On World Water Day, is it all about cooperation or who can make the biggest splash?

Agriculture, Food & livelihoods, Food security, Water

The UN named 2013 the year of water cooperation, but is it just an ideal or is it a reality?

Today is World Water Day and the theme this year is ‘cooperation’. The word sounds fluffy and positive enough; a concept everyone can sign up to, but is it the reality for most people?  Cooperation between different water users is essential for ensuring sustainable access to water supply, but it’s incredibly hard to achieve, especially in countries where governance is weak and there are multiple demands on water resources.  If well managed, water can accelerate poverty reduction and economic growth.  If not, the cost to economies, businesses and
communities can be great. 

Having access to freshwater underpins the livelihoods of people living in some of the poorest countries where Oxfam works. Not only does water for drinking and hygiene purposes keep people healthy, it also enables them to irrigate their crops, feed themselves, make bricks, care for animals, produce food and run other small enterprises. Improving access to water has a huge impact on women and girls, who are most often responsible for fetching the water for household use and who may walk up to several hours to do so.

Unfortunately, like many other assets, water is not fairly shared.  One of the most striking images I have seen is of the Royal Nairobi Golf course in Kenya’s capital, lush and green alongside the dusty reality of Kibera slum.  The image gives you another perspective on water scarcity. Lack of access to water, sanitation and hygiene – and the associated disease burden – disproportionately affects the
poorest populations, with the majority of deaths occurring among children.

In an urban slum like Kibera, a family uses on average between five and 10 litres of water per day. A middle- or high-income household in the same city would use between 50 and 150 litres per day and may pay less per cubic metre.

The situation is even worse in rural areas in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where poverty is widespread and people are disconnected from political and economic power.  The UN Joint Monitoring Programme report for 2012 showed that 160 million people worldwide get their drinking water from surface water, which is  typically unsafe.  A shocking 94% of these are rural dwellers.Cooperation suggests fair sharing of resources.  This is at the heart of Oxfam’s community-based water resource management programme in Niger
where communities in drought-prone areas cooperate alongside local government and Oxfam to understand water availability and use and how to manage threats collectively in dry periods.  Collective action may work at the community level (in some cases!) but in a world where demand for freshwater from more powerful interests is growing, cooperation breaks down and there is a risk that poor communities lose out. 

In Java, for example, population growth, rapid economic development, extensive land use and the continuous expansion of extractive industries have put overwhelming pressure on water resources. Although the right to water was incorporated in the Indonesian Constitution as far back as 1945, its implementation has been piecemeal.

In Banten, the province in the western most part of Java, Aqua Danone, a French-Indonesian bottled water company had set its sights on the ground water basin of Rawadano as the location for a bottled water plant.  The basin is situated in the Padarincang sub-district, known for the quality of natural spring water. The area is covered by paddy fields on which small-scale farmers depend for their livelihoods.

In 2008, the company began exploration with permission from Banten provincial government. Based on calculations, the amount of water to be extracted by Aqua-Danone would reach 63 litres/second, equivalent to 5,443,200 litres of water per day, generating profits in excess of 1.8 million USD each day. But the local people were set to lose more than 6,000 hectares of paddy field, enough production to sustain 250,000 people year on year.

The people’s movement against Aqua Danone in Padarincang began in 2008, effective and well-concerted mobilization started in 2010. The communities, with assistance from Oxfam’s partner organisation, KRUHA, organized various actions against the plant’s construction, including weekly discussions and awareness raising activities. 

One of the most prominent activities against the Aqua-Danone construction plans was the people’s protest rally around the Aqua Danone plant, which took place on December 5, 2010. This rally was attended by thousands of local residents. The lack of response from government and the beginnings of construction on the plant led to a deep sense of injustice amongst citizens and broke out into various forms of civil disobedience and unrest. In February 2011, Aqua Danone withdrew its plans to establish a water plant in the Padarincang district. 

In this case, ordinary citizens acted together to protect their right to water and to a livelihood, but many rural communities do not have this collective voice or influence.  In these situations, cooperation may be a fine principle, but in reality it’s often about hard political choices and who can shout the loudest.

Author: Laura Hucks
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.