Old Water In a New Bottle: World Water Vision Is Chronically Short–Sighted

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International Rivers
International Committee on Dams, Rivers and People, Both Ends (Netherlands)
Statement on the Report of the World Commission on Water
(World Water Vision)

The report of the World Commission on Water (WCW) is a restatement of tired orthodoxies from the international water establishment and should be rejected by the water ministers who will meet in The Hague on 21–22 March. The report, written by the WCW Chairman and World Bank Vice–President Ismail Serageldin, is merely old water in a new bottle.

The title of the WCW report, “A Water Secure World: Vision for Water, Life and the Environment”, is highly misleading. It contains no vision and hardly mentions the environment. The WCW process, with its confusing welter of reports, fora, and ‘visions’ has been a waste of money and a diversion from the vital task of creatively finding sustainable and equitable ways of managing the world’s freshwater.

The WCW claims that its report is the result of “an unprecedented participatory effort”. This is a sham. The process has been controlled from the start by a small group of aid–agency and water multinational officials, mainly from the Global Water Partnership, World Water Council, World Bank and Suez–Lyonnaise des Eaux. The key conclusions of the WCW report –– that there is a global water shortage crisis which can only be solved with a massive increase in private funding for water projects in developing countries, backed up with guarantees from the World Bank and other aid agencies –– was predetermined. Critical viewpoints have simply been ignored or relegated to the obscurity of the numerous supporting documents.

The WCW assumes that all public enterprises are necessarily incompetent and inefficient, and all private water suppliers eager to serve the public good. Examples of efficient public enterprises are ignored and privatization is assumed to be the only way of financing infrastructure investments. The WCW call for water to be treated purely as an “economic good” should be rejected. Access to adequate amounts of safe water and sanitation should be a basic right.

Much of the WCW report is a restatement of general principles already agreed at an international water meeting in Dublin in 1992 and since endorsed at numerous meetings of the global water establishment and promoted in numerous World Bank reports and press releases.

The WCW analysis glosses over the fact that the problem is less one of global shortages of either water or investments, than one of mismanagement and skewed political priorities. The crisis is one of overconsumption, waste, pollution, watershed degradation, rampant dam building, poorly conceived and operated infrastructure projects, corruption and inequality.

Although the WCW gives the impression that we are all about to go thirsty, the extra water required to ensure a minimum basic domestic supply to all the world’s people in 2025 is only one per cent of current water withdrawals. The main pressure on freshwater ecosystems will come from irrigated agriculture, which currently accounts for about 85% of all water used in Africa, Asia and Central America. However, irrigation, especially that based on the huge dam and canal schemes promoted by agencies such as the World Bank, is notoriously inefficient, making massive water savings possible.

It is no surprise that one of the main recommendations of the WCW is to call for strengthening the role of the GWP, WWC, World Bank Global Environment Facility and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Policy (CGIAR) in global water management. These are the institutions which have set up and run the WCW and they are also those which have designed, funded and promoted the policies and projects that have led to the current water situation.

This global hydro–aid complex has thrived on corrupt, non–transparent, unaccountable, non–participatory, unsustainable and inequitable water mismanagement. They have promoted water and agriculture policies which have left billions of people without access to safe water and sanitation and adequate nutrition and ever more at risk from floods and drought. They have built dam and irrigation projects which have deprived countless millions of people of their rights over water, land, forests and other natural resources.

The water ministers should ignore the pleas for money and attention from the WCW, GWP, WWC and GEF. They have little relevance to the task of moving toward sustainable and equitable water management around the world.

A truly visionary report on global water would have concentrated on issues such as:

  • how to provide just reparations to those deprived of their rights by past water projects;
  • how to ensure that future project planning will be transparent and accountable;
  • how to ensure that the potential of small–scale appropriate technologies is fairly assessed;
  • how to best support successful, small–scale community–based projects and technologies, and ensure their wide dissemination;
  • how to ensure that local people will have the first right over local water sources and will not have their means of survival stolen from them; and
  • how to review existing systems to see which ones can be improved and which should be decommissioned.

