better water infrastructure. It urges that special attention be paid to social risks, with a focus on vulnerable segments of society.

According to the report, South Asia has the largest concentration of water-related risks. East and Southeast Asia face rapidly increasing flood risk, although the United States has the greatest exposure to flood risk. Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region where the risks of inadequate water supply and sanitation are rising. North Africa has the greatest percentage of population at risk of water scarcity.

The international Task Force is comprised of leading academics, researchers and practitioners from around the world.

Claudia Sadoff, Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Environmental Change Institute, said: ‘Both our empirical and theoretical analyses demonstrate the importance of investment in water security for development and the importance of development for investment in water security.’

‘Effective ways of achieving water security involve combinations of investments in information, institutions and infrastructure’, says Professor Hall, report co-author and Director of the Environmental Change Institute. ‘Not all investments have been beneficial or cost-effective. Investment must be designed to be robust to uncertainties and to support adaptive management as risks, opportunities, and social preferences change. All of this will require refined analytic tools, innovation, and continuous monitoring, assessment, and adaptation.’

Report co-author and Visiting Professor at the School of Geography and the Environment, David Grey said: ‘Our analysis shows that the countries that depend on agriculture for their economies are often the worst affected by floods or water scarcity. Some countries will need to think about how they can diversify from an agriculturally focussed economy to one less dependent on water. They will also focus on how better use can be made of the limited water supplies available to them.’

Read the report
Read the GWP news release
Water insecurity costs global economy billions a year, Bloomberg, 13 April 2015
Water insecurity costing global economy billions, Japan Times, 25 April 2015

 

Changing conceptions of rights to water

What do we really mean when we talk about a right to water? A human right to water is a cornerstone of a democratic society, but what form that right should take is hotly debated.

irrigationArticle by Bettina Lange and Mark Shepheard, from the Oxford University Press blog

Recently 1,884,790 European Union (EU) citizens have signed a petition that asks the EU institutions to pass legislation which recognizes a human right to water, and which declares water to be a public good not a commodity.

But a right to water has various facets. It includes rights of economic operators, such as power stations and farmers to abstract water from rivers, lakes, and groundwater sources. The conundrum here is that an individual human right to water, including a right to drinking water and sanitation, can be in conflict with the rights of economic operators to water. More importantly such human rights to water may be in conflict with a right to water of the environment itself. The natural environment needs water to sustain important features such as habitats that support a wide range of animals and plants.

There is a growing trend under the label of ‘environmental stewardship’ that prompts us to think not in terms of trade-offs between different claims to water, but to change how we think about what a right to water entails. Environmental stewardship means that human uses of water – by individual citizens, consumers and economic operators – should pay greater attention to the needs of the natural environment itself for water. This raises some thorny issues that go to the heart of how we think about fundamental rights in contemporary democracies. Should we abolish the possibility to own natural sources, such as water and thus limit the scope of private property rights? Should we develop ideas of collective property, which involves state ownership of natural resources exercised on behalf of citizens? Should we simply qualify existing private property and administrative rights to water through stewardship practices? It is the latter approach that is currently mainly applied in various countries. How does this work? Water law can impose specific legal duties, for instance on economic operators to use water efficiently, in order to promote stewardship practices. Whether this will be of any consequence, however, depends on what those who are regulated by the legal framework think and do.

recent study therefore explored how English farmers think about a right to water and its qualification through stewardship practices. The study found that three key factors shape what a right to water means to farmers.

First, the institutional-legal framework that regulates how much water farmers can abstract through licences issued by the Environment Agency defines the scope of a right to water.

Second – and this struck us as particularly interesting – not just the law and the institutions through which water rights are implemented matter, but also how natural space is organized. The characteristics of farms and catchments themselves, in particular whether they facilitated the sharing of water between different users, influenced how farmers thought about a right to water. Water sharing could enable stewardship practices of efficient water use that qualified conventional notions of individual economic rights to water.

Third – and this touches upon key debates about the ‘green economy’ – the economic context in which rights to water are exercised has a bearing on how ideas about rights to water become qualified by environmental stewardship.

In particular ‘green’ production and consumption standards shape how farmers think about a right to water. There are a range of standards that have been developed by the farming industry, independent certification bodies, such as the Soil Association, as well as manufacturers of food stuffs to whom farmers sell their produce and supermarkets. These standards prompt farmers to consider the impact of their water use on the natural environment. For instance, the Red Tractor standard for potatoes asks farmers to think of water use in terms of a strategic plan of environmental management for the farm, which also addresses ‘accurate irrigation scheduling’, ‘the use of soil moisture and water application technology’, as well as ‘regular and even watering’. These are voluntary standards, but they matter. They can render farmers’ practices in relation to water stewardship more transparent and thus also promote accountability for the use of natural resources.

