Water: Commodity Of The 21st Century

Via the Guardian, an interesting article on how NGOs, businesses and governments are collaborating to tackle the water, food, energy nexus:

Water is going to be the commodity of the 21st century.” So said Richard Sandor, inventor of financial futures and all-round financial guru a few weeks ago in the City, while an audience of bankers nodded their agreement.

While the planet’s population grows by more than 200,000 every day, climate change is already beginning to dry up water supplies in some parts of the world and over-deliver them in others. Over the next two decades we will need up to 40% more water to meet rising demand, and it’s far from clear where that water will come from.

That’s why many policymakers and their influencers are already finding innovative ways to generate and allocate fresh water. Take the world’s first water trading system, created to cope with more than a decade of drought and rising demand for water in Australia’s Murray-Darling basin. Using market forces to price the use of water has shifted consumption from low-value to high-value activities and created substantial incentives for using water more efficiently. It has saved many Australian farmers from bankruptcy, enabling them to make more money from the sale of water entitlements to urban consumers than by growing crops.

Australia’s water trading scheme is now attracting attention from around the world, and so too is another innovative approach from down under: report cards for the health of water catchments. This time the state of Queensland led the way. The authorities assessed the ecological indicators, from the level of aquatic invertebrates and fish to nutrient cycling and acidity levels, against those expected in a healthy water system. They then combined the technical data to give each river system a single grade, A+ to D-, so that all stakeholders could see whether policies are having a positive overall impact or not. The Queensland authorities have brought in the public to choose the indicators that would give each system its grade, and run an annual event for politicians to justify their performance in improving river health.

This same approach was adopted in 2011 by Chinese authorities to monitor major river systems in China including the Gui River, the Pearl River and the Yellow River. And China certainly needs some radical new approaches; the country faces a staggering challenge when it comes to water pollution. Some 300 million Chinese people have no access to clean water and over half of China’s rivers and lakes are polluted.

While the Chinese government wrestles with this, one NGO in China is having an extraordinary impact on reducing water pollution, by taking the unusual step of not just challenging but also collaborating with businesses. The Chinese Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) has repeatedly used international campaigns to highlight the pollution caused by suppliers of major multinationals and pressurise them to act.

For example, Unilever was added to IPE’s polluter’s list in June 2007, thanks to high levels of pollutants in water discharged from their largest manufacturing facility in Hefei City. Unilever identified the source of the problem – the large amount of waste water discharged every time the product changed and the production line needed to be cleaned. By reducing the number of different products manufactured each day, the company dropped pollution levels to below legal limits. Apple, however, was less quick to react. It took 18 months of a “Poison Apple” campaign by IPE before Apple relaxed its policy of not disclosing supplier information and began to lean on its suppliers to clean up their act.

Then there’s the move by the Gujarat Electricity Board in India to discourage farmers from overusing their irrigation pumps in an already drought-prone state. The obvious solution would have been to meter their pump usage and penalise waste, but the farmers’ lobby was strong and no politician dared. Instead, the Gujarati government launched a scheme called the Jyotigram Yojana which offered access to eight hours a day of guaranteed, high-quality electricity supplies in return for higher electricity prices. The farmers received more reliable electricity and as they now had a cost incentive to be water-efficient, the water table began to recover. India is now looking to apply the same approach to all states.

These examples and many more come from interviews with more than 120 policy shapers in 15 different countries, all working across the interlocking stress nexus of food, water, energy and climate. There are striking examples of innovative policy-making often through unusual collaborations: governments working with NGOs, businesses rolling up their sleeves alongside them, not in cahoots or in lobbying, but in genuine partnership.

Our findings have been distilled into Dispatches from the policy frontline, a report detailing some 35 case studies showcasing positive approaches to policy relating to the nexus.

The next step is to find ways to spread and scale these approaches and seed new ones; we will certainly need all this and more in the days and years to come.

This entry was posted on Friday, December 13th, 2013 at 4:47 pm and is filed under News.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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