And lastly a visionary report would have put the need to ensure plentiful water for people and ecosystems within the context of a world facing overall environmental degradation, catastrophic climate change, and growing inequalities within and between nations. Dealing with these issues is key to ensuring adequate water for people and ecosystems.

Because large dams have consumed such huge amounts of national water resources budgets and because of the overwhelming evidence of such projects being unsustainable, inequitable, non–participatory, cost–ineffective and inefficient; and taking note of the huge underutilised potential of local systems and existing large projects, the World Commission on Water should call for a halt to the construction of new large dams around the world and a review of projects underway.

For an alternative vision of the water future the ministers should read “Towards People–Oriented River Basin Management: An NGO Vision”, circulated by Dutch NGO Both Ends.


  • Patrick McCully
    International Rivers Campaigns Director
    The Hague
    cell phone: +31 (0)6 22936523.
  • Paul Wolvekamp
    Both Ends
    cell phone 06 28228094.
  • This statement is endorsed by:

  • Sadi Baron, Dam–Affected People’s Movement (MAB), Brazil
  • Nicholas Hildyard, The Cornerhouse, England
  • Himanshu Thakker, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, India
  • Devaki Jain, Indian Association of Women’s Studies
  • Leo Saldanha, Environment Support Group, India
  • D. Narasimha Reddy, Centre for Resource Education, India
  • Minar Pimple, YUVA, India
  • Ashish Kothari, Kalpavriksh, India
  • Dr Abey George, Kerala, India
  • Shripad Dharmadhikary, Save the Narmada Movement (NBA)
  • Chandra Mani Adhikari, Maya Chhetri, Narayan Paudel, Lok Bdr. Basnet, Joy Krishna Goit, Suresh Thapa, Gyanendra Aryal, Bhaj Raj Bhatta, National Network for Resource Conservation, Nepal
  • Aly Ercelawn and Muhammed Nauman, creed alliance, Pakistan
  • Juraj Zamkovsky, Friends of the Earth Slovakia
  • Liane Greeff, Environmental Monitoring Group, South Africa
  • Peter Bosshard, Berne Declaration, Switzerland
  • Shalmali Guttal, Focus on the Global South, Thailand
  • Gopal Siwakoti Chintan, Inhured International, Nepal
  • Karen Hawley, OPIRG – Carleton University, Canada
  • Chainarong Sretthachau, Southeast Asia Rivers Network (SEARIN), Thailand
  • Kashyapa Yapa (Sri Lanka), Arizona State University West, Phoenix, AZ, USA.
  • Saleem Samad, Coordinator, Like–Minded Environmental Activists Group, Bangladesh
  • Antonio Tricarico, Reform the World Bank Campaign c/o Centro Internazionale Crocevia, Italy
  • Sarah Siddiqi, Karachi Administration, Women Welfare Society, Pakistan
  • Vimal Bhai, National Alliance of People’s Movements, India
  • Sujit Patwardhan, Parisar, India
  • Mishka Zaman, Naeem Iqbal, Pakistan Network of Rivers, Dams and People (PNRDP)
  • Saleem Samad, Like–Minded Environmental Activists Group, Bangladesh
  • Hossain Shahriar, Journalist & Environmentalist,Bangladesh
  • Siddika Sultana, Environment & Social Dev.Org.–ESDO, Bangladesh
  • Mishka Zaman and Naeem Iqbal, Pakistan Network on Dams, Rivers and People, Pakistan
  • Ayaz Latif Palijo, Sindh Research Council, Pakistan
  • Sartaj Abbasi, Sindh, Pakistan
  • Rakesh Chhetri, Centre for Protection of Minorities & Against Racism and Discrimination in Bhutan, (CEMARD), Bhutan
  • Dinesh K Mishra, Barh Mukti Abhiyaan
  • Bineet J Mundu, Delhi Forum, India