Managing water

Spotlight on Water
OECD Observer

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

To be sure, in the OECD area, there is much room for improvement, from tightening up on human health aspects and pollution to reviewing farming and industrial subsidies. But there are also several successes that are worth learning from.

Take for instance the reduction of water pollution. Many OECD countries have cleaned up the most conspicuous water pollution that caused widespread public concern in the 1970s. Major organisational and financial efforts over several decades were needed to construct infrastructure capable of treating the many thousands of municipal and industrial point discharges. Industrial discharges of heavy metals and persistent chemicals have been significantly reduced as a result. However, because effluent is being treated to progressively higher standards, the marginal clean-up costs per unit of pollution have risen.

Another encouraging success is that water is used more efficiently than in the past. In the OECD, total industry and energy-related use has fallen by 12% in the past two decades, thanks partly to water recycling and re-use. Higher industrial water charges have been somewhat responsible for this trend, as have stricter ambient water quality standards. Some OECD countries have also experienced declines in average water use at the household level, most likely reflecting the wider adoption of volume-based water charges that encourage conservation.

Despite all the progress, few OECD countries can yet claim to meet the baseline quality standard for all inland waters. While dissolved oxygen content in larger rivers is satisfactory during most of the year and bacterial contamination has been reduced, other water quality parameters fare less well. Nitrate concentrations, for instance, appear to have stabilised in some watersheds, but definitely not in all.

Where successes have occurred, they are largely due to integrated water management. Many OECD countries have recently undertaken extensive reviews of their water laws and policies, and are well into the process of reforming the institutions that deliver these policy goals. For example, management trends have been shifting away from national approaches to water management and towards “place-based” approaches that put more emphasis on the biological quality of receiving waters (including entire basins), as well as setting objectives for their use at particular locations. Some OECD countries have also had good experience with “river contracts”, in which central and local governments, the private sector, and NGOs committing to clean up part or all of a particular river by a target date. Some countries also have long experience with river basin agencies, several are now creating them, and others are considering them – all of which is improving integration between existing institutional arrangements.

Countries are starting to recognise the benefits of managing water resources using a “whole-basin” or “river-basin” approach that allows managers to balance water withdrawals and control water-polluting activities across the full basin, ensuring that upstream uses are consistent with downstream water quantity and quality requirements. Ecosystem approaches to water management are also expanding. And there are many bilateral, regional, and multilateral agreements in place to manage water bodies that cross borders, though these are often in need of better implementation.

©OECD Observer No 236, March 2003

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