Water – a precious resource
Fresh water is renewable, but without substitute. Essential to life on Earth, access to it remains very unequally divided. In addition to its massive use by intensive agriculture, industry and the energy sector, the very unsustainable modes of consumption and growth in emerging countries are leading to a strong increase in the demand for water, while soil deterioration and climate change only worsen water stress. The preservation of water resources thus takes on geopolitical, environmental, economic, social, and cultural dimensions.
Fresh water is a renewable but non-substitutable resource, essential to life. Access to it remains very unequal, determined by the location of underground aquifers and drainage basins, societies’ ability to manage them, and the various ways in which water is appropriated, used and distributed.
Annual global consumption represents one-seventh of the fresh water available and the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) has assessed the human right to water at a minimum of 20 liters per person per day. And yet 840 million people – 90% of them in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia – have no access to drinking water (a protected supply less than 30 minutes from their home), 2.1 billion have no drinking water access in their homes and 4.5 billion lack safely managed sanitation services (toilets, hand-washing facilities).
Comment: The Joint Monitoring Program for Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene of the WHO and UNICEF collects data on water, purification, and hygiene in the countries and regions of the world. This map of access to drinking water services shows the extent to which this facility is far from universal. In many African countries, only part of the population has access and between 20% (in Eritrea) and 60% of inhabitants still have none, even though the hatching indicates a positive change between 2000 and 2015 because the 50% target was reached.
Despite significant progress since the 1990s, 1.8 billion people still have contaminated water supplies and more than 800,000 (over 40% of them children under age 5) die each year from diseases caused by unsafe water (diarrhea, dysentery, cholera, typhoid, etc.).
By 2050, more than 40% of the world’s population could be living in regions affected by water shortage (in India, China, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Central Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa’s dry zone, Australia, the western US, etc.). Nine countries (Brazil, Russia, the United States, Canada, China, Indonesia, India, Colombia and Peru) hold 60% of global water reserves, while Asia, home to nearly 60% of the global population, holds just 30% of the total.
With respect to water use, intensive agriculture accounts for 70% of the total (including evaporation from irrigated agricultural land), industry for 20% (with manufacturing foremost), and household consumption for 10%. Demand for water is rising fast – driven by energy production, consumer behaviors (meat consumption, food waste, etc.) and the growth of emerging countries.
Situations of water stress (< 1,700 m 3 per person per year) or scarcity (< 1,000 m 3) mainly impact the most underprivileged populations and are aggravated by excessive withdrawals of surface water, inadequate public resource management policies, various forms of pollution, urbanization, urban sprawl and population growth – as well as the effects of climate change (leading to more frequent and severe droughts and flooding).
Comment: Based on the ecological footprint model, the water footprint was devised to gain a better understanding of water stress. It includes blue water (pumped from groundwater), green water (used by plants to produce biomass), virtual water (contained in agricultural or manufactured and traded products) and grey water (used to remove pollution from effluents and recycle them). The map is based on data from the American think tank World Resources Institute, and shows water stress projections for 2040, which are arrived at by connecting up the total annual water abstraction and the total renewable resources available each year. The highest figures indicate more competition between users and affect a large section of the global population: the western United States, Mexico, the west coast of Latin America, the Mediterranean region, the Middle East, Western Asia, and the north of China.
These factors exacerbate soil degradation (erosion, acidification, runoff, nutrient loss, contamination, biodiversity loss, etc.).
Wastewater treatment levels vary in line with levels of development: 70% of wastewater is treated in high-income countries, 38% in upper middle-income countries, 28% in lower middle-income countries and just 8% in low-income countries. This can lead to a degradation of surface water, underground water and marine ecosystems (via organic pollution, eutrophication, deoxygenation, etc.).
For many years, water was seen as mainly a geopolitical issue and in terms of the tensions revolving around water systems (cross-border river basins, sharing of territorial waters, water conflicts, etc.), but since the 2000s there has been a growing awareness of the scale and diversity of the challenges to be confronted in this area.
In consequence, water was included among the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted in 2015. Projects involving “nature-based solutions” (utilizing the natural water cycle) are multiplying, aiming to preserve wetlands and their ecosystems, to enhance natural water retention, to manage rain and runoff water sustainably in urban and periurban areas (creating permeable or “sponge” cities) and to use water as a source of energy.
