One man gathers rain to recharge groundwater reserves and another pushes salt water through a desalination plant for subsequent sale. Are these both viable solutions to the world’s water crisis?

With the impacts of climate change, water waste, contamination and mismanagement driving us ever closer to the edge of a cliff, ensuring clean and plentiful water to both people and nature becomes tougher and more urgent each day.

A seemingly broad variety of water management strategies was on display at the recent 5th World Water Forum (WWF), confusing participants with repackaged policy prescriptions and technological bells and whistles. Helping people sift the wheat from the chaff were discussions of how to manage water as a commons. A concise set of principles offered a hopeful roadmap forward.

The forum was a mostly a civil affair, with the notable exception of riot police beating and arresting 25 Turks protesting peacefully for public water and against its privatization. The World Water Forum is convened by the World Water Council, a private, French non-profit whose board of governors tilts towards water privateers.

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It’s a tri-annual gathering of government delegations, non- governmental organizations, international financial institutions, and private industry representatives. This year’s forum featured an advocacy effort by 16 governments to move the forum to the U.N., presumably a more accountable institution. The well-subscribed conference – over 30,000 people in attendance – seemed to demonstrate not only that the water crisis is a shared concern, but also, perhaps, the amount of money that can be made trading this precious fluid.

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Ragendra Singh, known as the rain gatherer, travelled across Asia to Istanbul to address the forum. Working in arid Rajastan, India, Singh has revived the ecology of the Arwari river.  After twenty years of building small earthen dams called johads and a movement called Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS), flow has returned to the once dry river, providing sustenance to thousands of families.

At a WWF trade booth, a representative of a Spanish desalination company projected powerpoint slides of barges docked off of coastal cities, sucking in sea water and spitting out drinking water (and brine and emissions). Over 60,000,000 people worldwide drink desalinated water.

The two faces of water technology couldn’t have been more dissimilar – and more caricatured. Ragendra Singh wore a long white kurta. He spoke of water with a mystical air, a grin spreading beneath his ragged beard. The balding desalination representative wore a grey suit, his lips pursed in grim determination to sell his technology.

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Both men claim to fulfill a critical need in getting water to those who need it – in Ragendra’s case, beneficiaries include plants and animals. Is there a way for the average person, simply looking to get water to the thirsty, to evaluate if these two strategies are complementary or contradictory?

As a society, we can perhaps agree – although I may be overly optimistic here – that in its broadest conception, water is a commons, a public good to be shared by all and passed on undiminished in quality and quantity to future generations.

In a session on this topic entitled, “Water Commons: Global Experiences in Progressive Water Management”,  Maude Barlow, Senior Advisor on Water to the President of the UN General Assembly, suggested ten principles to manage water for the common good. The principles seem a useful measuring stick against which strategies of water management can be assessed. Does the strategy do the following?

1) Affirm water as a commons, that is, it belongs to everyone and no one, passed onto future generations in sufficient volume and quality;
2) Ensure the earth and all of its ecosystems rights to water for their survival – indeed it is on those ecosystems that human life depends;
3) Conserve water as society’s first course of action (enforced by law), including suggesting drastic changes to industrial and agricultural practices;
4) Treat watersheds – the source of water – as a common as well and not simply the water itself;
5) Encourage local, community management while legally binding communities to respect upstream and downstream neighbors’ rights;
6) Forge or affirm trans-boundary agreements that respect water sovereignty for both communities and nations;
7) Provide water as a basic principle of justice, not as an act of charity;
8) Ensure public delivery and fair pricing of water;
9) Promote enshrining the right to water in nation-state constitutions, laws and a UN covenant;
10) Employ innovative legal tools to protect water and manage water as a commons, including through public and community trusts.

International panelists presenting alongside Ms. Barlow, all participants in the Peoples Water Forum, a pro-public water gathering of international activists, described how these principles are applied in their communities. 

Oscar Olivera spoke of Cochabamba, Bolivia’s post-Bechtel experiments with community-managed water utilities to deliver quality water at fair prices. Adriana Marquisio, president of Uruguay’s water workers union, proposed a “new public” in which the public utility for which she works measures efficiency not just in terms of liters per second but via public oversight of how water fees and system improvements are spent, public health indicators, partnerships with communities and ecological health of groundwater reserves. New learning occurs through relationships with sister utilities called public-public partnerships.

V. Suresh of the Centre for Law, Policy and Human Rights Studies in Chennai, India, described training programs for water engineers and local governments to work more effectively with the communities they serve. His colleague, Vibhu Maher, manager of Tamil Nadu’s water supply, offered insight into alternative pricing schemes that are not based on “full cost recovery” – a mantra of the World Water Forum to saddle users with all system costs – but progressive cross subsidization, much in the way public schools are financed. Wenonah Hauter of Food and Water Watch narrated the failures of water privatization in the U.S. and Mr. Singh himself described how water governance can be organized around natural hydrological contours.

What do these water commons cases and principles reveal about how to think about desalination and rain water gathering?

Rain water gathering for aquifer recharge seems to fit well within the commons paradigm, although begs for measures to avoid monopolization or commodification of harvested water. A persistent challenge is scaling up this kind of ecological recovery to densely populated urban areas and delivering the water efficiently.

Desalination clearly has a number of hurdles to cross. Who owns the water that comes out of the desalination plant, who receives it and at what cost? What are the impacts on ocean ecology? Does the technique – which presents oceans as a limitless water supply -offer any incentive for conservation? These hurdles may not be insurmountable, but water advocates ought to insist that concerns be answered.

Managing water as a commons requires trial and error experimentation. Some of these local experiments are featured in a new publication launched at the forum, entitled “Local Control and Management of Our Water Commons: Stories of Rising to the Challenge.” With principles in hand, the creative work of building just and sustainable water management systems becomes just a bit easier.