Spreading the Water Wealth: Op-Ed by Patrick McCully

Thousands of politicians, water bureaucrats, corporate lobbyists, and NGO activists are converging on Mexico City on March 16 for the fourth World Water Forum. This jamboree aims to tackle perhaps the world's most pressing problem: how to ensure every person has access to enough clean water to live a decent life while ensuring sufficient supplies to water crops and maintain freshwater ecosystems.

The grim statistics of water – more than a billion people without access to decent drinking water, more than two million children dead each year due to dirty water and poor sanitation, hundreds of millions of farming families on arid lands suffering hunger, and freshwater ecosystems increasingly being sucked dry – point to the need for a revolution in the way we manage water.

The good news is that it is technically possible, affordable and achievable to provide water for all those who need it in coming years. The bad news is that the big–dam lobby is coming to Mexico City to press for an aggressive resurgence of investment in water mega–projects.

Big dams and water diversion schemes help development banks make big loans. They provide prestige projects for politicians and water ministry bureaucrats, and can make big profits for engineering and construction firms. But they cannot make a substantial contribution to meeting the basic water, food and energy needs of the world’s poorest people.

The great majority of those living in extreme poverty are small farmers dependent on increasingly unreliable rains. These farmers also make up most of those without access to decent water and sanitation. Expensive big dam projects can provide water to cities, and to commercial farmers in the relatively limited plains areas close to major rivers and suitable for large–scale irrigation. But there is no way that they can provide water to the bulk of farming families who live on hilly and marginal lands and could not possibly afford water channelled, pumped and piped from distant reservoirs.

The UN Millennium Project describes the smallholder farm as the "global epicenter of extreme poverty." By drastically improving small farmers’ yields, small–scale water infrastructure applied on a large scale can increase food production, reduce poverty, and spur economic growth in the poorest countries.

Pro–poor (and pro–nature) water management strategies include rainwater harvesting tanks and embankments, affordable drip irrigation and pump technologies, and farming techniques that reduce water needs while increasing yields.

Reaching the UN Millennium Development Goals by bringing 100 million small farming families out of extreme poverty through affordable water technologies would cost approximately $20 billion over ten years – less than a tenth of developing countries’ investment on large dams in the 1990s. The Sri Lanka–based International Water Management Institute estimates the economic benefit of lifting these farmers out of poverty as $300–600 billion.

In arid Rajasthan in northwestern India, rainwater–harvesting embankments and small dams can supply drinking water to people at one–hundredth the cost of water from the notorious Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada River. Sardar Sarovar will provide irrigation at a cost of around $3,800 per hectare; human–powered treadle pumps can irrigate a hectare at a cost of $120.

Just as the great majority of people without access to water live in rural areas of developing countries, so do most of the 1.6 billion without access to electricity. The energy needs of poor rural areas are most likely to be met by improved cook stoves, mini and micro hydro projects, and other small renewable energy sources such as wind–powered pumps for lifting groundwater. Massive hydropower projects that power transmission lines headed to mines, industries and big cities rarely provide benefits to rural people.

Improving access to water and energy in rural communities across the developing world would free women and children from the drudgery of many hours spent every day carrying water and gathering fuelwood. It would dramatically improve people’s health (especially if coupled with low–cost sanitation schemes). And it would reduce hunger and increase incomes, not just because of greater yields, but also because of the greater availability of energy for crop processing. Furthermore small–scale technologies are just as viable for meeting the water and energy needs of the sprawling slums of the developing world.

Intelligent water and energy infrastructure development alone cannot solve the scandal of global poverty and inequality. Many other policy and institutional changes are also needed. But without a radical realignment of priorities in the water and energy sectors, the hope of water and energy for all will remain a distant dream.

Patrick McCully is the Executive Director of International Rivers Network.