World Water Week opening: sharing water in the Anthropocene

Written by Joyeeta Gupta, on 31 August 2022

Joyeeta Gupta, IHE Delft Professor of Law and Policy in Water Resources and Environment and University of Amsterdam Professor of Environment and Development in the Global South, delivered a keynote address at the opening of World Water Week. The text below is a condensed version of her remarks.

“I am talking about sharing water in the Anthropocene. My first message is that the past rules constrain or shape the way we govern, and may affect the reallocation of water that is needed. This reallocation is needed because of the Anthropocene, which leads to a greater acceleration in the use of resources, and to greater inequalities between people. We need to address all these things when we talk about water.

My key message today: We are going to face water shortage worldwide. Of the four key responses to water shortage, most focus on dividing water, but one approach has potential for sharing water – this is my message: we need to think about how we are going to get solidarity on board.  

We are going to face water shortage worldwide and we need to think about how we are going to get solidarity on board.
Joyeeta Gupta
Professor of Law and Policy in Water Resources and Environment

Although water was governed very different given different contexts worldwide, through history, the spread of civilizations and religions, conquests, colonization, the spread of ideologies, the spread of knowledge from epistemic communities led to converging water policies.

Property rights

On example is property rights.  When we look at for example, countries in the Global South, and  how they have been influenced by colonial-era laws, we find that if you own a piece of land in these countries, you own the water underneath it - the groundwater. And this is into perpetuity. This basically means that if governments want to reallocate water, they have to compensate the landowners, which is very expensive, and very often unaffordable. If they don’t compensate the landowners and expropriate the water, then of course this leads to court cases – it cannot really be done under the rule of law. There’s a real problem over here.

Such property rights issues are not only affecting the developing world but also some industrialized countries. In addition, we have been trying to convince developing countries to use systems like permits, concessions, public-private partnerships as well as state investor contracts. Even though these instruments did not intend to create property rights, de-facto they do: they create quasi-property rights. We have looked at 80 contracts with developing countries on issues related to water and it is quite frightening: we are making it much more difficult for the government to take back the water if it wants to reallocate, assuming the government is well-meaning.

But why are property rights important? They are important because we have water scarcity. At the same time of course, there’s massive demand for water, for increasing our global GDP or our national GDP; population growth plays a small role, relatively speaking. Basically, what we are finding is that demand is greater than supply. When supply is more than demand, the price is generally low, and states may talk about sovereignty, but they don’t really push the issue. The moment supply becomes equal to demand, states want absolute territorial sovereignty, or absolute integrity of state territory. They focus on their national rights, and the price of water  goes up.

We have now reached a situation that we have closed basins in many parts of the world where demand is far in excess of supply. Countries insist on going back to full permanent sovereignty over natural resources as they have done in the 2030 Agenda. They really don’t want to share any more. And water moves from low economic returns projects, such as a glass of drinking water, to high returns projects, like a golf course where you can make lots of profits. At this point in time, the price of water is becoming much higher. We need to move toward a world in which we reopen basins worldwide and make enough water available for nature – but this means that price of water might go right through the roof and become completely unaffordable for more than half of the world’s population which lives on less than USD 5.50 per day.

Sharing and solidarity mode

We need to move to a sharing and solidarity mode.

When you have shortage, there are essentially four types of governance discourses.

The first discourse is your neoliberal capitalist discourse: price water, use markets, and privatize the resources. This is done through confidential contracts and when those contracts fail, then there are confidential arbitration proceedings. This is really quite worrying.

Another option is hegemonic power, where states say: ‘we are not going to share water with our neighbouring states’. We then move back to absolute territorial sovereignty or full permanent sovereignty, as I mentioned before. States also ‘securitize’ water, where water becomes a very political issue because of its existential risks to the state. Then they don’t want to share water or even water data with each other.

And then you have polycentric systems, which say: ‘Okay, there are multiple actors, multiple approaches. Let’s go for self-management and experimentation.’ This is fine, except that it doesn’t really address the issue of access to water and allocation or reallocation of water.

My point is that we need to move to a world where there are more rules, more constitutionalism, more focus on how we share water with people and how we limit the role of the market with respect to water. So why am I so critical of the market? It’s not because I don’t like the market, it’s simply because when natural resources, and especially water, are scarce, the price goes up. Water starts to move from low-returns issues to high returns issues – as I mentioned earlier, from drinking water to the golf course. This makes it unaffordable to the poor. Price recovery in water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) schemes becomes increasingly difficult to achieve, particularly proper sanitation schemes with sewerage systems. This also prevents the poor from accessing water for their small-scale businesses, which is a major problem also for governments, if they want to subsidize these businesses. It also makes it more expensive for those who want to subsidize such access.

Global constitutionalism

What I am arguing for is that we need to try to develop some kind of universal constitutionalism which provides rules about how we relate to natural resources, each other within countries and between countries. I can imagine that within this larger space of rules, we allow for some kind of market - but nothing on water should be confidential; we allow for some kind of hegemony  - it is impossible to regulate resource sharing without states – but we need to try to avoid securitization. We need to move away from full permanent sovereignty, and allow for multiple actors, multiple approaches and self-management experimentation. But this all should be within a sort of global constitutionalism.

In my world water vision, we reserve a lot of water for nature, which is a critical part of the story. Once you do that, then the question is how you share between countries and how do you share within countries. But the problem facing a sharing narrative is the issue of  property rights, either because of land being associated with water, or because of permits, concessions and contracts creating quasi property rights; these can undermine the whole solidarity story and the sharing story gets nullified.”

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