Bernadette Marx, March 2000

A water forum in The Hague. A congenial geographical theme, I thought, really something to brush up on in my line of work.

Is water the new hype after acid rain, global warming, ozone depletion and el Niño? All these environmental questions lead to controversy in discussion because scientific opinion is divided on the extent to which man has caused these phenomena. If you listen carefully to these discussions, you will hear more and more often, phrases like ‘possible’, ‘might happen’ ‘not entirely certain’ and so on. It looks as if the search is on for a global environmental problem. Now the issue of water has been raised, and the subject looks set to continue.

The Netherlands has been comprehensively informed about water over the past few weeks. The occasion for this is, naturally, the International Water Forum in The Hague. Why The Netherlands? During the Water Forum it was said that the reason is because of The Netherlands’ long history of outstanding water management. The first water forum took place in Morocco in 1997. The next will take place in Japan in 2003. Another reason, in my opinion, might be that The Netherlands has a comparatively high number of United Nations institutions based here. One might conclude that The Netherlands has a strong pro-United Nations attitude. The Hague is increasingly becoming the Geneva of North-West Europe.

The chief sponsor of The Hague’s water event was NUON. PSINet and Sun microsystems were also major co-sponsors, and there were an additional number of smaller sponsors besides. Almost the entire conference, including lunches, was free to participants. You can imagine that the whole event must have cost a fortune.

The event in The Hague fell into two parts: the water forum chaired by HRH Crown Prince Willem Alexander, and the ministerial conference chaired by Mrs. Herfkens. This two-part structure is characteristic of UN conferences. All the media attention centred on the forum, the marketplace, and that was what received most news coverage. The ministerial conference took place behind closed doors. This was where the real negotiations were played out around the developing document. Formerly the ministerial conferences were open after a few sessions. After a period during which more and more of the ministerial sittings were held in private, the ministerial meetings are now closed except for the celebrations and social functions.

Alongside the conference was an exhibition of water-related commercial and scientific enterprises. (A small stand cost 18,000 guilders for just the one week.) The new water bodies, UN organisations and water businesses were also represented at the exhibition.

The structure
The forum was a talking shop for all sorts of groups, public interest groups and non-governmental organisations supplemented by businesses and scientific interests. The forum participants held discussions on themes related to water, there was a day given over to gender and water, a day for youth and water, and so on. In addition every day there was a great deal of time reserved for river basins. The interesting point here is that river basins or catchment areas straddle international land boundaries. Think of the river Rhine, its river basin affects five countries. People discussed the international management of the river basin. What does this mean for land boundaries and issues of national sovereignty?

159 countries were present for the ministerial conference, with 115 ministers and other representatives from UN bodies and international financial bodies. The G77 group – the poorest nations – were there next to the rich countries – the OECD states. It was a very high-profile gathering. Surprising in view of the fact that it was a small conference. The purpose of the high profile was to mobilise political support for water.

So, the Forum and Conference didn’t have the appearance of being directly connected with the UN position. It looked as if the mega-conference venues made for decentralised conferences on smaller themes where people manage to avoid big confrontations with pro-life, pro-family groups. Water is a safe theme for tricky ethical issues. You link up a thematic conference with an extraordinarily important voice from the great majority of the earth’s inhabitants and their representatives. You have nothing about “family” or “reproductive rights” and so on. You move towards your goal in steps that are more effective than mega conferences. Via such smaller themes you can move more quickly to your target subject matter of “human rights”, the reduction of national sovereignty and so on. This type of mini conference continues this year with a meeting about towns (in Berlin) and climate change (in The Hague).

Water is attractive as a theme because it is our primary requirement for life. People have tried to promote “Access to use of water” as a fundamental human right. China and India rejected this at the ministerial conference. China and India lead the G77 countries. China and India gave as reason for their rejection that it was not an affordable policy. Indeed the greatest number of people who suffer from a shortage of clean drinking water live in these two countries. This move to create a new human right would place restrictions on national sovereignty, something in which China and India have no interest.

