Spreading the Water Wealth: Making Water Infrastructure Work for the Poor

Monday, March 13, 2006

International Rivers’s first annual "Dams, Rivers and People" report analyzes the links between water and poverty reduction, and argues for new approaches to water management that are pro–poor and environmentally sustainable.

The Grim Statistics of Water

More than 1 billion people have no access to clean drinking water. More than 2 million children die each year due to dirty water and poor sanitation. Hundreds of millions of small farmers on arid lands are mired in extreme poverty.

A Failed Approach

The water strategies of the World Bank and most governments focus on large–scale dams and water diversion projects. They serve the needs of large cities, industry, and big agriculture, but have not been able to change the grim statistics of water.

The Need for a New Global Water Policy

Small farmers, who produce two thirds of the world’s food supply on rainfed lands, are the "epicenter of extreme poverty." An effective water strategy must address the needs of these small farmers. Small–scale projects such as local rainwater harvesting structures, affordable drip irrigation and pump technologies, and water–saving farming techniques can reduce poverty more effectively and at lower cost than the conventional approach.

Key Messages

The basic water, food and energy needs of the world’s poorest people can be met by redirecting investments in water infrastructure to affordable, decentralized and environmentally sustainable technologies. Such a strategy is affordable, and can generate the economic growth needed to produce broad–based poverty reduction. This approach is being largely ignored by international financial institutions and governments, many of which remain fixated with investments in water mega–projects.

The report’s three key messages can be summarized as follows:

  1. The widespread implementation of small–scale infrastructure for delivering water and energy services is a prerequisite to achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
  2. Poverty in developing countries is not due to low levels of water storage capacity in large reservoirs, nor to under–exploitation of their potential for large hydropower.
  3. A resurgence of major "multipurpose" hydropower and water diversion projects will have unacceptable environmental and social impacts and will divert funds away from investments that would significantly reduce poverty.


  • "Spreading the Water Wealth: Making Water Infrastructure Work for the Poor,"
  • by Patrick McCully, Executive Director, International Rivers
  • "The Big Potential of Small Farms," by Paul Polak, International Development Enterprises
  • Water Innovators Emphasize Low Tech, Low Cost, High Reward Solutions
  • Dams, Rivers and People in 2005: The Year in Review
  • River Hotspots for 2006
  • Download full report in English

Download full report in Spanish

View op-ed by Patrick McCully based on this report