By Erin O'Donnell

13 September 2013 - 12:09

Water is a precious resource in many parts of the world. Photo (c) Craig Dietrich, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.
'Water is a precious resource in many parts of the world.' Photo ©

Craig Dietrich, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.

Access to clean water should not be taken for granted. Australian researcher Erin O'Donnell explains why.

Access to water is a fundamental necessity, but many of us take it for granted. We turn on a tap, step into the shower or flush a toilet without giving any thought to where the water comes from, how it reaches us and whether there’s enough for us to use.

Water availability is uncertain in much of the world

It’s very different for many people in developing countries: in 2011, 768 million people lack access to sufficient water of a safe quality for drinking. Around the world, providing water to all those who need it remains a real challenge. Even in countries where access to safe water is a given, we are facing an uncertain future. A changing climate is likely to bring more extreme weather events, making both drought and flood more likely. Water resource managers in urban areas are trying to adapt to increasing water demand as well as increasing unpredictability in water supplies. In Australia, we’re investing in large desalination plants to provide alternative water supplies during times of water scarcity. In the UK, much of the effort is going in the opposite direction: managing the impact of too much water during floods, which can devastate towns at the bottom of river catchments.

Out in rural and regional areas, people have been living with uncertain water availability for many years. Irrigators and farmers are often more accustomed to the variability of water supplies, and adjust their farming activities accordingly. Over the past century, water managers have tried to provide secure water supplies by building vast water storages (dams) on rivers, which can hold water over from wet years and make it available in dry years. In Australia, as water becomes scarce, we’re also investing in massive infrastructure upgrades in irrigation areas, to reduce leakages and losses from irrigation systems. These water savings are often controversial (as in many cases they include water that may have seeped back into the river, and may have been used by other irrigators downstream), but when water is scarce and valuable, it’s important to make sure it’s being used efficiently.

This really highlights the dual nature of water: it’s both a human right, something we can’t live without, and a valuable commercial input for irrigation, dairy farming, mining and power production. How do we protect that human right, whilst at the same time, encouraging commercial users to use it efficiently? And how do we make sure that even urban users don’t waste it?

How are governments dealing with demand for water?

In urban areas, the policy response has been to try and charge users for the water they use, so that the costs of water supply are recovered from water users. Of course, this often means that special provisions are needed for disadvantaged consumers, to make sure that people can still retain access to water even when they can’t afford to pay their water bills. This is not always as successful as it should be. In England, water suppliers have been fully privatised, so that water is provided by private companies, whose ultimate goal is profit and the payment of dividends to their shareholders (Dr Sarah Hendry has written on this). Understandably, this can conflict with the social justice goals of water provision to everyone.

This has been a particular challenge in developing countries, which often lack the necessary government funds to invest in water treatment and water supply infrastructure, and who depend on private investment to provide these services. It’s a tempting equation for a private investor: everyone needs water. But when the average wage is $2 or $3 a day, recovering the costs of water supply can be very difficult. So, the aim of providing water to all people can come up against the profit motive of private companies. This is not an indictment of private companies: but it is a real problem for water supply. Dr Kate Bayliss at SOAS at the University of London has done some fascinating work on both privatisation and the increasing financialisation of water as a commercial product.

Strict limits on water use in Australia

In Australia, in rural areas, strict limits have been placed on water use. Access to water has been capped, so that no new water rights can be issued. The existing water rights have been legally altered, so that they may be transferred separately to the land on which they were originally used. In the southern Murray-Darling Basin, it is now possible to go to the market and purchase the water that you need. This water market has been active for the last decade, and each year, more water is bought and sold. This market in water enables people who no longer wish to use their water on their own land to sell it to others, so that the water rights can move to uses that produce greater income. When access is capped, enabling water trade is essential to support future development opportunities in the basin. So the water markets help to increase the efficiency of water use in rural areas. In Australia, the vast majority of water traders are irrigator farmers, and the vast majority of water trade is temporary trade – so the sellers retain the right to receive water in the future, and only sell what they don’t need in any given year.

In addition to the changes in water rights, Australia has also invested over $12 billion (in Australian dollars) in recovering water for the environment. Australia has recently experienced extreme droughts, in which the aquatic ecosystems suffered severely – there was widespread loss of river bank vegetation, fish deaths and one fish species was threatened with extinction. It had become very clear that more environmental water was needed and there is now a new plan for the Murray-Darling Basin that commits to providing much more water to maintain the health of rivers and wetlands and the birds, fish, trees and plants that depend on them.

Of that $12 billion, over $3 billion will be used to purchase environmental water on the market. New organisations have been set up to hold and manage these environmental water rights, which can be traded in turn. This can be very beneficial. It’s a lot easier to get more water when you buy it on the market, because you’re buying from willing sellers; and the environmental water managers can use the market to move water from one location to another. But it comes at a cost. Environmental water managers now participate in the market just as any other users of water. They pay the same fees for their water, and must follow the same rules of operation. The aquatic environment, rather than being the wider context within which water can be used, has become just another user of water, a mere participant in the water market.

There is real tension between the tools that we use to achieve environmental outcomes, and the way that those tools change the way we perceive the natural environment and our obligation to protect it. Using water markets has been very effective for the environment so far: but I wonder whether this is a short-term outcome.

This is going to be a real issue for the UK policy makers to consider as they commence the legal reform of water abstraction licences in the effort to stimulate water trading here. Finding a role for the environment that provides adequate protection, and enables the environmental managers to participate in and receive the benefits of water trading will be essential; but it will also be necessary to consider the long-term implications of the policies used.

A chance to meet UK water researchers and policy-makers

In August-September 2013, thanks to the British Council, I was able to come to the UK and meet with researchers and policy makers in water resource management, to learn more about their work and share the findings of my own research. I’ve been here in the UK for three weeks, and during that time I've visited the IHP-HELP UNESCO Centre for Water Law, Policy and Science at the University of Dundee, SOAS at the University of London, University College London, the Environment Agency, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and the University of East Anglia. I also presented at the Wessex Institute of Technology Water and Society conference, which brings together researchers in a diverse range of water-related fields from around the world.

The opportunity to attend an international conference is always valuable, as it gives you a chance to test your ideas in an international forum. People aren’t necessarily familiar with your local context, and your ideas are examined from a range of perspectives. But what made this trip especially valuable was the opportunity to meet  people working in my field, and find out more about what they do. Today, with almost everything available online, it’s possible to learn a great deal merely by reading the published papers and policy documents; but nothing beats sitting down with someone and asking them questions. I’ve been continually amazed at the generosity of the people I’ve met. Most of them had never heard of me before, but they were happy to set aside a couple of hours to meet with me and tell me about their work, and hear about mine. Face-to-face meetings, and the open, wide-ranging discussions such meetings make possible, are an extremely effective way to find connections, build networks and explore opportunities for future collaboration.

I would encourage any early-career researcher to take advantage of the opportunity to travel and to be brave. People are much more willing to meet you than you might think! You can never quite tell exactly what you’ll gain from a trip like this: but it’s an absolute certainty that meeting with a wide range of top thinkers and policy people in your field will generate something both highly valuable and often unexpected.

Erin O'Donnell is studying environmental water governance, law and policy at the University of Melbourne Law School. She is currently in the UK through the British Council Australia to strengthen links between UK and Australian research.

Scientists in the UK and worldwide, use the Euraxess portal for similar opportunities.

Addition, 11 August 2015: Researchers in the UK, Israel and MENA (Middle East and North Africa), submit a proposal for trilateral water research by 28 September 2015.

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