Water bodies
It is only recently that a number of water bodies have come into being. Between 1992 (the Rio conference) and 1997 the World Water Council and the Global Water Partnership were set up. In 1998 the World Water Council brought the World Water Vision into being. As a result of this the World Commission for Water in the 21st Century was created. The Partnership will be paid for, among other things, by the Dutch government, NEDA and the World Bank. A little inquiry, in the name of study, revealed how extraordinarily closely these institutions are interwoven. The names of the people in charge are important. For example Ismail Serageldin, vice-chairman of the World Bank, chairman of the Istanbul Conference, and involved in U.N. conferences, both large and small, for many years. Mr. Serageldin is chairman of the Global Water Partnership and of the World Commission for Water in the 21st Century. The World Bank has an extraordinary and multi-faceted range of activities in all sorts of areas, including those relating to water.

Another well-known name: Richard Jolly is chairman of The Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council. Richard Jolly was in Cairo at the big population conference, making his presence felt as executive director of Unicef. There he openly declared that 80%-90% of Unicef’s budget was spent on population control programmes. That is to say all programmes that were concerned, directly or indirectly, with reducing the number of children in the world.

A number of top names in The Hague likewise form part of the Commission for World Government, or the earlier initiatives in this area. These people come up against each other all over the place. Now they also have positions on the water bodies. A few names: Mikhail Gorbachev, Ingvar Carlsson, Maurice Strong, Enrique Iglesias, Robert McNamara. In the same way minister Jan Pronk also got a place on the Commission for World Government.

Water and education for girls
Water also has an indirect effect on subjects relating to population. Water is the primary requisite for life and of great importance for good health. The big shots in The Hague regularly talk about “the great effectiveness of educating girls.” To a question about what this “effectiveness” actually meant, Mrs. Herkens answered “Because 75% of the water in the developing countries is managed by women.” This answer didn’t make my ideas about the “effectiveness of education for girls” any clearer. The girls don’t need to go to school in order to learn how to “manage” water or how to carry it.

So, what’s the issue? Men remain in education longer than girls. But it has long been established that the more years of education women receive, the fewer children they bear. For girls there is a strong inverse correlation between the education and the number of children they will have. You have only to look at The Netherlands, Europe and North America. Besides at school the girls receive all kinds of sex education, just as in our countries. This is delivered in such a way and to such an extent that many parents would not agree with it, were they fully informed on the point. Education for girls is very important for the international bodies and their sponsors, such as Dutch development assistance and many other organisations, who wish to achieve a decrease in the number of births worldwide.

Water and sovereignty
If people wish to introduce international management of river basins and river catchments, then national sovereignty will come under pressure. This is one of the matters that Mr. Gorbachev has in mind with his Green Cross International. GCI produces a booklet on “National sovereignty and international water courses” on pages 60 to 61, Principles and Proposals for international river basins: “Upon entering this agreement, national sovereignty would be limited through respect for the sovereignty and rights of others.” And “The creation of an integrated river basin authority to manage the interests of all states, peoples and ecosystems in the river basin”. And “ The universal acknowledgement that a basic supply of water necessary to maintain a healthy lifestyle, is a fundamental human right”! In reality this bid to create a human right will place restrictions on the sovereignty of nation states. Figuring out this so-called human right was a subject of profound and searching debate at the ministerial conference. What Mikhail Gorbachev said, he said not only as chairman of a participating organisation. He is also part of the Commission for World Government and as such his story can be seen as the fruit of his contacts with all sorts of other big shots.

In his press conference Mr. Gorbachev said that the most important objective of his organisation was to avert conflict in regions with water shortages. He mentioned the Middle East by name, he estimated a likely period of 10-15 years before a possible war about water. In addition Mr. Gorbachev asserted that the countries in this region should receive help through foreign involvement and he mentioned the international business community and financial institutions in this context.

