Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
6 - 12 April 2000
Issue No. 476
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Watering the future

By Fatemah Farag

Over 5,000 politicians, water specialists and leading experts from all over the world convened two weeks ago at The Hague. Their mission: to avert global water crises in the coming century.

The meeting, held between 17 and 22 March, was the triennial session of the World Water Council (WWC) -- an international water policy think-tank established as a non-governmental organisation in 1996 and currently headed by Egypt's Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources, Mahmoud Abu Zeid.

Addressing the meeting in The Hague last week, Abu Zeid described his organisation's aims as all-embracing: "The Council is concerned with global water policy issues in the world, irrespective of the state of development, political system or geographic location, in an inclusive manner."

It is a highly controversial mandate, especially in relation to water-poor areas such as the Middle East. On the one hand, the challenges are immense. "As we enter into the new millennium, an estimated 26 countries with a population of more than 300 million people already suffer from water scarcity," Abu Zeid declared. "Projections to the year 2050 show that 66 countries, comprising about two-thirds of the world population, will face moderate to severe water scarcity. The consequences of these water shortages on economic and social development, political stability and preservation of life will be immeasurable."

On the other, the establishment consensus as to how to address them, as encapsulated in the WWC's World Water Vision -- in particular proposals to commoditise water and enhance the role of the private sector -- is viewed in many quarters with suspicion, especially regarding its implications for the developing world. Indeed, Abu Zeid's claims that the Forum provided "an open venue for all views, ideas and other forms of expression on world water issues" were met with considerable scepticism from many NGOs and civil society organisations. So, is the process which is being sold to the public as the solution to the water challenges facing our world in fact merely a reflection of the interests of the global elite?

"I completely disagree with this claim," said Abu Zeid, interviewed by Al-Ahram Weekly on his return from Holland. "The Vision Development process clearly demonstrates that the process was a participatory one. About 15,000 people around the world participated in its development. NGOs had many chances to participate, and even had their own statement during the closing ceremony."

"Projections to the year 2050 show that 66 countries, comprising about two-thirds of the world population, will face moderate to severe water scarcity. The consequences of these water shortages on economic and social development, political stability and preservation of life will be immeasurable."

Mahmoud Abu Zeid

The vision promoted by the Commission, in Abu Zeid's own words, advocates "full-cost pricing coupled with innovative approaches to subsidies, and technological innovation." Any approach to water pricing has to grapple with the full complexity of such a service. "The pricing of water involves three things," Abu Zeid told the Weekly: "First, the cost of infrastructure (dams, canals, water pipes, etc.). Second, the value of water, which should reflect the economic, social, environmental and cultural values of all its uses. In this context, each country is at liberty to decide upon the value of water. And third, whilst it is vital to establish mechanisms to enable full cost recovery, the needs of the poor have to be protected. Subsidies need to be provided in a transparent manner; hence, in some instances, it would be appropriate for governments to meet these costs."

In this respect, Abu Zeid quotes Egypt as a relevant example. Today, the subsurface drainage projects are paid for in full by farmers through an instalment process, which include the cost of maintenance, covering the lifetime of the drains, which is 25 years.

Abu Zeid is careful to point out, however, that this is not just a partnership in meeting costs. "In Egypt, the Ministry has advocated the idea of enhancing the participation of farmers in decision making, operation and maintenance of irrigation and drainage systems. The Irrigation Improvement Project (IIP) empowers farmers for organisation and management through the Water User Association (WUA). A project supported by the Dutch Government is looking into the possibility of creating a Water Board at the main canal level, involving all stakeholders, to actively participate in the organisation and management of the irrigation and drainage system for all water uses (irrigation, drinking and navigation). The Ministry is also looking into the possibility of different possible contracts (Build Operate and Transfer: BOT; Build Operate Own and Transfer: BOOT) to actively involve the private sector, mainly in new areas."

The role that is envisaged for the private sector, therefore, would not deprive citizens and governments of their ability to defend the public water service. Abu Zeid noted that the Hague Declaration "showed the determination of countries around the world not just to consider water as an economic good, but [to take into account also] many other factors when it comes to cost recovery for water services."

On the global level, current investments in water services range around US$80 billion, and Abu Zeid estimates that about another US$180 billion will be needed over the next three years. "Internationally, it is estimated that 70 to 80 billion US dollars would come from governments, and the rest from the private sector and communities."

With regards to international trade agreements, and specifically the General Agreement on Trade Services (GATS), Abu Zeid points out that there is a set of rules for trans-boundary rivers that would protect countries such as Egypt from the consequences of a country such as Ethiopia deciding to put a price on waters that originate within their borders. He added that the water pricing mechanisms discussed at The Hague apply to rivers that start and end within a single political jurisdiction.

Still, arrangements relating to trans-boundary rivers are far from clear cut. The Middle East provides a good example, as all of the important rivers which flow through Arab territories rise in neighboring countries. In fact, it has been suggested that the most likely causes of future armed conflict in the region are issues related to water sovereignty. Specialised studies reviewed in Cairo last month within the context of the Security of Arab Waters Conference (held under the auspices of the Centre d'Etudes Euro-Arab) showed that 90 per cent of Arab territories are situated in arid and semi-arid areas, and that 75 per cent of the inhabitants of the Middle East will face significant water and food crises during the first two decades of the 21st century. This in an area that is already home to 250 million inhabitants, whose number is expected to rise to approximately 650 million by the year 2030. Further, rural migration trends indicate that while 46 percent of the people presently live in the countryside, by the year 2025 only 21 percent will still be living in rural areas.

The predicament of our region poignantly illustrates the problems posed by political considerations -- as, for example, in the ongoing disputes over water that pit Israel against Jordan, Syria and the Palestinian Authority, as well as the Arab inhabitants of areas still under Israeli occupation.

Yet such problems need not prove intractable, if the will to solve them is there. Abu Zeid promotes the Nile Basin as an example for other river systems. Indeed, the present arrangements there are very much in line with the ideas of the WWC. "The River Nile still has a great potential which is not yet exploited and which can be a great benefit to the people of the Nile Basin," he explained. "Each country is entitled to an equitable share from the river without causing appreciable harm to the other riparian states, [proceeding] in a cooperative manner and with prior consultations." Hence, the Nile River Basin Action Plan prepared by the Technical Cooperation Committee for the Nile (TECCONILE), which was approved by the Council of Ministers and comprises 22 activities, one of them being the establishment of a cooperative framework for the Nile Basin. Last month's WWC Forum provided the opportunity to develop an Eastern Nile Subsidiary Action Project Team (ENSAPT) and to sign a strategic document between the three riparian countries which share the Blue Nile (Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt). Abu Zeid describes ENSAPT as "exploring the win-win trans-boundary projects that could be agreed upon among the three countries. The team is expected to complete the project identification by November this year."

The Forum is now closed, and the declaration adopted, but the debates still rage on. Meanwhile, the greatest challenge for the poor will most probably be the daily exercise of ensuring the basic minimum provision of water needed to sustain their lives. Abu Zeid acknowledges that the real work still lies ahead. "There is a great deal to be accomplished between now and the Third Water Forum [to be held in Japan in the year 2003] building upon the results of the Vision for Water, Life and the Environment for the 21st Century," emphasised Abu Zeid. But he remains, fundamentally, an optimist, when he asserts, "The greatest challenge is to keep the momentum and maintain the spirit of the Vision."

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