Public vs private management
National governments, municipalities, multinational corporations, international organizations, NGOs, community water organizations, users, researchers: a host of different actors are involved in water management and the relationships between them are complex. Water management encompasses catchment management, purification, storage, distribution, wastewater collection, water treatment and recycling. Worldwide, 90% of the water we use is under public management, the remaining 10% involving public services contracted out to private operators for specific time periods, sometimes under public-private partnership (PPP/concessions – the French model), or private initiatives (water vendors selling door-to-door, standpipes, management of mini-networks, etc.), or companies running privatized public services (the US/UK model).
Comment: Having been a favored recipient of public-private partnerships (PPP) over several decades, water and sanitation services became one of the main sectors affected by remunicipalization (between March 2000 and March 2015, 235 cases in 37 countries, for more than 100 million people). The map was drawn up using data from the Water Justice project set up by a research and advocacy group for equitable, democratic, and sustainable water provision (Corporate Europe Observatory and Transnational Institute). It shows that high-income countries are more prone to such remunicipalization.
Many NGOs, local and international, are working to improve the management of water resources in rural communities and urban shantytowns. International and regional organizations are making similar efforts, often in a fragmented way: the UN’s thirty or so bodies in this area were brought together under a single banner, UN Water, in 2003. The World Water Council – a self-styled international organization and think tank with links to the private sector – has also been active in this field since 1996. It hosts a World Water Forum every three years.
- intensive agriculture > Intensive agriculture
- Agriculture characterized by the massive use of synthetic inputs (plant protection products such as chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc.), extensive mechanization (for plowing, processing, harvesting, treating animals), varietal selection and now also genetic engineering (GMOs). It increases agricultural yields over the short and medium terms, at the cost of harming biodiversity, the environment and health (soil contamination, groundwater and underground water courses, erosion, and desertification). Alternatives include sustainable agriculture, organic farming, agroecology and permaculture.
- growth > Growth
- A long-term, sustained increase in a country’s production of economic wealth, in other words, its GDP. Economic growth is not synonymous with development. Measuring it with purely economic and monetary tools is becoming increasingly unsatisfactory because of the deterritorialization and internationalization of economic activities, as well as the failure to take account of any wealth creation that cannot be monetized (elimination of illiteracy, gains in scientific or cultural knowledge, etc.). This implies special emphasis on high productivity despite the potential destruction (especially ecological) caused by growth that is seen exclusively from the angle of economics and financial profitability.
- emerging countries > Emerging Country
- This term arose in the 1980s among economic and financial actors, who used the adjective “emerging” to describe markets where investment was risky but profitable. With its emphasis on growth and suggestion of rising movement, it reflects a linear, Western-centered understanding of development. As adopted and challenged by political actors, the label refers to the international, economic, political and/or diplomatic integration of some countries. It invites us to interrogate the way it is used both by actors who adopt it and those who reject it.
- climate change > Climate changes
- The UN defines climate change as “a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods” (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change [UNFCCC], 1992). The expression is used to describe global warming of the Earth’s surface, whose extent and rapidity are without precedent in the planet’s history, and results from the increase in anthropic greenhouse gas emissions (principally carbon dioxide and CO2, but also methane, nitrous oxide, perfluorocarbons, hydrofluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride).
- biodiversity > Biodiversity
- This notion originated during the preparatory work for the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. It describes the diversity of the living world in the strictest sense, emphasizing the unity of all life, and the interdependency connecting the three elements of biological diversity: genes, species, and ecosystems. The concept takes the living world out of the restricted field of natural sciences and places it at the center of international debate. Today, biodiversity is a global heritage to be protected and a source of potential revenue that is hotly disputed between states, multinational companies, and local communities.
- ecosystems > Ecosystem
- Dynamic interactions connecting a biotope (biological environment presenting uniform living conditions) to the living beings that cohabit it. Developed by a British botanist, Arthur George Tansley, during the 1930s, the ecosystem concept progressively replaced the concept of “natural environments” that preceded it, emphasizing the interdependency of living beings (including humans) and their environment. In consequence, it underscores how damage to an ecosystem also impacts the human communities living in it. A biome (also called an ecozone or macroecosystem) is a group of ecosystems characteristic of a geographical area and named in accordance with its predominant vegetation and animal species. Anthromes (or anthropogenic biomes) are biomes that have been modified by sustained direct human interaction with ecosystems.
