Developing Sustainable Water Policies for the South

by Prof. David Zilberman
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One of the laudable objectives of the Gates Foundation is to develop analytic policy making capacity in the South. They gave an organization ‘Global Development Network’ (GDN) a sizeable grant to establish policy proposals to address major issues on sustainability in both South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa and I was assigned as an advisor for the group that works on water and natural resources. One of the interesting features of this program is that in addition to policy papers, it produced docu-films as well as publications in different levels of detail to educate the public and policymakers about sustainable policy. I found that one of the best things that arose from this program are the docu-films. These docu-films are accessible and clarify the consequences of not addressing major issues such as climate change, ground water depletion and uncontrolled population and how we can address these effectively.

South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa have almost opposite problems when it comes to agricultural water and irrigation. In Sub-Saharan Africa, only 5% of available water resources are utilized. There are vast reservoirs of water that can be used for irrigation and enhance food security and provide income and help meet the challenges of climate change. The issue is the development of water resources in a way that is efficient and environmentally sound. Conversely, in South Asia, the major issue is over and inefficient use of water. There the challenge is to develop policies to reduce water consumption and to make it sustainable without losing productivity with minimal impact on the poor.

In both cases, the policy principles are similar. First, develop pricing that represents social cost. When water is scarce, it should be more expensive and when you pollute, you should be penalized. Second, develop mechanisms to compensate the poor so they can have access to water resources. Third, develop extensions to introduce more efficient production technologies and irrigation technologies. Any technology that is increasing yield saves water. Fourth is to develop capacity to design water diversion that is appropriate to local conditions, adaptable to varying environmental conditions and managed in a way that is transparent and cost-effective. Most importantly is the challenge of effective governments. At all levels, from the local water district to trans-boundary bodies of water, the development of well-informed, transparent and representative governance serving the interest of the people is key.

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Being in a forum such as the GDN, I am pleased to be part of the Beahrs Environmental Leadership Program with our emphasis on collaborative solutions and integration of technical solutions with institution building. The GDN experience suggests to me that it is essential to leverage modern media capabilities to increase awareness and build real skills. One of the challenges of the ELP is to advance this set of topics in our program.