Water – exploring the multiple facets of an essential shared resource

The man of wisdom delights in water;
the man of humanity delights in mountains.
The man of wisdom is active;
the man of humanity is tranquil.
The man of wisdom enjoys happiness;
the man of happiness enjoys long life.

K’ung Fu-tze

Chinese philosopher, 551-479 BC

In the Autumn of 2017 I was fortunate enough to be invited to China to participate in the first workshop ever held in that country on the subject of commons resources[i].  It was interesting to see that water had been selected as the focus of this event.  Water is a vital but complex resource, one we all need, and one we all share ‘in common’, and one where similar problems of shortage, deteriorating quality, and multiple conflicting uses are found all over the world.

I went with some doubts, having read the views of ancient philosophers (who clearly understood the role of water in underpinning happiness and a long life), and about the more recent large scale-engineering projects undertaken move water vast distances from one river basin to another.  The political context enables alternative approaches to be applied and vast amounts of resources to be directed at tackling identified problems (for example the recent development of ‘river chiefs’[ii] to manage and monitor clean-up of surface waters).  However, after spending several days talking to workshop participants and visiting an area facing water shortage it became clear that although the political context was very different from Europe and the USA (areas with which I was more familiar) the country faces many of the same issues in relation to seeking solutions to water problems.  In common with many other countries a key issue is the need to raise awareness and understanding about water, and to find ways of balancing the conflicting demands on a high value, shared resource, with multiple characteristics. Cape Town in South Africa, for example, is currently facing a water crisis as a result of a three-year drought and years of poor water management.   Residents are now asked to meet a daily consumption of 13 gallons (59 litres) per person[iii], with a further threat of the taps being turned off for the majority of the city’s residents in the near future (the World Health Organisation recommendation is for 50 – 100 litres per person per day to ensure ‘…that most basic needs are met and few health concerns arise’[iv].



Water – the nature of the resource and what makes it a commons?

In many parts of the world the hydrological cycle is not widely understood, and for many people water remains something of a mystery – where it comes from, where it goes to, how it moves through the environment, the relationship between the different forms it takes, from water vapour to snow or rain, from ground to surface water, from droplets to powerful rivers, and from the oceans back into the atmosphere.  But despite this lack of awareness, whenever we consider changes to the management or use of water it raises strong emotions and passions.  On a deeper level people realise water is linked into the very core of our community and culture, and fundamental to all life.  The value of water is thus in some ways immeasurable as nothing can replace it, and deep down, people are aware of this, which causes conflict to ensure access that enables maximisation of use by a particular individual, community, or country.

Water has a multiplicity of uses including, for example, satisfying household needs for drinking, cooking and washing, it is essential for food production and irrigation, for maintaining river flows and aquatic habitat, hydropower generation, navigation, and industrial uses.  Many of these demands occur in the same geographic area, making allocation and management of the resource a complex task, especially when supply of the resource varies across the year.  It also results in a multiplicity of legal, property, and governance regimes to try and manage competing demands and conflicts over access.  It is a useful exercise therefore to explore the nature of the resource itself, whether it is a public good that should be managed through state control, whether it is more efficient to support privatization of the resource, or whether the shared nature of the resource makes water a ‘commons’ that might suggest alternative forms of governance.

Bregava River, Bosnia and Herzegovina – the very first reconciliation action undertaken by people in this community after the 1992-95 war was a collaborative effort to clean-up part of the river so that the whole community could benefit.

A commons resource can be defined as one where there is rivalry in consumption (i.e. one person’s use deprives another person from being able to use the same unit of the resource), and it is difficult to exclude people, or stop them from accessing the resource.  When we apply these two criteria to water, however, it does not fit neatly into the box as its nature varies depending on the way in which it is being utilised, and the nature of the form in which it occurs.

  • Rivalry in consumption – depends on the nature of the use. It can be used for washing, or bathing, or for certain industrial uses such as cooling, then directed back into the hydrological system, or treated and put back into distribution systems for use elsewhere.  It can only be utilised for one activity at a time, but over a period of time it can be used in multiple ways by many people.
  • Ease of excluding other users – depends on local characteristics of the resource. Rainwater can be captured by many individuals for personal consumption, but relatively few can hold enough to support prolonged use.  Groundwater within an aquifer might be more difficult to access depending on its depth but it can be difficult to prevent others from drilling wells and abstracting the resource.  Surface water (such as a lake) can be monitored more easily to prevent others accessing the water, particularly for uses such as navigation or recreation.

Even more important, however, is the allocation of property rights in water.  If water is considered as a private good, it may be considered the property of the landowner, or it might be privatised through sale of use rights to individuals, then the support of the state is often available to prevent others accessing and using the resource.

There are some who suggest that water should be viewed as part of a global commons – available to all and protected from misuse and harm to ensure its availability for future generations (for example, the Blue Planet Project[v]).  They point out that there is no right to water under the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which may need rectifying giving the large numbers of people live in water stressed areas of the world[vi].  Pollution renders some waters unfit to support human life and waterborne diseases are still widespread in certain areas.  At the same time corporations, international financial institutions, and governments are promoting privatization and commodification of water as a way to raise levels of investment in infrastructure to deal with problems of conflict over water[vii].  But there is little evidence that privatisation of water improves people’s lives, it may even do the opposite and increase inequality and poverty as it removes control from communities over a resource fundamental to their livelihoods.  Even in the UK we see local drinking water supplies being sold off to foreign companies – meaning communities no longer have a say in what they can do with their water, or how much they must pay for it.

Treating water as a global commons is not the answer, although the large scale nature of the hydrological system does need to be taken into account, particularly in the light of the potential impacts of climate change.  What we need to recognise is that many of the water problems we face in different parts of the world are similar, but the solutions must be tailored to local conditions.  The commons literature provides plenty of examples of long-enduring community managed irrigation and water supply systems based on locally designed and enforced rules of sharing.  The difficulty comes when we try to apply those approaches to the management larger scale systems, and that requires increased understanding of the nature of hydrological systems, of how water moves through the environment, of time lags, and appreciation of the values placed on different uses of water.

Conceptualising water as a commons potentially offers insights into improved governance arrangements that may optimise the resource value through sharing the flow of benefits more evenly across society.  We need to move away from the fixation on pricing and profit that comes with privatization of the resource.  We need to take a more holistic view of the value of water, and the many needs it must satisfy, ecological, social, economic, cultural, and religious.

Experiencing several stages of the hydrological cycle on Mooselookmeguntic Lake, Maine, USA

Experiencing several stages of the hydrological cycle on Mooselookmeguntic Lake, Maine, USA

[i] https://www.iasc-commons.org/news-workshop-commons-china/

[ii] http://chinawaterrisk.org/resources/analysis-reviews/chinas-river-chiefs-who-are-they/

[iii] http://time.com/cape-town-south-africa-water-crisis/

[iv] http://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/pdf/human_right_to_water_and_sanitation_media_brief.pdf

[v] https://canadians.org/blueplanetproject

[vi] https://www.voanews.com/a/water-privatization-to-end-in-jakarta/4077224.html

[vii] https://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/insight/water-privatization-facts-and-figures