On the Wrong Side of the Global Water Divide

Peter Bosshard
Monday, March 16, 2009

Published in the Turkish Daily News

Istanbul is currently hosting thousands of international water bureaucrats, which are convening for the 5th World Water Forum. Their official motto, "Bridging the Divides for Water", poses a daunting challenge. Almost one billion people still lack access to adequate and safe water supply. Yet financial flows to the developing world are rapidly drying up, even for the water sector.

In their final declaration, the world's water ministers will call for "a significant increase" in investment flows for water infrastructure. Yet their favored model of development, which emphasizes large dams and irrigation canals, does not address the needs of people who have no access to water, sanitation, and irrigation.

Large dams are a risky business for people and the planet. They have displaced an estimated 40-80 million people, including hundreds of thousands in East Anatolia. They have turned freshwater into the most endangered ecosystem on the planet. Reservoirs are not climate-friendly, particularly if located in the tropics. Brazilian researchers estimate that methane from dams is responsible for around 4% of human-caused global warming. Dams can also induce earthquakes, especially if built in seismically active regions such as the Himalayas. Southwest China, and Turkey.

On average, large dams cost at least 50 percent more than projected and take longer to build. And for all this social, environmental and economic cost, they are not good at bridging the water divide. Most of the world's poorest people don't live in fertile river valleys, but on marginal lands and in slums - far away from centralized water supply, irrigation systems, and electric grids.

The proposed Gibe 3 Dam in Ethiopia illustrates what is wrong with the current approach to water development. Construction for the $1.7 billion project began in 2006 - two years before its environmental impact assessment was approved. Contracts were awarded without competitive bidding, which is an invitation to bribery. The project will put the ecosystem of Lake Turkana, the world's largest desert lake, at risk. It will also cut off the annual floods on which hundred thousands of poor farmers depend for their livelihoods.

In spite of its social and environmental cost, the Gibe 3 Dam will not benefit the local population. It does not include a water supply component, and most of its electricity will be exported. The African Development Bank, the European Investment Bank and other funders will consider support for Gibe 3 in the coming months. Supporting this behemoth would widen, not bridge the global water divide.

Dams are failing the poorest people today, and will not address their needs tomorrow. A water sector strategy which effectively reduces poverty will not rely on outdated, risky and expensive ways of dumping concrete into rivers. Smarter, softer, more ingenuous solutions which invest in the skills and resources of the poor are available - at low cost.

For centuries, Indian farmers have built small dams to store water and recharge groundwater aquifers locally. The UN's Human Development Report estimated in 2006 that with an investment of $7 billion, extending such structures all across India's rain-fed farming areas could quintuple the value of the country's monsoon crop to $180 billion a year, and would empower small farmers in the process.

International Development Enterprises, a research and development group based in Colorado, is developing low-risk water technologies such as drip irrigation for $3 per plot, and muscle-powered treadle pumps for $25 per unit. Using such technologies, 100 million poor farming families could overcome extreme poverty with an investment of just $20 billion. This is the same amount that is spent on large dams in one year.

UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon and Nobel Prize Winner Al Gore recently appealed to world leaders to adopt economic policies that not only stimulate growth, but address the needs of the poor and green the global economy at the same time. Energy efficiency, renewables, water conservation and improving land use were some examples of their new economic mantra. The world's water ministers should take a leaf from their book and chart a smart new course in water development when they meet in Istanbul later this week.