Torrents of mud and boulders flattened villages in El Salvador recently, leaving over 100 people dead and thousands homeless. From all indications, climate change will be most acutely felt in an escalating frequency and ferocity of floods and droughts. It’s chilling to think that we ought to expect much more of this kind of devastation in the coming years.
I was in El Salvador to meet with government officials and non-governmental representatives to mull policies to manage water as a commons — ensuring that future generations (humans, plants, and animals) will receive their fair share of water through sensible, sustainable management. Earlier this year, Mauricio Funes of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) — the left political party that emerged from El Salvador’s civil war — took office. Expectations are high that he will correct centuries of policies of plunder that have impoverished El Salvador’s hillsides and El Salvador’s poor.
We discussed a lot of possibilities, but not how to stop a lethal wall of mud. That’s not a job one can do alone. Might any support be forthcoming from the upcoming climate discussions in Copenhagen?
Although the outcome of those deliberations is far from certain, best case scenarios would cap emissions and establish payment mechanisms for poor countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Those small but critical global steps mean that the onus for managing water in a time of global warming falls squarely back on the Salvadorans. What measures can the Funes administration and similar developing nations take immediately?
Think watersheds. Mudslides are aggravated by the inability of the soil to absorb water all along the watershed. Never has it been clearer how interconnected we are upstream and down. The implications of caring for a watershed holistically and as a commons are, however, quite daunting. El Salvador’s 262 municipalities share dozens of watersheds including some with Guatemala and Honduras. A comprehensive management plan that brings together often squabbling ministries and municipalities won’t be easy to forge and implement. But it is essential.
A happy slope will likely stay put. Managing water as a common means giving consideration to all the plants and animals that live from the water supply. This isn’t a matter of generosity of spirit, but pragmatic ecology. If the slope is managed to retain its vegetative cover and keep its soil intact, there will be less mud. It may sound obvious but is not frequently practiced: Water agencies must work side by side with environmental agencies which must work together with municipal governments towards environmental improvements.
Seek the cheapest solution first — public participation. When it comes to financing water infrastructure, whether flood control or potable water pipes, policymakers get nervous about the numbers. It’s certainly true that this work can be very expensive. However, in places like Tamil Nadu, India, facilitating planning between water users and water engineers has resulted in low-cost solutions that build on communities’ expertise and labor. Of course these new public spaces — watershed councils for example — carry their own challenges. Are they legally recognized bodies with decision-making authority? Is the water public? If it’s private, communities may have little influence over shareholders’ plans. By inviting citizen stewardship of a public resource, President Funes has the chance to show communities that they have real say-so about how to manage their natural resources.
Join a worldwide call for a high-level U.N. sponsored summit on water. Upcoming climate change discussions will focus on emissions reduction. They should. They must. But the planet also needs a debate at the highest level about how to manage our shared water commons — the realm in which climate change will hit hardest. Mirroring the creeping trend towards water privatization, the private World Water Council has taken to convening recent World Water Forums. However, the Council’s many directors working for for-profit water companies undermine the World Water Forum’s legitimacy. Countries can come together in Copenhagen to ask the U.N. to convene a non-partisan global water forum as a follow up to the climate debate.
The good news is that we are getting smarter. We have to. Needing to effectively face disasters like the Salvadoran mudslide don’t give us a whole lot of choice. Opportunities to act smarter are also on the rise. Progressive governments like El Salvador’s and Bolivia’s are willing to rethink water policy and institutional arrangements. They offer an extraordinary real-time laboratory to get water commons management right.
Rain clouds gathering on the horizon, fanned by climate change, hurry this work along. There is no more urgent time than now to encourage the flourishing of progressive water management experiments.