- geopolitical > Geopolitics
- Study of power struggles for territory, generally involving states in competition for space, with the direct or indirect use of organized violence as its mode of operation. Translation of the German term Geopolitik (1897), with definitions and uses that have varied over time. Friedrich Ratzel and Rudolf Kjellén examined the relationships between state politics and geographic data; Karl Haushofer wrote about the relationships between land, blood and race and defined the Lebensraum (living space) that formed the basis of Nazi propaganda (in consequence of which the term subsequently fell into disuse); and Halford John Mackinder spoke of the “geographic” foundations of military power, contrasting the continental heartland with the maritime periphery. More recently, Yves Lacoste emphasized the importance of representations, the idea of the nation being for him the most powerful form of geopolitical representation. Geostrategy is geopolitics directed toward action (military or economic).
- multinational corporations > Multinational corporation
- Company that has undertaken foreign direct investment (FDI) giving it access to facilities that it owns fully or in part (subsidiaries). The first MNCs date from the late 19th century; corporations of this kind have become widespread in the early 21st century. The majority of FDI takes place between industrialized nations. Such companies are now transnational rather than multinational, the largest among them tending to evolve into global corporate networks.
- public-private partnership > Public-Private Partnership
- A method of financing and managing public infrastructure (hospitals, water supply, highways, etc.) through which a public body delegates the funding, building and/or commercialization and maintenance of the facility to a private operator, while retaining public ownership. In exchange, the private operator receives payment from the state (in the form of rent) or charges users for the service. While this system absolves governments from having to provide the necessary funding themselves, it is criticized for leading to the privatization of profits and, often, a significant rise in the ultimate cost to the taxpayer (total value of rents paid by the state far exceeds the sum invested, increased charges paid by users, etc.).
- public services > Public Service
- An activity in the general interest carried out by a public or private body and overseen by the government. Public services serve a wide range of purposes, from the traditional sovereign functions (police, defense, justice, public finance, diplomacy) to the non-market state sector (education, health, social protection, culture and sport, etc.) and the industrial and commercial sectors (transport, energy, water, telecommunications, etc.). Public services are grounded in fundamental principles: equality of access and treatment for users, continuity, accessibility, neutrality and transparency of services, and their adaptability to evolutions of the general interest. The notions of services in the general interest and universal services, used in European and some international institutions, have – not without controversy – redefined the perimeters of state action in reaction to the liberalization of some of these sectors.
- NGOs > Nongovernmental Organization
- Use of this expression became more widespread following its inclusion in Article 71 of the United Nations Charter. NGOs do not have an international legal status and the acronym is used in different contexts to refer to very different kinds of actors. It generally designates associations formed by individuals over the long term in relation to not-for-profit goals, often linked to values and beliefs (ideological, humanist, ecological, religious, etc.) rather than financial interests. Active on a wide range of issues at both the local and global levels, NGOs now number tens of thousands, but vary greatly in the scale of their budgets, staff and development.
- communities > Community
- According to the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies (1855-1936), community (Gemeinschaft) is the opposite of society (Gesellschaft) and denotes any form of social organization in which individuals are linked by natural or spontaneous solidarity, and driven by common goals. According to current usage, it applies to any social grouping that appears to be united, whatever its mode of integration (international community, European or Andean Community, or adherents of a religion). The ambiguous term of international community describes an ill-defined set of political actors (states, international organizations, NGOs, individuals, etc.) based on the idea of that humanity is united by common objectives and values or an allegiance to central political institutions, which is far from being the case.
- international organization > International Organization
- In the words of Clive Archer, an IO is “a formal, continuous structure established by agreement between members (governmental and/or non-governmental) from two or more sovereign states with the aim of pursuing the common interest of the membership.” Marie-Claude Smouts identifies three characteristics of IOs: they arise out of a “founding act” (treaty, charter, statute), have a material existence (headquarters, finance, staff), and form a “coordination mechanism.