10 June 2005 - 12 June 2005

The Politics and Problems of Water

Chair: Baroness Chalker of Wallasey  PC

(A conference in co-operation with the Aspen Institute)

Ditchley’s mid-summer conference – the date was right, but the cold wind and grey sky came from another season – took up the source of all life, water.  When Ditchley last discussed this subject in April 1999, the conference focussed on the politics.  It found that the delivery of integrated strategies on water issues often collided awkwardly with the politics of interstate relations, competing interests and entrenched rights.  This conference did not deny the truth of that conclusion, but decided that conflict should not be our primary focus.  Rather, we tried to understand the nature of the world’s water problems and to establish lines of advocacy to feed into the preparations for the 2005 G8 discussions at Gleneagles in July, for the UN September Summit’s Review of the Millennium Development Goals and for the Fourth World Water Forum in Mexico in March 2006.  These were the immediate opportunities to take forward the long-term aim of providing access to safe water and sanitation for everyone everywhere.  The objective was ambitious and we came forward with no fundamentally new thoughts, but participants left with a clearer understanding of where the emphasis over the next few months should lie. 

We agreed that, viewed globally, water was not a scarce commodity.  If it could be delivered to the right places at the right times, even a 50% increase in world population would not mean that there was insufficient water to go round.  The second generally accepted observation was that the provision of clean water and effective sanitation to a much higher proportion of the world’s population was largely dependent on the efficient implementation of development policies generally.  The real problem was poverty.  Good infrastructure, good governance and fuller funding were all essential, as for so many other things.  We therefore had to focus on what made water special and what new efforts could realistically be demanded as a priority.  Finally, while there was optimism that the solutions were within reach, most participants were pessimistic about the prospect of the right actions being taken on the right timescale and about capacity to implement.  It was urgent to promote a stronger understanding of what could be sensibly achieved now.

We therefore tried to establish who should take action and on what priorities.  We quickly came up against the fact that no international institution has been assigned primary responsibility and no administrator has been made accountable for delivering the Millennium Goal of halving the number of people who do not have access to clean water every day.  Yet no-one wished to promote the idea of a new international water institution.  We recognised the good work already being done by UNESCO, UNICEF, The World Health Organisation and The World Bank, as well as by many donor governments, NGOs and private companies.  We also accepted the linkages with many other aspects of development activity.  Nevertheless we thought there was a gap.  Someone somewhere, probably in the UN system, had to accept the responsibility for delivering a more effective global programme on safe water and – just as important for health – effective sanitation.  We wanted this to be taken up by the forthcoming intergovernmental meetings. 

We next attempted to list the issues which urgently needed to be resolved.  Some of them were too general to be tackled in detail.  Everyone recognised that better governance would lead to better development policies, with more effective coordination between the delivery of clean water and other parts of infrastructure.  But we felt there was no reason why better long-term strategies for good water systems should not be promoted everywhere.  The finding and assigning of greater funding would be necessary, from both external and internal sources, but water deserved a specific mention in efforts to increase the volume of development aid generally.  An understanding of how readily improvements could be generated in water systems might offer guidance on how the efficiency developing world governments could be improved.  If fixing the governance fixed the pipes, fixing the pipes could also suggest ways of fixing the governance.

While looking at resources, the conference decided that the best ways of improving the use of available funding were not always being applied.  The majority of participants agreed that, while access to clean water could justifiably be regarded as a right, water use should be paid for everywhere, both to encourage water conservation and to promote greater thoughtfulness and innovation throughout the sector.  In the developed world, consumers should be asked to pay the economic cost of water supply.  In the developing world, and especially in the poorest areas, water pricing should be at a token level.  But access to water infrastructure should not be free.  We also concluded that too much available water was going into agriculture:  69% of human water use is consumed by the agricultural sector.  With 1.2 billion people lacking access to clean water and 2.5 billion without proper sanitation, this proportion for agriculture was too high.  The linkage between water use and agricultural development was a vital one and needed intensive study in its own right.  Greater study should also be made of the use of waste water.  But we had enough expertise around the table to be confident that benefits could be gained from adjusting the balance.  A further link we recommended was into gender policy: empowering women on water policy, especially locally, would bring benefits both for women and water use.

The next area needing priority attention was the promotion of knowledge and awareness.  Ignorance of easy-win policies was missing opportunities to help, especially in the areas where water scarcity was most pronounced.  Inexpensive technology was available but not being utilised.  A focus on the spread of good science and the filling of the skills gap – in other words, a much more widespread water education programme – could do wonders.  At a more complex and sophisticated level, there was also work to do to understand more clearly the effect of climate change on the provision of water.  While an enormous amount of research was being done on the environmental impact of climate change itself, conclusions were not yet being drawn sufficiently widely on the implications for water supply.  If this was the result of water policy falling between institutional stools, action should quickly be taken to remedy the situation. 

