The politics of water

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How does water get onto a dryland farming site? Over the last decade 15 years I have become increasingly interested in the politics of water with the encouragement of Prof. Tony Allan at the University of London.

Water has now entered the political stage. For a long period water policy was dominated by the "hydraulic mission." The hydraulic mission was the era of engineers. All problems of water scarcity could be solved by building more structures. Dams for water storage. Canals for water distribution. The hydraulic mission acquired its own momentum and continued to build dams beyond the capacity to use them. The engineers are also well entrenched in the irrigation bureaucracies around the world and while they have learnt a new language that includes economics and sociology their solutions are frequently the same as before.

The second stage for water management was the rise of the economists. They tried to put the hydraulic mission into an economic context by providing costs and benefits for irrigation schemes. They have had limited success. Irrigation schemes have under-performed around the world because of the tendency to select the lowest estimates of cost and the highest estimates of returns. Rarely are these ideals realised.

We are now entering the third stage of water management - the politics of water. There is considerable confusion about the meaning of the word politics. Many water managers see it as "party politics" which has become a pejorative term in parts of the the world where democractic parties are allowed to exist. They see their engineering and economics as clean and dispassionate while they see party politics as a system of grubby deals negotiated in secret. Politics is the process of negotiating resource allocation in which party politics plays a part but is by no means the only factor at work.

At this stage we need to step back and analyse the term "resource allocation." During the period of the hydraulic mission there was no need to allocate. Demand could always be met by increasing supply. The resource was limitless therefore rationing among competing groups was unnecessary. The economist tried to put costs and returns into the equation with very limited success. Now we are facing absolute shortage. There just is not any more water out there. Of course there are exceptions but scarcity of water is forcing societies to make choices between water for agriculture, for domestic use, for industrial use and for the environment.

There are two mechanisms being used. There is the use of market ideology to say that all allocation will be determined by the market for water. Price will be the determining factor. Alternatively there is the more pragmatic approach that says that society can make its own decisions and need not be bound by such a rigid ideology.

The other issue that needs to be considered is the ownership of the water. During the hydraulic mission and the age of plenty ownership was irrelevant. There was always more water. Ownership is a right of access to a scarce resource. Without any scarcity it is meaningless. Now water is scarce there is a scramble for ownership. Ownership also needs to be carefully defined. There is the theoretical and the practical. In Spain, for example, the national water resource, under the constitution, belongs to the state. The state owns all the water. In spite of this the Spanish government has paid billions of Euros to farmers to buy back their rights to water. De jure the water belongs to the state but de facto to the current users.

My involvement in the politics of water developed from other open resources that had to be closed due to scarcity. The two I was involved with was fisheries in South Australia and the rangeland in West Asia and North Africa.

Below are some of the papers I have written on water for journals and conferences.

Managing water in Iran with the participation of farmers.

This paper is based on the notes I used for a series of about seven workshops and seminars I conducted in Tehran and Isfahan in March 2015. The notes have been revised to take account of the comments and discussions that took place during these meetings.
Managing water (including wells) in Iran on the basis of need.

This paper was written in August 2015 to clarify some of the ideas in the paper written in March 2015 (above) and to expand the concepts into the management of aquifers.

What is wrong with water markets?

This is a short book published by Pulcini Press and available on the Amazon Kindle platform. While the book is mainly concerend with the failure of the Australian water market as a mechanism for water management it also discusses the problems in Egypt. The book is not just a criticism of water markets but also provides alternative structures that provide the basis of a more equitable form of water management. They also avoid the water grab that has taken place in Australia where a single generation have grabbed the water in the Murray Darling bsin in perpetuity. What is wrong with water markets also provides alternative ideas on the pricing of domestic and industrial water. (2012)

Due to interest in this book I have published a hard copy (2014) which is available from Pulcini Press (€10)

Farmers last - the failure of dryland farming in West Asia and North Africa. (Go to paper)

This is a paper delivered to a Conference in Rabat, Morroco from 11th to 13th June 2014. The title of the paper “The Water-Food-Energy Nexus in Drylands: Bridging Science and Policy”

While this paper covers some familiar ground on legumes and rotations I also tried, unsuccessfully, to show that water was not the limiting factor for production in the WANA zone. This was a totally new concept for the particiants at the conference and one that is totally contradictory to their firmly held beliefs that the WANA region is a water acarce zone. Of course it is and more rainfall would enhance yields but at the present yields are limited not by rainfall but by a failed farming syste, If one take like for like between WANA and southern Australia with regard to rainfall, soils, temperatures, etc. the yield of cereals in Australia is double and that for pasture three or four time greater. Therefore yield is not thelimited by the rainfall.

