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Governing water, governing ourselves July 22, 2008

Posted by Raul in academic life, environment, public policy issues, sustainability, urbanization, water, water policy.
Tags: , , ,

Continuing on my research-related posts, I have previously talked about my research on wastewater governance, on environmental NGO mobilization, and now I’ll briefly talk about what I have studied on water supply governance.

False Creek (the Yaletown side)

I was going to leave this post all the way until Blogathon, but Arieanna’s recent post on “Canada, the water” reminded me of the relevance of understanding how water supplies and water management works (great post Arieanna by the way). Arieanna’s post calls attention to the fact that the bottled water being sold at Whole Foods was pretty much targeted towards tourist buyers.

Ianiv and Arieanna on Flickr

Photo credit: Ianiv and Arieanna on Flickr

What worries me a bit more is not so much the privatization and commodification of water, but the misconceptions of water availability on this planet. According to the 2nd. United Nations Word Water Report, between 25 and 40% of the world’s drinking water comes from ground sources (groundwater).

This fact should be scary to people, but I’m not sure that people who live in Canada and particularly British Columbia (since we are so well served by our watersheds and local reservoirs) realize the degree of water scarcity that pervades the world, even if there is a generalized perception that . Therefore, it’s not hard to think that many people have a reason to be rightfully annoyed by the increasing privatization of water supplies.

North Vancouver Lower Lonsdale

Given the investment and capital costs that need to be covered in order to provide groundwater for drinking purposes, I would imagine that people would be cognizant of water scarcity and avoid increasing demand on water reserves, both by conserving water and by recycling grey water. In one of my research projects, I have looked at the use of common pool resource (CPR) theory to try and understand the conflicts amongst two communities who share and access the same aquifer (in Mexico).

The nature of public accessibility of aquifers makes them an excellent laboratory to study the behavior of communities who have to share a common resource that can be depleted if inappropriately managed. The purpose of my post was (as subtly suggested in the header) to indicate that in order to appropriately manage or govern water, we need to first learn to govern ourselves and control our natural consumptive instinct, in order to avoid depletion of our water reserves. Will we be able to do that? And how can we increase the visibility of the challenges of governing water when we can clearly see that other issues (such as climate change) are so high up in the environmental agenda in Canada?

More resources and materials for reading:

– The World Water Assessment Project page – Provides lots of information and good statistics. The UNESCO International Hydrological Programme is currently putting together the 3rd World Water Report.

CBC Series on Water – While I am VERY weary of pointing people out to media sources instead of academic sources, I kind of liked this series.

– The National Water Research Institute of Environment Canada – Basically focuses on freshwater, but a good resource nonetheless.

– The International Water Resources Association (IWRA).



1. isabella mori - July 22, 2008

i think this is such an important topic. and it’s interesting (and scary) to think that canada is one of the few countries that did not accept a UN resolution that makes clean drinking water and sanitation a universal right.

without water, we’re cooked. or i guess i should say we bite the dust.

i have to admit that it IS difficult to conserve water when we live in such a lush environment. my only real nods to water conservation are water saving shower heads and a refusal to get a dishwasher. and i have actually experienced problems with water, when i lived in chile: unsafe drinking water gave me typhus, and we spent 10 days in a village where all we could get was about 5 litres of unclean water a day.

and my daughter always snaps at me when she catches me brushing my teeth with the water running. i’m grateful for that, and for her school, which really pushes environmental awareness.

2. Arieanna - July 22, 2008

You’re very right here – in a place like BC, we have absolutely no awareness of global water issues. This is probably the old “have” vs “have not” issue, and our perceptions are guided by that.

How do you think the public can be better educated about global issues like these?

3. Raul - July 22, 2008

@ Isabella – I was SHOCKED to hear that Canada did not accept the UN declaration. Shame on Canada.

@ Arieanna – I think that one of the things we can do (at least as bloggers) is to try and connect what happens in our communities locally to global issues through our writing. That’s one of the reasons why I write these posts, to try and share what I’ve researched and learned. πŸ™‚

4. Nomade Moderne - July 22, 2008

Great post, but let me play devil’s advocate for a moment. You post seems to imply that commodification of water is wrong. At the same time you state: “Given the investment and capital costs that need to be covered in order to provide groundwater for drinking purposes, I would imagine that people would be cognizant of water scarcity and avoid increasing demand on water reserves, both by conserving water and by recycling grey water.”

If we want people to realize water is scarce and conserve it, doesn’t that mean that we *need* to treat it as a commodity. One could argue that commodification of water is exactly what is needed to get people to see its value and feel the economic impact of wasting it. Within that context one could then argue whether the private sector or public sector (regulated) can best provide that commodity and how to deal with the issue of providing basic water needs to communities and individuals.

Oh, and I agree with you entirely @Isabella, we all have to do our part to conserve and change our habits. One quick point, however, is that a dishwasher typically uses less water than handwashing. Of course, building the dishwasher takes energy, materials, etc. But from a water conservation point of view, it’s significantly better.

5. Raul - July 22, 2008

@ Nomade Moderne – I am not against commodification of water in and of itself, but what really worries me is the increasing degree to which privatization is making water not only a resource, but also a commodity and to a large extent, a political resource. In India, entire villages enter in conflict over shared water bodies. I find it scary that a natural resource becomes a political resource and I’m worried about water wars in a not-so-distant future.

Privatization does help the consumer realize the costs of wasting water, that I do agree with πŸ˜€

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