Conference held at the Faculty of Economics, University of Urbino

11th to 12th December 2001.

Contribution to the “Tavola rotunda finale.”

Return to water home.

“The politics of water resource management in the Mediterranean region”

By Brian Chatterton.


Prof. Tony Allan in his paper entitled “Water security in the Middle East and the Mediterranean” given at yesterday’s session convincingly demonstrated the important role played by virtual water in reducing international tension between water deficit countries of the Mediterranean region.
In this contribution I wish to look at the growing internal political conflicts that arise as countries in the region reach the limits of their water resources and need to tackle the thorny problem of allocation among different groups within the community. I do this from an Australian background as many regions of Australia reached the limits of their water resources about 35 years ago and were force to close them.

What is closure?

The history of natural resources during the 20th century has been one of the successive closures of previously open common property resources. Land was closed many centuries ago in most of Europe but remained open in Australia and USA until the end of the 19th century. Pockets of land in the Soviet Union remained open – at least in terms of agricultural use - until the second half of the 20th century. Forests and fisheries are examples of previously open common property resources that have been closed as they reach the limits of exploitation. In fact it is becoming increasingly difficult to find good examples of open resources. One that comes to mind is the tartufo resource in hills around Urbino. It is still possible for anyone to hunt for tartufo. One requires a permit but these are obtained from the state authorities. There is no limit on the number of permits and there is no need to purchase one from a retired tartufo hunter. When a resource reaches the limit of sustainable exploitation it is no longer possible to allow such unrestricted access. Permits are limited. Access can only be obtained by the transfer of existing permits. The resource has become closed.

The closure of the water resource

Once the water resource has been closed it is only a matter of a few years before the question of access becomes an important political issue. The closure itself is usually debated over a long period and all potential entrants have ample
time to gain access. In fact there are usually additional speculative entrants who obtain permits while they are still unlimited in the hope of being able to resell them for a quick profit after closure. At the point of closure the effect is a nominal change in legal status rather than a real change in management or ownership. Over a number of years the effect of closure begins to bite as more people wish to gain entry to the resource but are refused because of the restricted number of permits following closure. The political debate over the nature of ownership becomes intense.

In the countries of the Mediterranean with water deficits the debate about closure has already begun with considerable speculative increases in water usage. There are tentative signs that people are considering the nature of
ownership of water rights. Prof. Tony Allan in his recent book “The Middle East Water Question” has identified two major political philosophies in the ownership debate. There is the WINER group (Water Is Not an Economic Resource) who believe that water is a fundamental human right and everyone should have unrestricted access. On the other side of the debate are the WEIR group (Water Is an Economic Resource) who believe water is like any other commodity – coal and oil for example – and should be traded accordingly.

WISER water policies

In fact the hoped for outcome of the debate will be the development of WISER (Water Is a Social and Economic Resource) water policies that reconcile the two opposing positions according to the national political and social traditions. Most countries are moving towards a two-track policy where domestic and industrial water remains an open resource. People pay for their water but do not pay for the right of access. There is no requirement to purchase a permit from a retired user. The water resource for agriculture, the largest user in all Mediterranean countries, is increasingly being closed. Farmers are required to purchase water rights from previous users. In most cases this has not been openly admitted as a separate “water right” but is tied to the land title.
The nature of these water rights and the freedom to buy and sell depends on the political traditions of each country. In Australia land has been treated as another factor of production in the tradition of early British capitalism and it is not surprising that water has been handled in a similar manner. Water rights have been separated from the land wherever possible and are traded in water markets. While there are token restriction on the market for water rights to protect the environment there has been no attempt to examine the issue of social justice. The windfall profits obtained by the first generation of water owners have been capitalised into the value of the water right with no thought of the enormous cost to future generations of farmers. No attempt has been made to distribute water more equitably among small and large users.


In the Mediterranean region the issue of closure is being debated by countries with water deficits but has not yet registered as a “problem” for the countries on the northern shore with apparently ample supplies. However the continued profligate use of water by farmers and agriturismo in Umbria during periods of low supply may change the low priority given to water in the political process and may move the issue up the agenda of “problems” – if only within this region. The question of ownership and the balance between the economic efficiency of the market and the requirements of social justice between groups of users and generations are not yet a distant flicker on political radar screens. This is most unfortunate, as the price of ignoring the issue is private ownership by stealth. Water rights that are currently de facto become enshrined in law and, like land reform in the past, attempts to develop a more equitable system are lost among competing pressure groups and the high cost of compensation.