Water Commons, Water Citizenship and Water Security
This project was undertaken with support from the Visayas State University, Focus on the Global South, Our Water Commons, the Centre for Law and Democracy, France Liberte, and Reclaiming Public Water Network.
The motivation behind this collection of case studies is to examine successful and/or illuminating cases of water commons governance and management, culling out insights that may be useful in communities around the world.
A brief summary:
Future Generations at the Table: Governing and Managing Water as a Commons: In Cebu City, the Philippines, public sector workers like Zosimo Salcedo at the Metro Cebu Water District (MCWD) opposed Asian Development Bank financing that would purportedly increase the burgeoning city’s water supply. The financing sounded like a water workers dream – more infrastructure funds spells more jobs. So why was Zosimo Salcedo opposing the funds?
Contrary to common perceptions that workers are only concerned with preserving jobs and receiving higher pay, the union acted as stewards of the water commons. You might call them water citizens. They understood their responsibility as `carers’ of water, from catchment to storage to distribution. Rather than tap new surface and groundwater sources, they concluded that it made more economic and ecological sense to conserve water through cheaper system repair and watershed protection. This was an extraordinary change in mindset. Even though their own daily work involved a technical role in water distribution only, they chose to tend and nurture water for all users, for all times.
The term “commons” turns current water planning topsy-turvy. A water commons means that water is available for all people and ecosystems, and that the resource be passed on undiminished and intact for future generations’ enjoyment. You don’t have to look far to see that current water planning often fails to uphold those principles and embrace the views of commons champions like Salcedo. What are those commons principles and how are they applied in practice? The work of Nobel Prize winner, Elinor Ostrom and former UN water advisor, Maude Barlow provide helpful analytical tools to explore water commonses from New York to Tamil Nadu to the Philippines.
IWRM 2.0 to Tackle the Deepening Water Crisis: A body of water management practices known as Integrated Water Resources Management or IWRM was born at the Rio Summit in 1992. It is based on the Rio declaration’s best stuff, matching human aspiration to ecological reality. But IWRM has suffered in implementation and conception; development banks and governments have more often treated water as an economic good than a commons. Citizen participation has been cursory, not nearly as authentic and robust as it should. On the cusp of a global re-commitment to environmental sustainability, we’d be foolish not to step back and reflect: What have we learned during these two decades to improve the way we govern and manage our water resources? This collection is part of building the theory and practice of IWRM 2.0.
Embracing water citizenship for water security: The cases in this collection share the common sense insight that people steward a resource with greater care when they draw benefits from it and take part in deciding for whom and how the resource is used. This act of stewardship is “commoning” or exercising water citizenship. That was precisely the reasoning of New York City’s water authority – a case featured here - when they invited farmers to put on the hat of water stewards and implement a new farming program compatible with a healthy watershed and pure city water. All of these cases speak to the power of participation, although not as the now standard practice of time-limited consultation. What we find here is an ethic of ongoing participation in which water citizens get their fingernails dirty in the nitty-gritty of water pricing, debt financing, source protection and other details often left to technocrats working in isolation.
Putting conservation first: Technology improvements - and the price tag to water consumers - look different in the Philippines and Australia when the first choice is not necessarily greater water extraction but conservation. Savings in public dollars, volumes of water and health of aquifers may be even greater when technology decisions are subject to public scrutiny in transparent governance.
Reclaiming public water and beyond: Over the past decades, a broad citizens’ water justice movement has led successful fights to reclaim public water and pass the UN right to water and sanitation. In Colombia’s locally-controlled rural water aqueduct system - discussed here - anti-privatization and right-to-water activism led naturally to local management.
Unraveling false dilemmas: Upstream-downstream, rural-urban, and irrigation, sanitation, industrial and potable uses: Each case here slices through political and institutional divisions that so frequently make a mess of our water systems. Why do we make managing the water commons more difficult than it has to be – assigning water quality and sanitation to a Health Ministry, drinking water to an urban utility, irrigation to the Ministry of Agriculture and no one responsible for watershed health? Ministerial re-organization and new legislation are essential long-term political processes, but these cases show innovative efforts to encourage coordination among often competing or non-communicative agencies.
Bold experimentation and humble learning: Can we admit to our errors in facing the water crisis and hold to account those who profit from it? We offer these cases to dash pessimism that we can’t successfully govern and manage our water commons, that privatization of water is the only way forward and that humans can’t ensure ecosystems their fair share of water. It’s true that many of these cases leave unanswered questions – Lempa River management for example, remains stymied without basin-wide coordination. Securing sustainable financing for the growing Cebu water system is unresolved. But even in solutions “under construction”, the creativity and possibility of water citizenship is on display.
Farmers protecting New York City’s rural water supply •
Repairing ecosystem damage from eucalyptus groves in Minas Gerais, Brazil•
Breaking through caste barriers to supply water for all in Parambur, India•
Strengthening peri-urban, locally-managed water systems in Bolivia•
Upstream-downstream coordination along the Lempa River in El Salvador• (not yet published)
Stopping an unnecessary dam on Australia’s Mary River after U.S. $1 billion invested•
Water citizenship tales from Fililpino water districts•
The full introduction, recommendations and case studies are available at www.ourwatercommons.org.