Water is scarce, now what?

First published in the print edition of the Underground, available here: http://www.theunderground.nl/water-is-scarce-now-what/

Let’s talk about water. Chances are you don’t think about it a lot, and why would you? You open the tap and voilá, you can effortlessly get as much water as you like. For many people in the world, however, this is not the case. The UN estimates that 1 in 6 people in the world struggle to obtain enough water for bare necessities on a daily basis, and the growing political, economic and ecological instability across the globe threatens the water supply for millions of people. Similarly, while water scarcity has long been considered a problem of the lesserdeveloped countries, the recent droughts in California have caused many in the developed world to reconsider the value of their seemingly secure access to water. The Hague, as the City of Peace and Justice, with its vast amount of international organisations and institutions, is at the forefront of the global initiative to fight for the human right of safe access to water.


Perhaps the most notable development in the region in recent years is the formation of the Water Diplomacy Consortium (WDC) by a variety of institutions, including The Hague Institute for Global Justice. This forum aspires both to contribute to conflict prevention and conflict resolution in relation to water management across and within national borders and to become a knowledge hub for water diplomacy, governance, and law.

However, the Consortium, just like other organisations and governments, faces one fundamental problem when it comes to the latter: the economical paradox of water. Water is a resource of undeniably high value in our lives, yet still it is usually sold at prices that in no way reflect this value. This leads to the conundrum of defining water as a human right. Water is of exceptional significance to every individual, inferring that it should be universally accessible. Universal access, many might argue, can only be achieved by making water available for very low prices, if not for free. Policymakers therefore face seemingly unanswerable questions as water becomes scarce around the world: how can you make clean water universally accessible while at the same time increasing conservation efforts? How do you price a commodity of existential importance to humanity while at the same time reducing excess usage of this commodity?

One of the economists who try to tackle these problems is David Zetland, Assistant Professor of Governance, Economics and Development at Leiden University College in The Hague. In his books ‘The End of Abundance’ and ‘Living with Water Scarcity’, Zetland argues that current water management systems understand water as a good of sheer endless supply, an attitude that in no way reflects the reality of water being an increasingly scarcer resource. “It’s easy to see why mobile phone use is far outpacing access to water and sanitation” Zetland writes, regarding the extraordinary fact that approximately 600 million less people lack access to mobile phones than safe sanitation. The main difference between both businesses is, according to him, that the market for mobile phones is driven by a demand pull, where customers can actively trigger an increase in the supply of mobile phones, even in the remotest areas. The monopolistic industry of water, on the other hand, has hardly any competition or penalty for failure. Thus, the industry as a whole lacks a sustainable business model that would allow it to react sufficiently and timely to environmental pressures and water scarcity.

However, many people oppose privatisation of water ideologically and see a global alternative in the remunicipalisation of water systems. A key component of this remunicipalisation are public-to-public partnerships, where well-resourced municipalities that have experience in water management provide technical and financial support to less developed cities. This way the inherent weaknesses of public institutions in regards to efficiency, finance and managerial capabilities can be diminished. The city of Amsterdam, for example, is part of such public-to-public partnerships, through which the Dutch capital provides, among other things, technical expertise to cities in Morocco, Indonesia and South Africa. The motivation behind these partnerships is solidarity, rather than profit, a characteristic that appeals to many from an ideological perspective.

Regardless of where you stand on the privatisation vs remunicipalisation debate, it is evident that water management systems all over the world have long facilitated an excessive, unsustainable use of a resource that we only seem to value when it runs scarce. We no longer live, to paraphrase David Zetland, in the era of abundance. The debate should not be whether private or public is the way to go. It is much rather time for both structures to develop methods to finally regard water as the scarce resource it is, and not as the abundant good it was. The city of The Hague and its institutions now have the responsibility to come up with sustainable solutions that reinforce the human right to water.