Webcast Recap

More than 1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water and more than 2.6 billion people lack access to adequate sanitation systems. Women and children, as well as the poor, are disproportionately affected. But is the global water crisis the result of global water scarcity, or is it caused by the unequal distribution and allocation of water? Ken Conca, Patricia Kameri-Mbote, and Lyla Mehta discussed how water scarcity affects access and control to water at an event co-sponsored by the Wilson Center's Environmental Change and Security Program and the Africa Program on May 24, 2006. The event and a public reception on May 23 were part of a two-day gathering by members of the Global Environmental Change and Human Security project (GECHS) scientific steering committee examining the risks to human security posed by environmental changes.

What Is Scarcity?

"To an economist, scarcity is the raison d'être of society," said Lyla Mehta, research fellow at the University of Sussex's Institute of Development Studies. Yet scarcity does not have a single definition. British economist Lionel Robbins considered all inputs—land, labor, and capital—scarce resources that could be distributed to alternative users; while Amartya Sen argues that a scarce resource is one that is inaccessible due to high prices, social exclusion, or lack of infrastructure. Underscoring the difference between resource scarcity and economic scarcity—physically lacking a resource versus lacking the capacity to harness a resource—Mehta said, "The way [scarcity] is portrayed has a bearing on the solutions to scarcity; and that, in turn, can sometimes exacerbate scarcity conditions that poor people and marginalized people experience on the ground."

For water resources, the disparity between resource and economic scarcity is particularly cogent. Policymakers, hydrologists, NGOs, and other water stakeholders continue to disagree over whether the current water crisis is the result of physical scarcity or poor governance. Additionally, water remains stranded between two opposing frames—one that views water as a commodity, the other that calls water a basic human right. According to Mehta, water has historically been regarded as a commodity. The ancient Greeks, for example, thought of it in terms of relative worth: water was a useful and abundant resource, while diamonds were useless and rare. Today, she noted, policymakers often use the economic definition of scarcity, and, thus, ignore water's socio-political elements. Global and national statistics on food and water, for instance, draw on absolute population numbers and absolute resource numbers. These aggregate portrayals, she said, hide problems in allocation and distribution: "They negate the fact that water scarcity is a very multifaceted and complex phenomenon."

Water continues to be regarded in economic terms in part because perceived scarcity can be a boon to certain interests, she said. Politicization of scarcity, for instance, suited the needs of people supporting a controversial dam in western India. Scarcity can also be a scapegoat, she noted. In South Africa, water scarcity has often been cited as a geographical and hydrological problem, but rarely as a governance or management issue. Simply put, Mehta said, scarcity is a term of convenience: "It is the unchanging, independent variable that is used everywhere." But if water continues to be addressed in this limited framework, the larger social and political problems will continue to be ignored: "Scarcity doesn't have much to do with how much food or water there is to go around; it has a lot to do with questions of access, with social relations, and with the politics of distribution."

Shifting Thinking on Water

For more than 2 billion people around the world, the introduction of a sanitation system on par with that used by the Roman Empire would significantly improve their lives, said University of Maryland Professor Ken Conca, citing Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute. "It is quite clear that front and center in the human security question around water is adequate access for basic human needs," he said. Yet, he also explained that without first answering some fundamental questions about water, better allocation and distribution will not be possible:

How do we allocate human water supply? Do we use price-based mechanisms? Do we try to marketize? Do we try to treat it as a commodity that flows to the greatest water users? Do we use political and administrative mechanisms? There is a whole set of questions about water allocation, that underneath it, are really questions about water: Is it a commodity? Is it a human right? Whose water is it? And who should have a voice in those allocation questions?

Existing institutions, Conca noted, need to stop thinking of water as a natural resource endowment, and start thinking of its different meanings to different people: "It is a critical constituent of freshwater resources; it is the anchor of local livelihoods and cultures around the world…. We need to recognize those meanings of water as well as the commodity meaning of water." This is particularly true in the case of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM), a framework that has only recently become the sole language of the water community. Since basic management is still the primary concern of IWRM practitioners, they are struggling to figure out how to incorporate the politics of water, as well as the social conflicts around it, into management conversations. "IWRM can't just mean good resource management practices," he said. "It also has to mean conflict resolution; it has to mean community participation and stakeholder dialogue."

New thinking on water also requires accepting new voices speaking out about water. Authority figures have historically been those with expertise or public standing, Conca noted. Recently, though, alternative voices have started to emerge, which must not be marginalized: "There is a form of authority that comes from being able to put 10,000 people in the street and disrupt politics as usual if your voice and concerns are not heard." Inherent to these uprisings are individual social movements that will not be answered with cookie-cutter remedies. Rather, discussions need to incorporate traditional and non-traditional actors: "We need to be about process and dialogue, and therefore about social conflicts so that we can start to find more robust solutions," he said.

Work in Progress: The Nile Basin

The Nile Basin covers upwards of 3 million square kilometers and spans 10 countries—from Egypt in the north, down to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These states each have different people, different needs, and different interests in water, said Patricia Kameri-Mbote, chair of the Department of Private Law at the University of Nairobi. Most of the basin countries are experiencing high rates of population growth, further complicating resource allocation, she said: "You are talking about the need to meet more food needs of a bigger group, and more water needs of a bigger group, as well as meeting the needs of growing economies."

To avoid water scarcity and improve allocation, the Nile Basin countries came together in 1999 to negotiate the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), a platform for cooperation and relationship-building among the region's riparian countries. The NBI is proof that cooperation over resources can take place in regions experiencing conflict or strife, but it is not without its challenges: the initiative's two principles—balancing socio-economic development and equitable utilization—are not easily reconciled, she said: "If you talk about equitable utilization, you are talking about the rights of all the basin countries. So how do you deal with two countries like Sudan and Egypt that have [legal rights] to the bulk of the waters of the Nile?"

Moving forward, she said, requires a delicate balance between representation and participation: "You can't figure out the desires of 160 million people…. So you aim to facilitate action between different regions to capture voices of the poor." Yet participation at the local level remains critical. And achieving this kind of participation, she said, comes back to rights:

Substantive rights to access water are as critical as procedural rights. It is as important to know you can access water as it is to be involved in the process that leads to accessing that water. There is a need for people to participate and come together to discuss issues related to a basin that they deem critical to their wellbeing.

Drafted by Alison Williams.


  • Ken Conca

    Director, Global Environmental Politics Program, American University
  • Patricia Kameri-Mbote

    OSI Africa Policy Scholar
  • Lyla Mehta

    Research Fellow, Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex