Progress toward more efficient use of water resources and sustainable development, an urgent need in many parts of the world, is being seriously hampered by inadequate stakeholder participation in rule- and decision-making, participants at a United Nations-sponsored seminar in Beirut heard last week. «Water legislation often lags behind in terms of responding to stakeholders and civil society participation. Moreover, water management is established using a top-down approach. There is a need to work with ordinary grassroots level farmers/water users,» international water law expert Tarek Majzoub told the conference titled «Water Governance: The Role of Stakeholders,» organized by the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) as part of Beirut Water Week. According to Global Water Partnership-Mediterranean (GWP-Med) – an independent network open to governments, research and non-profit organizations, NGOs, firms and institutional stakeholders involved in water governance – the southern Mediterranean and Middle East regions, with fast-growing populations, already have among the lowest per capita supplies of water in the world. In most of the countries in these regions, particularly those of the Arab peninsula, exploitation indices of renewable natural fresh water resources have reached 100 percent and the much more abundant oil is extensively relied on to power desalination plants. More crop per drop Several participants noted the overriding importance of promoting water-saving in agriculture, which consumes more than 70 percent of water resources in the ESCWA region (which includes all countries of the Arab peninsula, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq). «Possibilities for water savings in agriculture are enormous; water use efficiency is less than 50 percent,» said Atef Hamdy, research director at the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Bari, Italy. Others noted that losses in municipal water distribution systems in major cities exceed 50 percent. «We should move from water supply to water demand management to water governance,» said Majzoub. The concept of water governance comprises the political, economic, administrative and social processes and institutions by which public authorities, communities and the private sector make decisions on how best to develop and manage water resources. The participation of stakeholders in water governance builds up a consensus for policy reform, makes service providers more responsible to end users, improves cost recovery and increases water scarcity awareness, argued Nedjima Koval, an ESCWA consultant. In many cases, water user associations (WUA) have succeeded in recovering the costs of water, operation and maintenance of the irrigation and drainage facilities because grassroots water users feel ownership and tend not to avoid fee payment, Majzoub noted. However, stakeholders often lack the funds, the institutional capacity and the extensive network to contribute significantly to the management of water resources. «The achievement of an effective water governance presupposes considerable changes in the existing processes and structures that sometimes embody very old, deeply rooted – and therefore difficult to overcome – habits, perceptions and values,» said Barbara Tomassini, of the Athens-based Mediterranean Information Office for Environment, Culture and Sustainable Development (MIO-ESCDE). In an effort to promote Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM), ESCWA member countries have adopted the plan for the sustainable management of scarce natural resources thrashed out at the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002. «A review of the progress made has shown mixed results,» said Roula Majdalani of ESCWA’s Water Issues Team. The implementation of IWRM is hampered by such factors as high population and urban growth rates, limited concern for sustainability, priority given to food security over water security, and limited awareness of the «integrated» and «management» dimensions of IWRM, she noted. «Very few countries have completed their national water strategies within the IWRM framework or have integrated them into social and economic development plans to achieve a good level of sustainable development,» Majdalani said. Senior ESCWA official Hosny Khordagui argued that the overlapping and multiplicity of water laws undermined implementation and fostered non-compliance. «Do not issue laws unless you are certain of enforcement,» he urged. He also noted that some government agencies in the region are neither willing nor able to cooperate with stakeholders in managing water resources. «According to the prevailing culture, traditions and political norms in some countries, the decision-making hierarchy still could not easily tolerate participatory bottom-up approaches or accept public pressure,» he said. Digbie Davies, of Germany’s Technical Cooperation (GTZ) agency, which has just launched a government-funded project to promote regional cooperation in the water sector in the ESCWA region, warned against other pitfalls. «Donors often exaggerate the importance of projects. No one at the World Bank ever got promoted by turning projects down,» he noted. Also, projects were often beset by the lack of parallel political will for reform, by target-setting (e.g., cost recovery) with no means of achieving them, as well as disregard for consumer preferences. Other contributors stressed the importance of involving women in water management. «Most women (in the countries in question) are forced to be conscious about water use because of limited distribution and they also react to high water bills,» said consultant Lene Poulsen. Enabling Some general principles have been identified as basic for an «enabling» environment to promote effective water governance. These include: – Accountability in the work of water service providers, including the allocation of water to high value uses, to the poor and vulnerable groups. – Participatory development approaches involving public, private, community and civil society organizations and users. – Preventability, in the form of water legislation and regulations and their fair and consistent application. – Transparency, i.e. the timely disclosure of information regarding water policies, decisions and projects. – Reasonably well-functioning political and administrative systems. Unhappily, farmers’ and other water users’ representation at the conference was almost totally eclipsed by the number of technocrats and academics participating. Other events As part of Beirut’s Water Week, members of the Circle of Mediterranean Parliamentarians for Sustainable Development (COMPSUD) separately discussed steps toward promoting application at national levels of the UN-sponsored Mediterranean Strategy for Sustainable Development, adopted recently, including its official recognition by the European Union’s Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP). EMP, which will be meeting in Barcelona on November 29, is expected to adopt an initiative on the de-pollution of the Mediterranean by 2020. The regional Water Week also included the launching in Lebanon of a series of national dialogues on water management in the Mediterranean, within the framework of the European Union’s global Water Initiative (EUWI). MED EUWI, which encompasses 18 countries, is led by Greece, which chairs a multi-stakeholder Working Group. The Lebanon dialogue, which will last for a year, will be continued in two countries of the Middle East and two in North Africa. Events also included the official launch in Lebanon of the Mediterranean Education Initiative for Environment and Sustainability (MEdIES), which aims to promote innovative educational programs and educate teachers on environmental issues in the region. MEdIES, which provides a wealth of useful material for those working in the field of environmental education on its interactive webpage (www.medies.net), is coordinated by MIO-ESCDE in collaboration with GWP-Med. The launching of MEdIES in Lebanon was combined with the official opening of the Water, Energy and Environment Research Center at Beirut’s Notre Dame University, where MIO-ESCDE and GWP-Med Chairman Michael Scoullos was presented by Lebanese President Emil Lahoud with the university’s Annual Award for Excellence. In a separate development on Tuesday, the European Parliament’s Regional Development Committee (REGI) called in an opinion on all member states to urgently implement Directive 2000/60 for the sustainable management of water at both national and cross-border level, and, along with the European Commission, to prepare and coordinate regional plans to take into account the impact of climatic changes on ecosystems and the water cycle. Such plans should include the management of drought conditions and their impact on EU regions and neighboring countries, REGI said.