Avoiding Solutions, Worsening Problems

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A Critique of the World Bank Water Resources Sector Strategy

John Briscoe
Senior Water Advisor
World Bank
1818 H St., NW
Washington, DC 20433

Dear John,

Please find below the Executive Summary of International Rivers’s critique of the 25 March draft of the Water Resources Sector Strategy. The [node:1223 link] will be mailed to you. The critique is endorsed by the groups listed below.


Patrick McCully
Executive Director
International Rivers

cc Mr Ian Johnson, Vice–President, ESSD
Mr James Adams, Vice–President, Operations Policy and Country Services
Executive Directors

Executive Summary

The draft Water Resources Sector Strategy (WRSS) was posted on the Bank’s web site for public comments in late April 2002. The WRSS is not supposed to be a new policy. It states that it is a strategy through which the Bank can assist its borrowers in translating into actions the principles from the Bank’s 1993 Water Resources Management Policy Paper (WRMPP). The WRSS claims to take stock of eight years of experience in implementing the WRMPP, as well as the institution’s “renewed commitment to poverty alleviation.” The Bank told the Commissioners of the World Commission on Dams that the WRSS would be the main vehicle in which the Bank would address the findings and recommendations in the WCD’s final report.

The WRSS comprehensively fails at these tasks. It does not translate earlier principles into suggested actions. It ignores or misrepresents many of the key principles in the 1993 policy. The WRSS does not address how the WCD’s recommendations can be translated into World Bank policies and practices and it seriously distorts the Commission’s findings.

The WRSS also distorts the four “Dublin Principles” on water management upon which its analysis is supposed to be based and makes no mention of the Dublin Principle on the vital role of women in water management.

The WRSS claims to be based on a “broad global consensus” on water management yet fails even to mention the conclusions of important global water events and processes such as the International Conference on Freshwater held in Bonn in December 2001 and the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council’s Vision 21.

There is a huge potential for improving the environment and the lives of the poor by implementing low–cost, decentralized and community–led solutions for water and sanitation, in particular rainwater harvesting and low– and no–water sanitation technologies. Implementing the model proposed in the WRSS will set back efforts to realise this potential and will further worsen the already serious failings of the water sector.

The two main thrusts of the WRSS are promoting the privatization of urban water supply and boosting Bank funding for major dams and inter–basin transfers, which it terms “high–reward/high–risk water infrastructure.” The “risk” in this expression refers mainly to the risk to the Bank’s reputation of being involved in controversial projects, rather than the risks to communities, national economies and the environment.

The WRSS justifies its support for privatization and big dams by claiming that megaprojects are necessary for the well–being of the poor and environmental protection, and that only the private sector has the funds to pay for them. This argument can be shown to be fallacious on several counts:

  • Four–fifths of the world’s people without decent access to safe drinking water live in rural areas. Water multinationals have little or no interest in rural drinking water systems. Corporations are rarely able to profit from poor and dispersed rural populations who mainly depend on local water sources. Similarly rural populations in developing countries cannot afford the huge costs of water from centralized water systems dependent on large reservoirs, pipelines, aqueducts and pumping stations.
  • The WRSS implies that providing water and sanitation to the poor and protecting the freshwater environment will require annual investments of $180 billion in water infrastructure in developing countries. This estimate is predicated on the need for major dams and other capital–intensive infrastructure. But if demand–side management and decentralized and community–led approaches are promoted the cost of meeting water needs will be much lower. According to the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council, all the world’s people could be provided with adequate water supply and sanitation with an annual expenditure of $9 billion between now and 2025.
  • The WRSS provides no analysis to back up its sweeping claims about the great benefits of urban water privatization. It makes no mention of lessons to be learned from the water privatization failures in Bolivia and Argentina. It fails to address the many criticisms of water privatization, and especially concerns over the impact of water privatization on the poor.
  • A renewed push to build major dams and inter–basin transfers, as called for in the WRSS, will further degrade freshwater and related ecosystems.

The WRSS makes no mention of the pressing need to adapt water infrastructure and management systems to deal with the risks of climate change. It is particularly important to retrofit dam spillways to cope with the larger floods expected as climate changes.

Public involvement in decision–making is recognized in the WRSS as key to sustainable and equitable water management. But public participation in the WRSS process itself has been totally inadequate. At the “consultations” in 1999 and 2000, NGO numbers were kept small, and their opinions have been ignored in the WRSS. No lists have been released of invitees to the most recent round of regional “consultations” and no rationale given for the Bank’s decisions on who to invite and who to exclude. No agendas or minutes of the “regional consultations” have been made available. Many important NGOs with long records of working on water issues have been unaware that consultations were even taking place. No translations of documents have been made available.

The process of developing the 1993 Water Resources Management Policy Paper, although also problematic, was at least much more participative than the current process. The Bank has ignored the lessons and positive precedents from this earlier experience.

If implemented, the approach recommended in the WRSS would likely contribute to an increase in the number of people lacking adequate access to clean water, and it would exacerbate the numerous serious problems related to water mismanagement such as polluted and degraded rivers and watersheds, vulnerability to floods and drought, degraded agricultural lands, food and health insecurity, rural poverty, large–scale displacement and impoverishment of riverine people, and huge waste of financial resources.

The WRSS should be rejected by the Bank’s Board. There is an important role for the Bank in improving the performance and safety, and mitigating the negative impacts, of existing infrastructure. Outside of these activities it would be better for the World Bank to disengage from the water sector than to implement the measures proposed in the WRSS.

Endorsing Organizations

Birgit Zimmerle
German Carajas Forum

Himanshu Thakker
South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People

Smitu Kothari

Shripad Dharmadhikary
Manthan Research Centre

Alok Agrawal, Chittaroopa Palit
Narmada Bachao Andolan

Pasumai Thaayagam

Antonio Tricarico
Campagna per la Riforma della Banca Mondiale

Gopal Siwakoti on behalf of
Water and Energy Users’ Federation–Nepal (WAFED)
Arun Concerned Group

National Concerns Society
Campaign For Human Rights And Humanitarian Law

Rev. David Ugolor
African Network for Environmental and Economic Justice

Tonje Folkestad
Association for International Water and Forest Studies

Mushtaq Gadi
SUNGI Development Foundation

A. Ercelawn and Muhammad Nauman
creed alliance

Joan Carling
Cordillera Peoples Alliance

Aboubacry Mbodji
CODESEN (Coordination for the Senegal River Basin)
RADDHO (African Encounter for Human Rights Defence)

G�ran Ek
Swedish Society for Nature Conservation

Chainarong Srettachau
Southeast Asia Rivers Network

Shalmali Guttal
Focus on the Global South

Nicholas Hildyard
The Corner House
United Kingdom

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