09 April 1999 - 11 April 1999

The management of world water resources

Chair: The Rt Hon Baroness Chalker of Wallasey PC

We began our renewed cooperation with the Royal Agricultural Society of England by recalling the unique and universal importance of the water resource.  Most developed countries, at least at the national level, took its availability virtually for granted, and indeed at the level of global aggregation supply was ample and substantially renewable, with a fixed quantum in the hydrological cycle largely impervious to permanent loss.  But there were grave problems of maldistribution in both volume and fit-for-purpose quality at regional and lower levels, and the tough issues were mostly location-specific – Sudan, Afghanistan, mega-cities – rather than global.  The impact of shortage in such places was intensified by the fact that, for the most part, the areas least well supplied by nature were also those whose poverty made them least able to afford compensating measures or least skilled in maximising efficient use.  It was forecast that one-third of “less developed” countries would by the year 2020 be suffering severe shortage.

Consistent and dependable data were hard to come by, and we noted both that improved openness and accuracy were acutely needed and that many countries still regarded water-related information as sensitive in security or political terms.  Clear prediction was often peculiarly difficult, especially indeed where pressures were greatest.  Past general extrapolations – whether by Malthus or by the Club of Rome – had mostly not fulfilled (yet?) expectations of widespread calamity, and we were reminded of the remedial power of adaptive human ingenuity at every level of action.  But it would be complacent, so many participants argued, to count on this amid factors like continued population growth, possible climate change and the sheer threat of the unexpected.  Population growth, even if slowing, remained greatest in water-poor countries, with per capita availability of water declining alongside mounting need if economic development was to be carried forward.  The facts of climate change remained in dispute, and the nature and scale of consequences therefore still more so;  some effects might be benign, as perhaps in the effect of increased carbon dioxide upon plant productivity;  but there were downside possibilities too.  In circumstances of supply-stress and complex interaction, moreover, quite small shifts could produce large economic and political repercussions.

We were reminded also of particular difficulties weighing heavily (and increasingly) upon some countries – the impact of both flood and river-drying in China, for example;  the depletion of aquifers in India;  and the dangerous loss of arable land to salinity in Pakistani Punjab and elsewhere through irrigation-caused waterlogging.  The central importance of water use for irrigation, to sustain food production, was indeed a recurrent theme in our discussions.  Close on seventy per cent of water use worldwide related to irrigation, we heard, and in many of the poorer countries the proportion approached ninety per cent.  Much of this use was wasteful, even grossly so, and it was vigorously urged that a shift to irrigation by drip system (not necessarily entailing formidable investment cost, said advocates) rather than by canal was an urgent priority.  Alongside that, said others, sharper and more effective focus was needed upon crops maximising food value proportionately to water used (a measure by which meat rated poorly, for all its popularity as living standards rose.)  Advances in biotechnology might in time make it possible to grow useful plants in brackish or even saline water.

We recognised the artificiality of seeking to devise strategies focused exclusively on either demand or supply – physical and economic interaction was pervasive.  On the supply side we heard warnings that aspirations for wholly new sources of water were chimerical;  and this reinforced a powerful insistence on the importance of bringing desalinisation of sea-water within more reasonable economic reach – a world-wide cause, suggested one participant, meriting the kind of energy and resource commitment that had once driven the Manhattan and Apollo projects.

Discussion underlined the cardinal importance of clean drinking water (though we were usefully reminded that adequate quantity for washing and sanitation might be equally important to health) and the need to strengthen measures against the pollution of rivers and lakes.  It was argued that sharper separation of water for drinking from that for other uses was appropriate both in developing countries (perhaps the general use of tankers was the path of the future, suggested one voice) and – for economic reasons – in advanced countries where the oddity of lavishing drinking-standard water upon the upkeep of golf courses was increasingly noticed.

We were repeatedly and properly reminded of the logical need for integrated and interdisciplinary strategies looking at water issues in the full context of interactions, and for considering them also in a river-basin framework.  But we realised that these admirable principles often collided awkwardly with the difficult realities of inter-state relations, competing interests and entrenched rights, as the massive problems of managing the waters of the Nile illustrated.  Even where sensible cooperation might seem feasible in economic terms – as, in some situations, in respect of water transfer by pipeline – nationally-compartmented perceptions of food security and needed self-sufficiency could generate intractable obstacles.  We wondered whether better global régimes and rules could resolve such difficulties;  but while we recognised that some contribution might be made in this way, the processes of international agreement on them were slow, and the product often inescapably too generally and imprecisely phrased to settle hard issues unambiguously.  Bilateral or similar agreements addressed to specific situations were frequently the only practical basis for cooperation. This was however especially hard to achieve if there were marked differences in economic development – and therefore in the scale and pattern of water use – on either side of an inter-state boundary which a river basin spanned.  We were uneasily conscious that amid the pressures we had noted the potential for water to become a widespread stimulus to political conflict might increasingly characterise the twenty-first century, whether in disputes about use or in the impact of migration (sometimes within as well as between states) as a response to water scarcity;  that response, historically familiar, was increasingly inhibited in a world more densely populated and more tautly structured than in the past.  The intra-state dimension recalled to us that water supply was an urban and not just a rural problem.   In some countries the shift to industrial products needing less consumption of water than previous ones might help ease the pressures, but this shift was for the most part least far advanced in the regions most needing to save water.

The pursuit of much of the action we saw as needed, whether at regional, national or even village level, needed governmental capability to put in place and monitor sound and fair policies, and education adequate to equip individuals to follow them – familiar themes in any discussion of how to improve the lot of the developing world.  We did not despair of changing cultural attitudes to water use, but it could scarcely be a swift or imposed process – consultation and persuasion would usually be essential for durable advance.