The conference began to get into useful detail when participants examined how some of these objectives could be realised.  At the highest level of generality, we believed that the spread of democratic practice and behaviour would bring huge advantages for the provision of such a basic human need.  We wanted the poorest people to be given priority in water policies and accountability to be assigned at every level.  While policies should be strongly differentiated between rural and urban areas, because the distribution requirements are quite different, the building of knowledge networks and the spread of relevant ideas in each context could be taken forward much more quickly than was the case at present.  Each locality would have its own requirements and its own cultural environment, but system models could be relatively easily adapted for local use if authority was delegated in the right way and funds provided.  We thought that it should not be so difficult to establish a set of standards or principles to serve as the basis for local application, so long as there was an interface, and regular communication, between international institutions, donor governments, recipient governments, civil society and the private sector.  Understanding what was needed to drive change in each area depended on this interface and the ability of the different contributors to converse.  Here again some international leadership and accountability were necessary.

At ground level, opportunities were being missed:  for better storage and more dams, for reducing wastage, for using equipment more efficiently.  We though that desalination could help, but more as an occasional option than a panacea.  Improvements were within reach, but not being applied.  In other words, the problem was not water, it was management.

We examined whether it might be possible to stimulate reform from the bottom upwards, scaling up from good local practice. A combination of top-down and bottom-up seemed necessary.  Participants wanted to emphasise that policies could not be imposed from outside on particular countries or particular areas.  It was better to think of successful models and best practice as providing a range of options rather than a prescriptive policy.  Good practice was more often than not developed at the local level.  But the incentive to provide change, and to supply the necessary funding, had to come from the exercising of political will at the international and national levels.  A set of guiding principles – some participants wanted to call them the Aqua Principles – could make these aspects clear. 

Even those at the table with the greatest practical experience of the sector believed that the data on water availability and water use were poor, and possibly getting worse.  New approaches would be very difficult to implement unless monitoring and evaluation improved.  No-one suggested where the responsibility for generating better information might primarily lie, but people hoped that this was something that could come out of the World Water Forum. 

We constantly came back to the need to inject greater momentum in this area.  While we were warned to beware of political naivety if we failed to understand the competition between water and other development areas, including agriculture itself, the good which could be done for struggling economies and poor societies by the availability of clean water had to be recognised.  Governments should be made aware of the damage done to the whole economy by poor sanitation.  The linkages which made reforms and improvements so complicated suggested that reaching the water Millennium Goal would have a multiplying effect for development policies and good governance across the board.  For that alone, it was time for donor governments and leaders everywhere to stimulate more focussed action.  Without it, water problems would get worse.

We were fortunate in this conference to have impressive depth of expertise around the table and to benefit from top-level political experience on development and environmental issues.  We would have wished for a higher number of developing world voices, but those present were given time to speak up and were listened to with great respect.  Above all, we owed to our Chairman a deep and driving interest in the subject, a firm hand in bringing together many disparate views and essential guidance on the kind of realistic conclusions we could reach.  Everyone left on Sunday with a much clearer idea of what to put into advocacy in their own professional areas and a higher determination to use the next few months to make a difference.

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



Chairman : Baroness (Lynda) Chalker of Wallasey  PC

Life Peer, Conservative  (1992-).  Chairman, Africa Matters.  Formerly:  Member of Parliament (Conservative), Wallasey (1974-92);  Minister for Overseas Development (1989-97); Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (1986-97).  Honorary Vice President, British Red Cross;  Vice-President, WaterAid.  A Governor and Member of the Council of Management, The Ditchley Foundation.


Professor David Blowes  

Canada Research Chair in Groundwater Remediation;  Professor, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Waterloo, Canada.

Ms Adele Hurley      
Director, Programme on Water Issues, University of Toronto (2001-).   Formerly:  Chair, Environment Committee, Ontario.

Dr Peter Pearse        

Emeritus Professor of Economics and Forestry, University of British Columbia (1962-).  Formerly:  Chair Inquiry on Canada's Federal Water Policy (1984).

Mr Harry Swain 

Management Consultant and Director, Sussex Circle, Policy and Financial Consultancy (1998-).   Formerly:  Deputy Minister of Industry for Canada (1992-95).


Mr Mark Zeitoun        

Policy consultant  water engineering and conflict.


Mr Pascal Berteaud 

Directeur de l'Eau, French Ministry of the Ecology and Environment.

Mr Jean-Louis Chaussade 

Chief Executive Officer, Suez Environment.

Mr François Lagrange 

Chairman, National Commission for Privatisation (1998-).  A  Governor, The Ditchley Foundation. Author.


Mr Roman Gonzales de Cossio

Technical Advisor to the Secretary-General of the 4th World Water Forum.


Dr Ajaya Dixit  

Founder, Nepal Water Conservation Foundation; Editor, Water Nepal; Chairman, Nepal Water for Health.

Mr Dipak Gyawali  

Academic, Royal Nepal Academy of Science and Technology;  Research Director, Institute of Social and Environmental Transition, Nepal.   Formerly:   Minister of Water Resources.


Mr Kiyo Akasaka  

Deputy Secretary-General, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.


Mr Mike Muller    

Director-General, Ministry of Water and Forests, South Africa.