Mr. Gorbachev’s view was strongly contradicted by Shimon Peres, former prime minister of Israel. Shimon Peres asserted that he paid attention to the state of the country in order to arrive at a solution for a possible future water problem. And if that did not succeed, then one could always make use of the endless supply of sea water.

From one of the new water bodies, Global Water Partnership, I got the information that the real problem with the implementation of water management ideas is the existence of land borders. This problem was already discussed at the Istanbul conference where an important point was how to make a million towns into city states. The question was still: what will happen to the land borders and to the territories lying between. One part of the answer came into the picture. There are already a number of pilot projects running, presumably the Zambesi river project in Southern Africa and in Sri Lanka, but one must be careful about naming names.

Water and scarcity
The Hague conference did not fully define the concept of scarcity. There was plenty of juggling with figures though. That the quantity of fresh water on earth is a small amount in comparison with the amount of salt water has been known from time immemorial. 70% of the earth’s surface consists of ocean, and we are not even considering the depths at present. A small percentage of this enormous amount is still a lot. Different figures were produced about the quantity of available drinking water, from 0.06% to 2.5% of the total amount of water on earth.

Plenty of crocodile tears were shed for the people who didn’t have access to ‘safe’ drinking water. Why were there tens of billions of dollars spent every year on population control programmes? Think about the enforced sterilisations in Peru. This happens in other poor countries too. We sponsor these types of projects through the tax system and through ‘good’ causes.

By rapid reading of a number of documents I encountered the following figures for ‘people who have access to safe drinking water’: 436 million (the World Bank), 450 million (World Water Vision), 600 million (Lyonnaise des eaux), 1 billion (the World Bank, again) 1.4 billion (The World Commission on Water for the 21st Century). In the same way there are widely varying figures for the amount of water used to produce food. People didn’t mention that this was not always clean drinking water but water that came directly out of the rivers.

All the main speakers from commerce and science had the idea that it wasn’t so much scarcity that was the problem, but more to do with getting water onto the political agenda. In order to put a price tag on it. A scarcity problem can be created and that can lead to considerable price increases. Many of us went through this before with the ‘oil crises’. The same mechanism could be at work here too.

In The Netherlands the preparation and delivery of water to the consumers costs, at most, 4 guilders per cubic metre. The desalination of water on Curaçao costs more or less the same. This comes about through the system of supply to the consumer and the profits of the private water company. On Curaçao people pay around 10 guilders for a cubic metre of clean drinking water. There is a new technique, developed by Norit, which should reduce the cost of desalination by 30-40% to between 2 and 2.50 guilders per cubic metre. I am still waiting for figures from another business that is using the new distillation technique. On balance this suggests that, per cubic metre, desalinated water can be cheaper than the most expensive drinking water in The Netherlands. Thus there is an endless source of water to be tapped. In addition it is an invitation to be thrifty in using drinking water and other water for washing, flushing toilets and so on.

A business such as Sweetwater Technology from Denmark has developed a small, portable water purification plant that can be transported from place to place on a small van. This plant is powered by a two-stroke diesel motor. By this means all surface water can be purified for human consumption. The plant cleans down to the molecular level. The most expensive operation costs 3.20 guilders per cubic metre of clean drinking water and delivers about 600 litres in a 24 hour period. Is this really not affordable at village level? For larger quantities the cost is reduced. This simple apparatus has already been installed in order to clean up the arsenic-laden water in Bangladesh that regularly fall below WHO safety limits. Here is an enormous opportunity for development assistance organisations.

Norit, the business mentioned earlier, works in Namibia running a water project. The waste water from Windhoek, a city of 200,000 inhabitants, is continually recycled. The same water is continually reused. In The Netherlands PWN applied the same technique to water for human consumption in Heemskerk. In fact this has been the case for a long time with water extracted from the river Rhine. This water is used all over Switzerland and is returned to the river by the time it reaches us.

