What Can the United Nations Do to Preserve and Promote Freshwater Resources? (Opinion)

By Barraque, Bernard | UN Chronicle, March-May 2003 | Go to article overview
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What Can the United Nations Do to Preserve and Promote Freshwater Resources? (Opinion)


Barraque, Bernard, UN Chronicle


Having studied in a comparative and historic manner the water policies of States members of the European Union, I'm not fully qualified to give any clear-cut answer to such a vast question. However, I think that the European experience has been overlooked in the debate on water and globalization. To summarize, water resources issues seem to be easier tackled in the old continent than, for instance, in western United States because we have never let water become a commodity to own, be it by private owners or Governments. Allocation of water resources is based on usage principles, increasingly done by communities under the guardianship of Governments. This increases flexibility in allocation rules and helps abandon former policies based on supply side and large hydraulic projects. But in southern Europe as in many developing countries, the biggest threat on freshwater is uncontrolled irrigation and intensive agriculture. Therefore, the United Nations should promote both a generalization of the concept of reason able and equitable use of water in a subsidiary manner and a world policy to reorganize food exchanges, rather than water transfers, in favour of deprived areas and poor populations.

In the public debate on water and globalization, there tends to be a confusion between water as a resource and water services. While the latter can eventually be privatized like in the United Kingdom, legal systems worldwide, except maybe in Chile, are at odds with the idea that water could be private goods. In Europe in particular, the general adoption of integrated water management corresponds to questioning the private status of all bodies of water, including groundwater in Latin American countries. A new "environmental" paradigm replaces the confrontation between public and private, which structured water management in the nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries (particularly in positive law and the civil code): it confronts water as a public domain (owned by the State), to water as a common property (in French, patrimoine commun) to be shared by its users. Both river basin approaches and the promotion of public participation supplement traditional allocation by government regulations with communit y-based approaches and economic incentives. Common property approaches are not very well known to lawyers and economists because they were associated with undemocratic and inequitable water-resources sharing prior to the development of modern nation-States and democracy, and have been replaced by liberal approaches.

In the twentieth century, an increasing number of water uses provoked competition over water and gave the opportunity for the welfare State to develop unprecedented hydraulic projects, structural measures and supply-sided policies. It was particularly the case with dictatorships in Mediterranean countries. More recently, these policies have been criticized for their inefficiency, particularly in the United States, under the comeback of liberalism on top of environmental critique. Symmetrically, water services provision that had been initiated by private entrepreneurs was generalized through direct municipal involvement, supported by government subsidies. However, the crisis met by public procurement in the long-term maintenance and renewal of infrastructure allowed for a comeback of privatization. In Europe, apart from the extreme case of Great Britain, infrastructure has remained the ownership of local or supra-local authorities, which have invented a wide range of public-private partnerships to facilitate l ong-term reproduction of the enormous capital of water services. Mixed economy for services and common property for resources characterize the pragmatic European evolution in the last thirty years.

In Europe, it is largely the issue of water quality that led to new institutions for water resources management. Because it remains very difficult to model riverine ecosystems or aquifers to determine the responsibilities of each of the actors in the degraded State, it became crucial to bring them together to come to terms with better allocation and pollution control efforts.

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