Mr Mithat Rende      

Deputy Director-General, Energy, Water and Environment, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ankara.  Formerly:  Head of Department, Regional Transboundary Waters (2002-2004).


Dr Andras Szollosi-Nagy 

Deputy Assistant Director-General, Division of Water.


Ms Vanessa Tobin        

Chief, Water, Environment and Sanitation, UNICEF


Professor Tony Allan       

Professor, School of Oriental and African Studies, London University.

Mr Richard Bird       

Head, Water, Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (2003-).  Formerly:  Head, Environment Quality and Waste  Directorate, Defra (2001-03).

Dr Bob Breach MBE       

Independent Water Quality and Environmental Consultant.  Formerly:  Head, Quality and Environment, Severn Trent Water.

Mr Vic Cocker CBE      

Chairman, Wateraid (2001-).  Formerly:  Group Chief Executive, Severn Trent Water (1995-2000).

Sir John Coles GCMG

Chairman, Sight Savers International (2001-).  Formerly:  Permanent Under Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (1994-1997).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.

Dr Anne Coles 

Research Associate, International Gender Studies Centre,  Department for International Development, Queen Elizabeth House, Oxford University.

Dr Jonathan Fisher       

Economics Policy Manager, Economics Unit, Environment Agency.

Lord Judd of Portsea       

Life Peer Labour, (1991-);  Trustee, Saferworld;  Member, Royal Institute for International Affairs (1994-). Formerly:   Director, Oxfam (1985-91).  Member of Parliament, Labour, Portsmouth West (1996-74), and Portsmouth North (1974-79);  Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (1977-79).

Mr Adam Leach        

International Director, Oxfam.

Sir Paul Lever KCMG      

Global Development Director, RWE Thames Water;  Chairman, Royal United Services Institute.  Formerly: HM Diplomatic Service (1966-2004); HM Ambassador to Germany (1997-2004).

Dr Rachael McDonnell        

Senior Research Scientist, Oxford Centre for Water Research, University of Oxford.

Dr Lyla Mehta        

Fellow, Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex.

Professor Paul Sherlock OBE

Senior Humanitarian Representative, Humanitarian Department, Oxfam.

Dr Andrew Skinner 

Executive Member, International Association of Hydrogeologists.  Formerly: Director, Environmental Protection, Environmental Agency, England and Wales (2004).

Mr Peregrine Swann        

Senior Water Adviser, Water, Energy and Minerals Team, DFID Policy Division.

Professor Erik Swyngedouw      

Professor of Geography, Fellow, St. Peter's College, Oxford University.

Sir Crispin Tickell GCMG KCVO       

Chancellor, University of Kent;  Director, Green College Centre for Environmental Policy and Understanding;  Visiting Fellow, Harvard University Centre for the Environment.   Formerly:   Permanent Representative, United Nations (1987-90);  Permanent Secretary, Overseas Development Administration (1984-87);   Author;  a Governor and Member of Council, The Ditchley Foundation.


Mr Ravi Narayanan      

Director, Wateraid.


Ambassador Harriet Babbitt        

Senior Vice-President, Hunt Alternatives Fund;  Director, Washington Office of Women Waging Peace. Formerly:  Deputy Administrator, United States Agency for International Development (1997-2001);  US Ambassador to the Organisation of American States (1993-97).

The Hon Bruce Babbitt        

Director, World Wildlife Fund; Chair of the Mayor's Environment Committee; Counsel, Latham and Watkins.  Formerly:  Secretary of the Interior (1993-2001);  Governor of Arizona (1978-87).

Mr David Douglas       

Head, Waterlines (1988-). Member, Water Advocates.

The Hon William K Reilly

Founding Partner, Aqua International Partners, Chairman, Board of Directors, World Wildlife Fund US, Chairman, Board of Advisors, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, Duke University.  Member of the Board of DuPont Corporation, Conoco Phillips, and the Packard Foundation.  Formerly: Administrator, US Environmental Protection Agency (1989-93), Payne Professor, Institute of International Studies, Stanford University, 1993-94).  Head of US Delegation to the UN Conference on Environment and Development, Rio (1992).

Mr Jack Riggs 

Executive Director, Programme on Energy, Environment and the Economy, Aspen Institute (1995-). Formerly:  Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary and Acting Assistant Secretary, Policy and International Affairs, U.S. Department of Energy (1993-95). 

The  Hon Christine Todd Whitman  

President, Whitman Strategy Group.  Formerly:  Administrator, Environmental Protection Agency (2001-2003); Governor, State of New Jersey (1994-2001);  President, New Jersey Board of Public Utilities.

Dr Frank Tugwell       

President and Chief Executive Officer, Winrock International Institute for Agricultural Development (1999-).  Formerly:  Deputy Assistant Administrator, United States Agency for International Development.

Mr Mark Van Putten        

President and Founder, Conservation Strategy, Washington DC (2003-).  Formerly:  President and Chief Executive Officer, National Wildlife Federation (1996-2003);.

Mr John Whitman        

President, Sycamore Management Corporation (1995-).