Supermarket standards were considered as most influential by farmers, particularly in water scarce areas of the United Kingdom such as East Anglia. But these standards revealed an interesting tension between their economic and environmental facets.

Somehow paradoxically green consumption and production standards could also reinforce significant water use by farmers, such as spray irrigation in order to achieve good product appearance. For instance, some manufacturers of crisps seek to reduce the impact on water use of the crops they source for their products. But farmers who want to sell their potato crops to crisp manufacturers still have to achieve ‘good skin finish’, because ‘nobody wants scabby potatoes’!

So, next time you go grocery shopping ask how your consumer choice shapes a right to water.

Dr Bettina Lange is an Associate Professor in Law and Regulation at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, Oxford University. Her research draws on social theory and qualitative empirical methods in order to understand how political and economic contexts shape how environmental legal rules are interpreted and implemented. Dr Mark Shepheard is a postdoctoral fellow at the School of Law at the University of New England, Australia. His research interests are natural resource stewardship, regulation and governance, virtue ethics as well as land and water management obligations. Together, they are the authors of ‘Changing Conceptions of Rights to Water? An Eco-Socio-Legal Perspective‘, which won the 2014 JEL annual Richard Macrory best article prize and is available to read for free for a limited time in the Journal of Environmental Law.

 

Coping with the curse of freshwater variability

Oxford scientists say that institutions, infrastructure and information are the key ingredients for coping with freshwater variability and enabling economic growth, in an article published in Science.

The authors, which include Prof Jim Hall, Prof David Grey and Dr Simon Dadson, say that a key challenge to achieving water security is managing the risks posed by variable and unpredictable freshwater resources. Building resilience to these risks requires a transformation in the way investments are made.

Extreme events such as floods and droughts are hard to predict and future changes in variability are highly uncertain. The article highlights three dimensions of freshwater variability: change within the year (seasonal and monthly), year-to-year, and the unpredictable timing and intensity of extremes. When these three dimensions combine the situation is “most challenging – a wicked combination of hydrology that confronts the world’s poorest people,” say the authors.

The article warns that the inability to cope with variability can place serious burdens on society and the economy. Extreme events such as droughts and floods have ripple effects through the economy. For example, floods in Thailand in 2011 caused $43 billion in losses. Meanwhile in Ethiopia economic growth is 38% less that what would be expected based on average rainfall, due to the country’s complex hydrology.

Countries can do very little about their natural endowment of water: when and where it rains and how much water evaporates, infiltrates into the ground, and runs into rivers and lakes. However for those countries burdened with highly variable hydrology, investment in water management can help buy their way out of water insecurity.

The study’s analysis shows that countries that have achieved economic growth, despite high variability in freshwater resources, have invested heavily to reduce risk. In river basins with complex hydrology where there has been low investment, the economy suffers.

Countries along river basins with less variability are more wealthy, even though investments have sometimes been quite modest. Where the hydrology is highly variable, additional investment is needed to transition from water-insecure to secure, but this is least affordable and hardest to deliver in the poorest countries. Climate change may increase variability further, making water security an even more distant goal for countries already underequipped to cope.

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The authors highlight “the three ‘I’s” as essential for adapting to freshwater variability: institutions and good governance (such as river basin organisations, legal systems, and water pricing), infrastructure (such as water storage, wastewater treatment, groundwater wells) and information (including monitoring, forecast and warning systems, and modelling tools).

Crucially, coping with variability involves a combination of institutions, infrastructure and information – rarely will they generate their full benefits alone.

The article calls for a new approach to investing in water security. A broader and longer-term vision is needed that looks beyond individual projects to the sequence of investments that can create a pathway to water security. Context also matters when it comes to what combination and sequence of investments are needed.

This new approach will focus on risks, trade-offs and uncertainties to enable decision-makers to choose between alternative investment pathways and build a more water secure future.

This research stems from the work of a global Task Force on Water Security and Sustainable Growth, an initiative of the Global Water Partnership and OECD, co-chaired by Oxford University’s Professor Jim Hall and Professor David Grey.

Reference

Hall, J.W., Grey, D., Garrick, D., Fung, F., Brown, C., Dadson, S.J. and Sadoff, C.W. (2014) Coping with the curse of freshwater variability. Science, 346(6208): 429-430.