In short, the technologies exist so that there need be no scarcity of drinking water. Not with good will and a relatively small amount of money.

Water and population
Population numbers and water have been linked in two ways: the growth in the number of city and town dwellers and the amount of water needed to produce food. The movement towards the towns in the last century occurred as follows: in 1900 approximately 10% of the planet’s population lived in towns. By 2000 this figure was about 50%. This growth is set to continue. In this way the problem of poverty transfers itself to the towns. According to some people there then arises the problem of water management for all these town-dwellers. UNEP, the environmental organisation of the United Nations, works together with other institutions on an integrated water management programme for African towns. Among other things this includes restrictions on polluting rivers and ground water supplies. Together they manage seven African demonstration towns: Abidjan, Accra, Addis Ababa, Dakar, Johannesburg, Lusaka and Nairobi. There is a detectable shift here, possible on an experimental basis, in the direction of megacities through an international institution. This turns out to be action point five from the concluding document. Is this purely coincidence?

The point concerning agriculture means that one part of the enormous increase in food production in the world is as a result of irrigation. Surface irrigation should become more extensive, but in addition irrigation techniques will improve. The total amount of land under cultivation is going to expand from about 8% to about 10%. A table from the FAO gives a clear picture of water efficiency. Here it must be stressed that some people by using both sets of calculations predict a very large, and not very probable, growth in world population. People go for the median reading of population prognoses and over the past 40 years these have been consistently too high. The lowest reading is the closest to reality.

But for those who take pleasure from high population growth numbers, the FAO table (March 2000) follows:

Efficiency of irrigation and withdrawal from irrigation as a percentage of renewable water supplies, 1996 and 2030

Sub-Saharan Africa Latin America Middle East & North Africa South Asia East Asia 93 developing nations
Irrigation efficiency (%)

1996 42 26 50 49 38 43
2030 44 29 65 58 42 50
Withdrawal from irrigation as a percentage of renewable water supplies

1996 2 1 58 37 7 7
2030 3 2 67 41 8 8

From this it is evident that the use of renewable water supplies will not dramatically increase. Now to address the issue of fossil water supplies that replenish themselves only (very) slowly, if at all. Intelligent management and less water-hungry plant varieties seem to me to be the solutions.

Some results
There were seven topics scheduled for discussion. In the subject documents there were relatively simple sentences about meeting on the basis of need, the safety regulations and the sharing of water supplies and so on. The conclusions were couched in laboured sentences, in U.N. code language, that you must first learn to decipher. Here were the words of the different groups, an advance taste of the future, always supposing that these people ever attain their goals. These turns of phrase have as their common starting point the demands for water safety in the 21st century. There remain unanswered questions: Whose job is it to anticipate this safety? And who is responsible for promoting safety in the face of danger from externally-originated flooding? And so on. An amusing point is that given the current levels of knowledge and cultural considerations, different peoples will avail themselves of greater acceptance of water regulations. This has been called water wisdom.

As a result of the discussions it became clear that people see that, in the long term, river basins will be brought under the management of international bodies: 2025 was the date given by Richard Jolly. ‘Tools’ have already been developed to facilitate water management, for example ‘integrated water resources management’ known as IWRM. As long as it remains within national land boundaries this is a good thing, but the intention is to bring whole river basins, along their entire length, under this form of management. In one of the lectures the compulsory nature of the IWRM regulations became more explicit. There were also speeches about trading in water and pollution laws.
“The key to effective change in the politics of water is compulsory regulation, by which the right and duties of the stakeholders are fixed and by which satisfactory flexibility can be maintained.” Stakeholders are pioneers of the firmly-established interest groups: women, youth, businesses, local authorities and non-governmental organisations.

In short: water management can be put into practice in towns and river basins. And this under international supervision for safety’s sake. Water management has a lot of potential as a lever to serve as a form of World Government. In The Hague it appears as if political support for integrated water management is growing.

So, what will the next subject be? Will we get “black power rights”?