Water for Sustainable Development

Spotlight on Water
Secretary-General of the OECD

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.

The task force I set up in 1996 under the joint chairmanship of Stefan Schmidheiny and Jonathan Lash concluded that the OECD was the “key” international organisation in dealing with sustainable development. Why? Because of the interdisciplinary nature of the organisation. Few issues are treated as “discrete” by the OECD because they are all interconnected, and because the OECD is uniquely placed to analyse those economic instruments which could be applied to enhance sustainability, economically, socially and environmentally.

Water is a perfect example. It is one of the four elements that the Brundtland Report of 1989 cited as minimal to sustainability, alongside the preservation of the air we breathe, the soil we till and living beings, that is, biodiversity. Indeed, all living beings are approximately 70% water by weight!

The supply of clean and healthy freshwater is critical to the future of homo sapiens, and indeed to that of the biosphere itself. This is no surprise. Each time our attention turns to space exploration, of Mars for instance, we wonder whether or not water is present, because in its absence, life as we know it is impossible. Technology allows breathable oxygen to be produced from water and even barren soils can be brought to life, as southern California and Israel have demonstrated.

The sessions at the World Water Forum in Japan in March 2003 focus on water and climate; water and pollution; water and cultural diversity; water and energy; agriculture, food and water; water and the environment; water and poverty; and so on. Health is a particularly critical area since so many infectious diseases are waterborne, with staggering consequences for human mortality, especially in the developing world.

How does the OECD fit into all of this? Simple. Economic instruments will be central to the debate on water conservation, whether through appropriate pricing, taxation, trading quotas or whatever. Water will not escape the rigorous OECD analysis of the effects – economic, social and environmental – of any policies to manage this precious resource for the benefit of all humankind. Moreover, managing water is not just about economics, but extending best practices and good governance, themes that are central to the OECD’s work.

However, while in the world of nature, water is the universal solvent, in the world of politics, water is more likely to generate conundrums than solutions. Indeed, some are saying that water will be the challenge of the 21st century in the way oil has been since the 20th. I have no fixed view on that other than to note that freshwater, like oil, has very unequal global distribution. Those who are advantaged by nature with a disproportionate share of freshwater relative to the world’s population may have to rethink, in the context of global equity, some of the national hang-ups about the international trade of water in bulk. After all, is it better that vast quantities of precious freshwater migrate through major waterways into the world’s oceans, or be diverted to a rational and measured degree for the use of people and agriculture? There are no simple answers given the multifaceted social and environmental concerns that such questions raise.

Moreover, sometimes what may seem a benign interference with rivers can have unforeseen effects. Only recently have we begun to understand the full implications of the ponding created by hydroelectric dams on the environment, impacting as these reservoirs do on the climate through greenhouse gas emissions (from submerged vegetation) and eco-systems in general, not to mention the social implications for displaced people.

There are also technological questions to be explored, such as the desalination of ocean waters for human use; countering the effects of soil salinity brought about through persistent irrigation, a necessity in many parts of the world; and even the development through biotechnology of plants tolerant to minimum water supply. Again through its work in science and technology, including the Global Science Forum, the OECD will have a substantial contribution to make in answering such questions and addressing their implications.

This is the UN International Year of Freshwater. But water cannot be treated apart from broader concerns about planetary sustainable development. I sense from what I have so far seen that the expertise of the OECD members will again be central to bringing forward realistic policy options for the benefit of the entire global village, not just for some naturally privileged places.

©OECD Observer No 236, March 2003

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