Magazine article UN Chronicle

Why Water Management Starts at the Local Level

Magazine article UN Chronicle

Why Water Management Starts at the Local Level

Article excerpt

Water is ubiquitous: it is essential for all forms of life and virtually all economic activities. The United Nations has declared that a human right exists for reliable access to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation which, along with other domestic purposes, accounts for about 7 to 10 per cent of all water use. We require water for so much: transportation, municipal and industrial uses (from about 10 to 30 per cent), agricultural (more than 70 per cent), recreational, religious, and more.


Local usually refers to villages and the countryside where rural people live, but since more than 50 per cent of the population is now urbanized, with an additional 200,000 per day packing up and moving to cities, the local level is mostly urban. In some small and medium-sized countries, local will also include the national level--particularly if this is the rule-setting level. Thus, though imprecise, the term often has to do with who is supposed to provide services, and with financing. In most countries, responsibility for water is delegated at the regional or local level; in a few countries, such as Senegal, they try to operate water services on a national basis. Very large countries will have regional, state, or provincial and municipal level regulations and investments.

Supply is an issue at all levels. The local water supply is often a river or groundwater sourced by a river. About seventy of the world's major rivers are already over abstracted; more specifically, economic activities are taking too much water out to permit the river to reach the sea and nourish the ecosystems. Although the poetry of water is wonderful, all water uses require infrastructure which have both initial and maintenance costs. The burden of disease, lack of food, and diminished economic activity can all be traced to deficiencies in water management and water infrastructure.

At all levels, therefore, there are concerns with money and financing, particularly at the local level. Modes of payment can be tariffs, taxes, or transfers if there is an entity to make transfers. Water infrastructure costs money: the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that about $18 billion is needed annually just to meet the new infrastructure needs of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) relating to drinking water and sanitation in the global South, along with a hefty $54 billion to maintain and upgrade the current infrastructure.


Water is local in that how it is managed within a country or region or town will reflect culture, history, religion, geography, geology, soil characteristics, economy, and climatic patterns along with hydrologic realities (rainfall patterns, rivers, lakes, groundwater, and weather events).

The diversity of local cultures and economies makes a profound difference. Water problems, such as droughts, can manifest themselves in similar physical ways around the world yet result in vastly different economic or health impacts: nobody actually starved during the seven-year Australian drought, and the gross domestic product did not fall, yet far too many died last year in Somalia. Drought devastates the GDP in too many countries. The same flood magnitude has different death and disaster implications depending on local preparedness and response. Bangladesh, for instance, has improved its flood response capacity markedly over a decade; the magnitude of flood that once killed tens of thousands now has mortality rates in the hundreds, largely due to capacity building at the local level. The same water pump that functions for years in one situation could only last days in another. The amount of water applied per cotton bush in Central Valley California is dramatically less than in Egypt and around the world. The level of drought preparedness, national response, degree of cooperation, regulatory enforcement, willingness or ability to change, income effects, loss of life and livestock, and impact on political stability differ dramatically from community to community. …

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