Options for the
Water covers close to
three-quarters of the Earth's surface, but only a fraction of it is fresh water
not locked in ice. South America accounts for about half of our planet's fresh
water supply. Asia gets almost one-quarter. The remaining quarter is used by
everyone living in North and Central America, Europe, Australia, Africa, and the
Most of the water we use
goes to growing food: irrigation siphons off roughly two-thirds of all we
consume. Industrial and other economic activities draw less than a third. Common
household uses, most of which are low quality, such as watering lawns and
flushing toilets, account for what is left. Men and women use water differently:
men tend to use water for irrigation and other enterprises; women tend to use it
for household purposes.
Water is often distributed
inequitably by class, gender, and even ethnic group. To make matters worse, the
poor generally pay more for water than do the rich.
All the best and cheapest
sources of water are now being used. In some regions, we are approaching the
limits: in the Middle East, 58% of all reasonably available fresh water is
already being withdrawn. In Eastern Europe, the figure stands at 41%.
Other strategies to increase
water supply, such as desalinating seawater or shipping large volumes by
pipeline or sea, are technically feasible, but they are complicated and
expensive and would likely entail severe ecological and political costs.
For more and more people,
water quality is every bit as threatening as the lack of adequate supplies.
Already more than 1 billion people do not have access to safe drinking water and
3 billion lack access to basic sewerage systems.
The cheapest, most efficient
way to increase the supply of fresh water is by managing its demand: reducing
waste and making every drop serve more purposes, more
Past approaches that
favoured large-scale, capital intensive projects did deliver water to many
households and many farms, but most fell short of their original promise.
Thirty years of applied
research supported by Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC)
offers a new focus for global efforts to curb water demand and alleviate
poverty: community-based or local water management.
Experience around the world
shows the following:
Scarce water supplies are
used more sustainably if they are managed locally.
Local management empowers
people, particularly the poor and disadvantaged.
Local management generally
looks to more traditional rather than new solutions.
Local water systems must be
managed within frameworks linked to watershed management and to senior levels of
Local management works best
when policymakers can draw upon the lessons of field research when making
Approaches to local water
management that have proven effective
Small-scale water supply,
such as rainwater collection;
Wastewater treatment and
reuse, to improve sanitation and provide water suitable for
quality testing, to allow isolated rural communities to monitor their drinking
Watershed management and
irrigation, to improve soil productivity and reduce the considerable waste from
Expect the worse when
managing groundwater and aquifer supplies. Pumping rates and pollution levels,
for example, are almost always grossly underestimated.
Humble innovations can
produce surprisingly powerful benefits. Yet, decision-makers frequently overlook
small groups and simple solutions.
Social and economic factors
are always important in local water management. To ensure the success of local
water management programs, researchers and policymakers must understand these
Scarcity forces trade-offs.
To determine fairly who gets what, when, and for how much requires the ability
to gather and assess information, to deliberate, to execute policies, and to
answer responsibly to community members. Building this "institutional capacity"
is necessary for local water management and for other sustainable resource
Traditional practices will
change only when people see the value in change. Local people must be convinced
of the need for change. Solutions that are socially and culturally acceptable,
and that fit well with local tradition, must then be developed.
Scaling-up from households
to villages or to neighbourhoods favours the well-to-do because it requires
capital or large tracts of land. Failure to account for these unequal effects
can make a difficult situation worse for the poor and
Source: International Development Research Center (IDRC), Canada.