©REUTERS/Stringer Shanghai

Common sense and dealing with the right people would help unblock badly needed investment in water in developing countries. Mr Briscoe explains. 

If America’s great civil works such as the Hoover Dam, the Grand Coulee Dam or the Tennessee Valley Authority were proposed today, they would most likely remain ink on paper.

On 8 September 1854, London health authorities removed the handle of a water pump located at the juncture of Cambridge and Broad Streets. The well was famous in the city for the sweetness of its water, apparently used as an ingredient in a “celebrated nectar”.

Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderón, leads inauguration of a drinking water plant in 2010 ©Alfredo Guerrero/Notimex/AFP

OECD Observer: You are launching Water Agenda to 2030. What pressures led to these reforms?

In the last edition of the OECD Observer we showed how investing in a gas-based kitchen can save lives. The simple water closet can also be a means to good health and dignity, and a source of economic wellbeing, says a new OECD report, Benefits of Investing in Water and Sanitation.

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Development aid for water supply and sanitation projects has risen in recent years after a decline in the late 1990s. Considering the importance of safe water, perhaps it hasn’t risen far enough. In 2007-08, OECD Development Assistance Committee countries committed on average $5.1 billion in bilateral annual aid to the water supply and sanitation sector, 50% up on 2003-04 in real terms. When combined with aid from multilateral agencies, the total was $6.6 billion. Over the 2003-08 period, bilateral aid to water increased by an annual average of 15%, while multilateral aid rose 3% annually. Still, for DAC countries, aid to the water supply and sanitation sector rose to just 7% of all aid commitments in 2007-08, only slightly up from 6% in 2003-04.

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Although agriculture and industry are the thirstiest of all water consumers, household water use accounts for some 10-30% of total consumption in developed countries. As governments develop strategies to promote water conservation, an OECD survey of households conducted in 2008 offers insight into what really works. Based on some 10,000 responses across 10 countries, the answer is as clear as what comes out of the tap: having to pay for water encourages water-saving behaviour and investment in water-saving appliances, thus reducing consumption.

A salmon would find it a hardscrabble life in the waterways of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Not because of dried riverbeds, overfishing or pollution, but because the region has more dams per cubic metre of water than any other place on earth.

In the current financial crisis, risk-weary investors worry more about keeping their own boats afloat than in pumping money into a sector noted for high upfront costs, long pay back periods and low rates of return.

©Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters

Water, is as essential to human activity as air. When cities or societies neglect water, they face collapse. The discussions and analyses emerging from the current economic crisis focus on what went wrong, how to stop the downward spiral, and how to create a better society in the future. But one thing is missing in all the talk of short-term stimulus packages and developing “green growth” economies and that is water.

A Check-list for Public Action has been developed by the OECD and its partners to assist governments considering engaging with the private sector in the water sector. It is organised around the OECD Principles for Private Sector Participation in Infrastructures–some 24 principles grouped under five points that highlight sector-specific features, government considerations and available tools and practices:

©Reuters/Atef Hassan

Water is a growing challenge for all countries, and a fresh, more coherent approach to tackling it is now needed.

Secretary-General Angel Gurría argues that "advancing on the issue of water will help us move forward on almost all the Millennium Development Goals" (Editorial, in No 256, July 2006). We agree, and would like to draw your attention to the Working for Water programme (WfW) in South Africa.

Click to enlarge. By StiK, especially for the OECD Observer.

The private water sector is larger than many people think, with thousands of businesses working every day, for the most part, to implement government policies. Are those businesses doing enough and how might they do more?

As the ocean covers three quarters of the surface of the earth, little wonder people see it as a possible source of freshwater. That basically means desalinating it to make it at least clean enough for agriculture and even good enough to drink. How does it work? Distillation is the cheap option, responsible for most desalinised water, but a newer filtering process using membranes, called reverse osmosis, now accounts for nearly half the world’s capacity to turn ocean into freshwater.

In Mexico, 80% of the population lives in relatively dry and hot areas and subterranean resources are being slowly exhausted. Access to water is increasingly becoming an issue in some of the most active and industrialised parts of the country. Yet, says the OECD’s 2004 review of regulatory reform in Mexico, rapid demographic growth and industrial development have increased the overall demand for water.

Most public debate about water concerns freshwater. Yet coastal zones are coming under increasing pressure, too. Time for renewed action. 

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Achieving the Millennium Development Goal on water should not only require extension of access, but proper maintenance of existing infrastructure, too. It is a long-term challenge.

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Both consumption and pollution of water by agriculture are becoming serious concerns. Yet, water resources can be used much more efficiently in producing food and fibre, while minimising pollution and supporting ecosystems. How to achieve this depends on mindsets and societal goals, as well as institutional systems and structures. And that means government.

©OECD/Nguyen Tien

This is my last editorial for the OECD Observer before I step down as secretary-general in May 2006. Nevertheless, I will focus on the future, rather than dwell on the past. That is not to say that we should ignore John Maynard Keynes’ advice that we should examine the present, in light of the past, for the purposes of the future. But sometimes the present and the future cannot draw many useful lessons from the past.

Every Thursday at noon the Tribunal de las aguas (water court) meets outside the cathedral in the city of Valencia along Spain’s Mediterranean coast. For more than a thousand years, it is believed, the court has ruled on disputes affecting the irrigation of the arable lands known as huertas, which nourish the lemon trees, the oranges and other crops that give this region its distinctive scents and flavours, and for many, livelihoods as well.

A key Millennium Development Goal agreed at the 2002 Johannesburg summit on sustainable development is to halve the numbers of people in developing countries without access to safe water and basic sanitation.

Putting together a water financing and management strategy requires looking at a range of questions. The most important one is, can we afford it?

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When it comes to water, as with most environmental problems, it is easy to overemphasise the failures.

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Improving access to clean water at all, let alone halving the number of people without access, will not be easy without at least some help from private business. Attracting investment is only part of the challenge. 

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Civilisation was born with water. Water is indeed the basis of life. Yet mankind has not been wise enough to live with water. Time has come to act, and that is why Japan will be hosting the 3rd World Water Forum and an International Ministerial Conference in the Kyoto region, cradle of Japanese civilization since more than 2,000 years ago.

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Water pricing is becoming more widespread, with the dual aim of expanding supply and encouraging more responsible use.

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Water aid is an important part of official development assistance, but it has declined. Moreover, the way it is disbursed and targeted leaves room for improvement. 

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To most people, water is a public good, like air. Yet in practice, its proper management and distribution raise inherent challenges of allocation, which is where economic principles can help. Supplying water costs money. Moreover, though a renewable resource, it is fragile and can be spoiled.

Cover No 236, March 2003

The OECD might not be thought of as playing a role in water supply and management, but in fact it has a leading role, as it does in all areas of sustainable development.

Economic data

GDP growth: +0.6% Q4 2017 year-on-year
Consumer price inflation: 2.8% June 2018 annual
Trade: +2.7% exp, +3.0% imp, Q4 2017
Unemployment: 5.2% May 2018
Last update: 02 Aug 2018

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