Policy options for releasing water from irrigation in Iran. (Go to paper)

These are some notes for a presnetation on the problem of Lake Urmia in north western Iran. The International Technical Round Table was held in Tehran from 16th to 18th March 2014

Inter-generational water grabbing - an unintended consequence of the Australian water market

August 2011

Since the end of the drought the Australian Government has been advised to reduce water allocations by 20 to 25% through a process of buy back and cancellation of water rights. Such a buy-back scheme will underwrite high prices for water rights. The initial allocation of water rights gave windfall profits to the generation of irrigators who irrigated in the 1990s. New entrants to irrigated farming have to purchase water rights from existing holders. Their capital costs have increased and their profits have been squeezed. There is also evidence that the original recipients of free water rights did not immediately recognise their true value and large quantities of water in the Murray-Darling have been purchased by pension funds, overseas sovereign funds and others as an investment to lease back to irrigators. This paper discusses the political problems associated with the generational water grab and ways in which speculative values can be controlled. Go to paper

Water footprints - do they mean anything?

Jan 2011

Water footprints have been used to guide policy. In London the Camden Council has reduced the meat content of meals served in its institutions in order to reduce the water footprint. These policy changes are misguided. The water footprint idea has not been developed to a stage that these are valid choices. There are too many anomolies in the concept and too often low water footprints lead to high carbon footprints. Go to paper

The politics of water in an age of scarcity.

A paper prepared for a workshop on water scarcity held in Alexandria, Egypt on 7th and 8th October 2010.

In this paper I discuss the management of water in Australia during the drought of the first decade of 21st century. I show how the water market deveoped a decade or so earlier has increased rather than diminished the crisis. I point out that water rights are also creating large additional costs for Australian farmers and a growing inequity between generations. I point out that the Australian water market model would present even greater difficulties if adopted by Egypt as the Egyptian taxpayers cannot afford the generous buy back payments made in Australia.

On 8th October the Murray Darling Basin Authority released its post-drought management plan. In a postscript to the paper I discuss its implications. Go to paper

The view from within - cooperation between ministries

A paper delivered to the above workshop in Alexandria.

Long term projections prepared for the Egyptian Government show that their farmers' incomes will fall by 30% due to a scarcity of water. This is based on the simple formula - Income = crops = water. In this paper I discuss other ways in which income can be maintained in spite of reduced availablitity of water. Farmers can use water more efficiently but this is difficult in Egypt where efficiency is already high. Other options are reduced costs and higher valure crops. Go to paper


A paper published in the FAO Water Forum web site September 2005

In this paper I discuss some of the implications of water rights and how the extreme inequalities created by freehold title as adopted in Australia can be moderated but other forms of tenure and taxation. Go to paper

The politics of water resource management in the Mediterranean region

Paper delivered at the conference "Diplomazia delle risorse" Faculty of Economics, University of Urbino, Italy 11th and 12th December 2001

This short paper discusses the three approached to water resources. Firstly that Water is an Economic Resource (WIER) - the Australian model where water rights are traded like any other commodity.

Secondly the antithesis - Water is Not an Economic Resource (WINER) that treats water as a human right that cannot be bought and sold.

The third viewpoint is Water as a Social and Economic Resource (WISER) which attempts to synthesise economic and social needs. Go to paper

The Australian Water Market Experiment.

International Water Resources Association, Water International, Volume 26, Number 1, March 2001, pp 62-68 B. and L. Chatterton

This paper published in Water International had an interesting history. When we first submitted it to the international editor he thought it would be ideal for a special issue to be published for an international water conference in Melbourne to be held in 2000. However the Australia guest editor rejected it as too critical of the Australian market model. We thought the paper would be spiked but the international editor courageously published it in the next issue. Many of the disadvanatages we identify have become serious problem following the drought.

Go to paper.

Access Cost and Distribution Costs – AC and DC – for water.

Paper published on the SOAS water site September 2000

Charges for water have a considerable impact on property rights and protery values for water. In this paper we discuss some of the options and their impact.

Go to paper

Closing a water resource: some policy considerations. Howsam P. and Carter R. C. 1996 Water policy: allocation and management in practice, London: E & FN Spoin pp 355- 361

This is a paper Lynne and I wrote for a confernce arranged by Cranfield University in 1996. It has fallen through the the net. Everything is now archived on the web but this paper slightly predates those comprehensive archives. It cannot be Googled - at least I have failed. I have fragments of a printout but the original paper is on discs and systems that cannot be read on more modern computers.