ADB’s flawed water programme promotes scarcity

As the annual meet of the board of governors of Asian Development Bank gets under way near Delhi, a critique of the bank’s approach to water resources management and what it needs to do

By delete-314
Published: Thursday 02 May 2013

-- (Credit: SURYA SEN)

Asia, which can currently be termed as the economic driver of the world, is faced with acute water crisis.  Home to almost three-fifth of the world’s population, the continent’s per capita freshwater availability is the lowest among all continents of the world. In fact, at less than 4,000 cubic metre per year, it is less than half of the global average. It is expected that by 2050 half of the world’s newly added population will be from Asia. This is significant and will spell disaster for the already stressed water resources of the continent. Keeping the global trend of increased water scarcity in mind, which projects that more than two-third of the global population would be in water stressed conditions in just about 13 years, it can well be gauged that Asia is going to be the worst hit. 

Asia now typically symbolizes the new economic growth model that involves extracting minerals, cutting forests, producing energy and other products for the entire world at an irrecoverable pace. All these activities are guzzling water to such an extent that experts believe water is gone beyond a political issue to become a security challenge. What adds to the woes is the fact that needs of industries and the ever-burgeoning urbanization in Asia are going to surpass water irrigation needs very soon. This in a region whose water efficiency, productivity and recharging rates are among lowest in the world. The scarcity stares at the region’s face and it is clearly surviving on water borrowed from its future generations. 

IWRM v holistic approach
Among the standard prescriptions by water resource managers and experts, Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) is the most sought after for holistic management of river basins. Asian Development Bank (ADB), that plays a major role in Asia’s development, strongly believes in this. However, when it comes to ADB and other such international financial institutions, we have serious doubts about this concept of water management. The very fact that they treat water merely as an “economic good” and propagate the same to influence policy decisions of the nations they lend money, contradicts the “holistic” concept of water, which is ecological and not economic.

ADB has adopted IWRM in its “Water for All” policy as an approach towards river basin management. It recognises the fact that national water resources need to be planned in a holistic manner as against the current models of sporadic management and to cater to growing conflicts among user groups. IWRM seeks to reconcile a country’s demand for water resources with the limitations of what those water resources can accommodate. A body of water can only withstand so much extraction and pollution by competing user groups with ever-growing needs (such as factories versus agriculture, or upstream communities versus downstream communities).

ADB’s IWRM approach has five key principles (propagated by GWP)—1) efficient water use; 2) equitable access; 3) balance between competing uses; 4) use of appropriate environmentally sound technology; and 5) collaboration between various government agencies and representatives of all stakeholder groups.  Defining the IWRM approach between two – natural and human – the ADB recognises the fact that each country must chart its own IWRM plans, depending on its country-specific issues such as its geography, size, political system, and level of development. ADB does not suggest, at least in its papers, any fixed blueprint for all countries but maintains that each country should follow the five key principles. 

People in the countries where ADB is supporting IWRM have problems with this. More so because in many places people don’t want ADB’s role in “knowledge support” in basic premises of water management. The objections have come mostly because ADB has been pushing for river basin organizations that fall prey to the typical water bureaucracy, making the people (primary dependants on water), riparian communities and other species that depend on rivers.  What has also come to be criticized vehemently is the pressure to privatise water resources. ADB’s water policies promote water as an “economic good” and hence all its approaches, including IWRM, operate under that broad framework.  Most critics believe that with small investments, the banks have been able to dictate water policies in developing countries. These institutions have successfully infused the idea of privatising water resources in the name of IWRM.

ADB, as its papers point out, has a three point recommendation for basin management to start—to establish river basin organizations that practice stakeholder participation; improve coordination systems between national and local authorities for planning, information gathering, monitoring, and advisory services; and prepare and maintain basin plans that reflect trends in water demands and uses, and record the approved planning standards.

ADB has mainstreamed IWRM principles into water projects in several countries in South and Southeast Asia and on a region-wide scale in Central Asia. One goal of ADB’s Water Financing Program 2006–2010 is to introduce IWRM in 25 river basins across Asia. Towards this end, ADB has developed and is now using several IWRM elements and a generic roadmap that could help practitioners design projects and introduce IWRM in their respective river basins. ADB also continues to support a capacity-building organisation it helped start—the Network of Asian River Basin Organizations, which helps governments and river basin organisations increase their knowledge and implement IWRM principles.

Interference in sovereign matters

In its Water Operation Plan 2012-2020, ADB has intended to intensify IWRM processes in member countries and calls for further evolution of water governance frameworks in each country, supported by legislation, and with local implementation facilitated by river basin organisations. This speaks how ADB is encroaching upon the domain of “policy formulation” by sovereign states. 

In Indonesia, ADB is supporting the Integrated Citarum Water Resources Management Investment Program. Under this project, the ADB and the government are implementing IWRM in river basins, especially in west Java. There are at least six rivers in western Java that will be under IWRM. Millions of people, especially those who live in Jakarta, are dependent on this river for their needs in agriculture and industry, and for their supply of clean water. However the degree of information on the project is very minimal in the beginning. Those dependent on the river were never consulted by either the project proponent or government officials. However, two private water operators in Jakarta—Palyja and Aetra—have been roped in for water use from the rivers, but not for distribution.  Lack of transparency in this project, according to several CSOs representing communities, including farmers and fisher folk, indicates that the industry will get a major share of the water, alienating its prior users such as farmers.

Earlier as well, IWRM has not been implemented properly in the case of Khulna Jessore Drainage Rehabilitation Project in Bangladesh by the Bank. Absence of public consultations and unwillingness to accept traditional approach of water management has resulted in submergence of many settlements, including government buildings and schools.

Agenda for ADB

The annual meeting of the board of governors of ADB will be held in Greater Noida near Delhi from May 2 to 5.  It’s time for ADB to reflect why despite its aggressive water reforms “knowledge games”, water scarcity in the region has increased over the last two decades and conflicts over water has mounted beyond imaginable proportions.  So, the same age old tricks of commercialising water by encouraging privatisation of the resource and promoting trade over the scarcity won’t help.  If at all ADB wants to be in business, it should recognise the following:

  1. Consider water as a valuable ecological resource. Similarly, rivers should be considered as an ecological entity and not an economic commodity.
  2. ADB should stay away from “knowledge provision” games that allow it to influence policy decisions and encroach upon regulatory mechanism domains of any sovereign state.
  3. Respect ownership of people (primary dependent on water resources, riparian and non-riparian communities) on river basins through locally governed, democratically set up river basin parliaments (or any other such organisations that people themselves decide).
  4. If possible, help the governments in enhancing their technical knowhow of maintaining regularly updated and accurate data base of river waters; locally adaptable technologies of conservation and recharging basins in integrated ecological models and not under “economic good” perspectives. All the countries of the region are well capable of managing their governments and regulatory bodies. ADB’s technical assistance in river basin organisations and water regulatory authorities are not at all needed.
  5. Within the basins that ADB is already supporting, it should stay away from prioritising industries over irrigation and stop pushing the principle of “full cost recovery” from farmers and other primary users. Similarly, stop funding “water guzzlers” and “polluters”, which is contrary to the principles of integration, efficient use and equality.

The author is convenor of Water Initiatives Odisha and lead, Water Core Group of the NGO Forum on ADB

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