Dampening a Mediterranean water crisis

The famous fatalism about imminent water wars may no longer be in vogue since global terrorism became the buzzword of the day, but the causes that made a brawl about water in the Mediterranean so likely have hardly disappeared. Most Mediterranean countries are encountering problems stemming from water scarcity, drought, overexploitation of resources – or all of the above. A war over the stuff of life can be avoided nevertheless, experts say, if action is taken without delay. We must realize the value of water before the well is dry. Concerns about water deficits were prominent at a conference last month in Cartagena, Spain where deputies of Mediterranean countries, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other involved groups discussed the protection of the Mediterranean environment and the prospects for sustainable development in the region. The meeting of the Circle of Mediterranean Parliamentarians for Sustainable Development (COMPSUD), which was organized by the Global Water Partnership-Mediterranean (GWP-Med) and the Mediterranean Information Office for Environment, Culture and Sustainable Development (MIO-ECSDE) discussed ways to promote water as a catalyst for peace and reinforce transnational cooperation on water issues. COMPSUD set a number of priorities including promoting Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) principles in national legislation, organizing public awareness campaigns, and addressing poverty concerns and women’s rights. According to reports published by the Mediterranean Action Plan (MAP), a chapter of the United Nations Environment Program, renewable Mediterranean water resources are «limited, fragile and threatened.» Water, a symbol and vital parameter of Mediterranean life and culture, is unevenly distributed among countries and populations in the basin. Whereas the north, including Greece and Turkey, enjoy 72 percent of natural input, the southern Mediterranean and Middle East sub-regions have among the lowest per capita amount of water supply in the world – 5 and 23 percent respectively. «Some North African countries have actually exceeded the limits of available resources, consuming more water than they can supply,» Professor Michael Scoullos, chairman of the Athens-based GWP-Med and of MIO-ECSDE, said in an interview with Kathimerini English Edition. Demographic growth has intensified pressure on resources. The population in Mediterranean states has nearly doubled from 246 million in 1960 to 427 million in 2000, and it is projected to double again over the next 20 years. Urbanization has increased water demand in already strained big cities and coastal areas. A joint GWP-Med and MIO-ECSDE publication in 2002 warned that the southern and eastern Mediterranean nations face increased competition for remaining resources. «Growing water stress in these areas poses a threat to the economic development and human livelihoods,» the document said. Unsustainable So far, Scoullos said, water shortages have been tackled by increasing supply. This has intensified stress on resources, particularly in the summer period for Mediterranean countries because of the tourism industry and irrigated agriculture. «Irrigation is the real water hog, with agriculture accounting for 70 to 80 percent of water consumption in the Mediterranean,» he said. However, supply-oriented polices are unsustainable in the long term. According to GWP-Med, «intensive extraction and use of water for domestic, agricultural and industrial purposes, without proper provisions for the protection of the resource, has led to serious water pollution of surface and ground water bodies.» Even more sobering are the forecasts that water scarcity may cause wars in this century. Delegates at the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002 warned that water shortage could become a cause of conflict. (The UN set the target of halving the number of people in the world without access to safe drinking water and sanitation by 2015.) Water resources are often disputed, triggering conflicts over its use and distribution – especially in cases of transboundary waters. Turkey’s ambitious dam project aimed at controlling the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers has irked neighbors Iraq and Syria. Israel is squabbling with the Palestinians over the River Jordan and with Lebanon over the use of the Litani River, while Syria complains about Israel’s alleged overuse of the Sea of Galilee. Another big flashpoint in the Mediterranean region is the use of the Nile Basin, involving Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. Integrated management In the past, people would blame the lack of water on their gods. These days, they should turn to their decision-makers instead. The failure to take remedial action is not due to the lack of scientific know-how but to more mundane problems. Technological solutions that reduce water use – such as desalination, recycling, low water-intensive crops, drip-irrigation and computer-controlled sprinklers – are at hand. «This is not merely a problem of water shortage. Above all, it is a problem of lacking political will and of mismanagement,» Scoullos said and stressed that cooperative programs for development and management of resources are the only means to avert a crisis. IWRM, currently promoted through the GWP and the EU Water Framework Directive, is under way in most Mediterranean states. IWRM aims to manage resources at the river basin level and establish cooperation between the water sector and all other relevant sectors such as social, economic, political and environmental – and to do so at a local, national and even at regional-international level. Skeptics argue that IWRM is too complex and vague to implement, but the main obstacles seem to be cultural and institutional. IWRM challenges established institutions, as well as the objectives and character of sectoral policies. It will take time, effort and, most importantly, political will to convince people and policy-makers of the need for reform. Changes are bound to prompt reactions from actors who see their political or economic leverage subside. Common attitudes are also a major stumbling block to a sustainable path of water consumption. «Consumers in Greece and in many other countries think that the state, and no one but the state, has the duty and the ability to meet all their needs in clean water and sanitation, and all they have to do is pay for that provision,» Scoullos said. «They do not realize that they do not get to pay for a large portion of the water they use, especially in agriculture,» he said, adding that, even from the government point of view, other more direct forms of social spending would resonate better with the public. Farmers, in particular, are not charged for water, or are charged at a very low rate, hence they have no incentive to use it wisely. For their part, some governments keep the cost of water artificially low in order to stem migration flows from rural to urban areas. «Faced with pressing social problems, many Mediterranean countries see free or low-priced water supply for agriculture as part of their social policy,» Scoullos explained. Is free good? Another issue that a comprehensive water management policy has to address is whether water should be treated as a natural right or an economic commodity. It is often argued that water is a free good that no one should control. But although water is «out there,» pipes are not. Many NGOs attack water privatization, accusing private companies of trying to lure poor nations into disadvantageous contracts, of profiteering and corruption. Privatization fiascoes in many Third World countries, which lead to violent public protests, bear out their arguments. However, private firms can provide the much-needed funds in commercial aspects of water such as dam building, sanitation, distribution and well management. (Two French companies, Suez and Vivendi, currently control about two thirds of the private market.) The key, experts say, is strict state regulation of water privatization and rate increases for those who can afford them. What we need, Scoullos said, is to subsidize the poor by charging high-income users much higher rates. «We need a balance. International agreements recognize water as a public good – every person has the right to possess access to clean water and basic sanitation. But this does not mean that we can use as much water as we wish for free. One pays and should pay, not the price of the water, but the price of services like the pumping, treatment and distribution of fresh water, as well as the treatment of waste water. However, this is a cost that the state can and should distribute fairly,» Scoullos noted. Ironically, it is the less well-off who are charged most for their water. And it is they who will suffer most over the dire consequences of water shortage which will, among other things, drive up food prices. A report that was recently published jointly by the International Food Policy Research Institute and the International Water Management Institute said efficient pricing could bring about a sharp increase in water resources and called for subsidies targeted to the less well-off. The study, «Global Water Outlook to 2025: Averting an Impending Crisis,» says, «Water providers should charge low prices for a basic entitlement of water, with increasing prices for greater amounts.» Scoullos called for a more equitable burden-sharing of water-related cost. He explained that although many countries, including Greece, have adopted a system whereby rates rise as consumption rises, this does not usually differentiate between what the water is being used for, or by whom. «Someone who uses water only for washing and drinking should not pay the same price for water as someone who uses it for luxury purposes, filling and refilling their swimming pools.»