We found no advocates of tidy general strategies;  at best, most of us thought, problems would have to be tackled on a place-specific basis and by managing a diverse assemblage of techniques each making a contribution that might be only modest in relation to the overall scale of the problems – better rainwater storage, less wasteful irrigation, more dependable purifiers for drinking water and the like.  Some countries might in such ways, through good management partnering good technology, escape problems;  in a minority of others, where shortage was severest, effective importation of water (whether in the form of food or otherwise) would remain inescapable, and the achievement to be looked for would be only an alleviation of difficulties or a delay in their onset;  but the value of that was not to be downplayed.

Much stress was laid upon the merits in principle of treating water as a raw material like any other, with an economic price, not as a universal free entitlement.  Proper pricing was a powerful – some suggested indispensable – incentive to efficient use.  We acknowledged, without solving, the problem of how to operate a pricing system in conditions of severe poverty;  even there, so it was suggested, the right approach was not to subsidise water, still less to leave it free and so remove all incentive, but rather to subsidise poor users.  Privatisation (properly regulated) could be a valuable tool – it was often more flexible than public arrangements, and more able to stimulate effective supply and innovation provided that it was allowed to derive a reasonable economic return.

Environmental aspects troubled us continually.  We were aware that the holistic river-basin approach ought to pay much attention to eco-system implications;  but none of us had a ready conceptual recipe for how to evaluate these against other claims, and we could not avoid the suspicion that even with disasters like the Aral Sea as manifest warnings they might in some regions stand little near-term chance in competition with demands more directly and obviously related to human well-being.

Inevitably within the span of eleven hours’ discussion much that was important escaped proper attention.  We risked overlooking that there were significant issues even among the water-rich – problems of under-investment in infrastructure, of arrangements that were economically wasteful even where there was no actual water shortage and the tests of efficiency accordingly different, and sometimes of institutional or boundary rigidities impeding sensible interdependence or complementarity.

Our prime focus however rightly remained upon water-poor regions, where the problems were mostly of an altogether more demanding order, often threatening the basic human right to a life-sustaining minimum of water.  Global political awareness, especially among the more powerful countries, was not yet adequately matched to the reality of the challenges and possible threats ahead.  There was a clamant need both to heighten governmental attention and – perhaps with increasing help from modern information technology – to disseminate knowledge of dangers, opportunities and good practice at every level.

This report reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.


Chairman: The Rt Hon Baroness Chalker of Wallasey PC
Lately Minister for Overseas Development, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Mr Barry Appleton

Lawyer and Managing Partner, Appleton and Associates
Dr Andrew L Hamilton
Head, Science Division, North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation
Professor Peter H Pearse
Professor, Faculty of Forestry, Forest Resources Management Department, University of British Columbia

Madame Guoyi Shen

Director General, Foreign Investment Management Office, Ministry of Water Resources, Beijing
Monsieur Christopher Guillemin

Director, UNIDO Service in France
Dr Elizabeth Picard
Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches sur le Moyen-Orient Contemporain

Mr Dincer Kulga

Head, Planning Department, National Water Works, Ankara

Professor Anthony Allan

School of Oriental and African Studies, London University
Professor Peter Beaumont
Professor of Geography, University of Wales, Lampeter
Mr Ian Byatt
Director General of Water Services
Mr Ian Curtis
Senior Water Resources Adviser, Department for International Development
Mr Stephen Hodgson
Director, EnAct International (environmental law and policy consultancy)
Mr Peter Houghton Brown
Vice President, Royal Agricultural Society of England
Mr John Roberts
Senior Partner, Methinks Limited, Edinburgh (consultancy services on Middle East, Caspian and energy security issues)
Mrs Ann Milnes Roberts
Editor, Financial Times Global Water Report
Mr Richard Sanders
Director of Communications, Royal Agricultural Society of England
Mr David L U Scott
Vice President (formerly Chairman of Council), Royal Agricultural Society of England
Mr Alan Spedding
Communications Development Manager, Royal Agricultural Society of England
Professor Sir Colin Spedding CBE
Consultant Director to Centre for Agricultural Strategy
Dr Bernard Tinker
Formerly Director, Terrestrial and Freshwater Science, Natural Environment Research Council
Professor James Wallace
Director, Institute of Hydrology, Natural Environment Research Council
Ms Halina Ward
Senior Research Fellow, Energy and Environmental Programme, Royal Institute of International Affairs
Colonel E C York TD DL
Chairman of Council, Royal Agricultural Society of England

The Hon Richard Benedick

Deputy Director, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Battelle, Washington State;  formerly State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary for Environment, Health and Natural Resources
Professor Robert O Collins
Professor of History, University of California, Santa Barbara
Dr Theodore Hullar
Director, Center for the Environment and Professor of Natural Resources, Cornell University
Dr John Kolars
Professor Emeritus, University of Michigan
Mr Clay J Landry
Research Associate, Political Economy Research Center, Bozeman, Montana
Commissioner Joel A Miele Sr
Commissioner, City of New York Department of Environmental Protection
Mr Charles Muller OBE
Retired President, Murden and Company Inc
Professor Thomas Naff
Professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Center for Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Pennsylvania
Mr Paul Polak
President, International Development Enterprises, Lakewood, Colorado
Dr Frank Tugwell
President and Chief Executive Officer, Winrock International Institute for Agricultural Development
Dr Ross Whaley
President, College of Environmental Science and Forestry, State University of New York

Dr David Seckler 

Director General, International Irrigation Management Institute, Sri Lanka