Development experts are looking at better ways to cope with water shortages. They are worried about predictions from scientists that population pressures will increase the demand for water to meet needs for food and energy. Several water specialists who say in many cases, better management and governance can help meet the challenge.
Development specialists fear the global financial crisis could reduce investments in the world's water resources. Many are asking global donors to include water infrastructure in the stimulus packages for re-starting their economies.
Economists say every dollar spent on water and sanitation yields $8.00 in income, productivity and infrastructure-related jobs.
Expanded use of micro-finance may help
Economists have ideas for national and local governments.
One is the expanded use of micro-finance, loans to community groups and local businesses for water delivery and purification.
Margaret Catley-Carlson, a former chair of the Global Water Partnership and currently a patron of the group, says micro-finance works best with projects that provide immediate returns.
"So [for example], you might go to [a local entrepreneur] making concrete foot pads or bowl for a latrine," she said. "The entrepreneur might use a micro-finance loan to increase his capacity to do that or to buy [a vehicle] for transporting [the final product, the latrines]. [In contrast, micro-finance] may not be good for a family to get a well because it will not create the short-term cash flow needed to repay the micro-finance loan."
Other countries are experimenting with what is called "solidarity financing," whereby some of the taxes from wealthier communities and governments are used to help finance water projects in poor areas. For example, the government of Burkina Faso uses a levy on water charges to help provide clean water and sanitation in low-income areas.
Development experts also see a need to improve government handling of water projects, especially in areas where financing is limited.
IRC International Water and Sanitation Center program officer Stef Smits says sometimes local communities lack the technical expertise to plan and implement a project. Smits says in response, some countries divide the duties between local, provincial and federal levels of government.
"In Latin America, decision-making responsibilities stay at the local government level but it is at higher levels, like provincial or departmental, where you can have economies of scale for technical capacity," said Smits. "For example, a small rural district cannot afford to hire an engineer or lease a car, but [that can be done at the provincial level, by a federal ministry, or by] a couple of municipalities which are able to join forces."
Some water experts encourage a stronger, more centralized approach to the delivery of water services.
Expert says strengthening of public institutions important
Simon Thuo, the East African coordinator for the Global Water Partnership, an international network that helps developing countries manage their water resources, advocates the strengthening of public institutions, including ministries of agriculture, whose roles in developing and implementing water initiatives have been supplanted in recent years by local NGOs.
Thuo says that came partly in response to a drive to reduce the role of government-run agencies and to privatize water delivery and other public services.
"The [government-run agencies] felt it was not their role to undertake these functions because [such tasks] are better carried out by the private sector, which could do better. But [privatized services] have not been able to perform, and public institutions [have] been emasculated. So you need to reverse [this focus on non-public agencies]," said Thuo. "If there is an environmental management agency or ministry of agriculture, it needs to undertake its functions in a more rigorous and efficient way than in the past."
Thuo says nations can also cut costs and improve efficiencies by encouraging education and urbanization - two things, he says, that can lead to smaller families and therefore less pressure on water resources.
"It is more expensive per capita to provide water to distributed populations [in rural areas] than to concentrated [urban] ones," added Thuo. "That' is because [water supply and distribution] is more efficient in urban areas than in rural areas where you may have a single pipeline extending kilometers to serve three or four households or communities."
Other experts say efficiencies can be made in planning water projects.
For example, participants at last week's fifth World Water Forum in Istanbul, Turkey, said water from hydroelectric dams could be stored in aquifers or floodplains. They also suggested improving metering and pricing to promote savings.
And parliamentarians at the meeting encouraged greater legislative oversight of water projects. In response, the World Water Council says it will make them a data base of best global practices and legislation. It will also create a permanent "Helpdesk" that will answer questions within 48 hours to 10 days.