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Securing water, sustaining growth

Mike Woolgar | 17 Dec 2015 | Comments

Earlier this year the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the Global Water Partnership (GWP) jointly published a report “Securing Water, Sustaining Growth” which explicitly examined and confirmed links between the provision or lack of affordable and sustainable water resources and the impact on “economic growth, inclusiveness and structure of economies”.

This is pretty much the first time that this link – understood implicitly by many – has been explicitly made; and such a link ought to have significant policy implications for the developed and developing world as it confirms the inherent risks in the so-called water-energy-food (e.g. economic) nexus.

It has long been apparent that developed countries have invested over time in securing effective management of water whilst many developing countries are less secure, still needing investment to manage abundant resources, or to develop and manage scarce resources; this report looks at the linkages between economic resilience and water resilience and notes some clear relationships.

This is particularly important from a policy perspective in respect of “inclusive growth”.  Development agencies such as UK Department for International Development, whose mission is to “promote sustainable development and eliminate world poverty”, are now focussing more effort in their target countries on those more likely to miss out on economic security, due to their situation whether geographically or culturally constrained.

These people, comprising a large population, tend to be landless; have poor education standards; have restricted access to services by virtue of being old, female or infirm; have low incomes; poor standards of living; insecure livelihoods; and contribute little to the national economy.  By targeting development efforts to support their advancement to sustainable livelihoods - thereby reducing dependency on the state or on charitable support - development partners like DFID see a way forward to attack poverty, the diseases of poverty and the exclusion from mainstream economic improvement due to poverty.

Water can now be seen as a significant enabler of inclusive economic growth - rather than just a “rights” issue.  The “rights” approach, although on the face of it a helpful mantra, seems to me to actually be rather missing the point as it undermines the true value of water in an economic sense.

Recent discussions with the EIB water team suggest that they too see security of water as more important economically than previously - with projects under contemplation which would not earlier have been considered viable or bankable. They are now taking account of longer term benefits arising from self-sufficiency therefore allowing investment in projects with non-financial returns at least in the early years.

In the developed world, such as the UK for instance, there has been little or no policy thinking about water and its relationship to secure economic growth. Again, we know that when new housing is built there is a need to provide additional water service, both clean and dirty, but housing development is rarely looked at through the lens of economically available water.  Currently there is a focus in the UK on the lack of a real energy policy – ‘will we keep the lights on this year’ – but at some stage thinking needs to move on to the risks represented by water insecurity in the UK and in our supply chain – such as where we get our food, clothing and wood products from.