Alexander de Sherbinin, Research Associate, Columbia's Center for International Earth Science Information Network CIESIN;
Victoria Dompka Markham, Executive Director, Center for Environment and Population (CEP)

Governments must work to improve institutions at the local, national, and international levels to better address the social consequences of water scarcity and water pollution issues according to Victoria Markham and Alex de Sherbinin. The two authors presented findings from their edited volume of case studies, Population and Water Dynamics, at a recent discussion meeting sponsored by the Environmental Change and Security Project.

Markham presented an overview of the book's case studies and how the project attempted to make the lessons learned from the case studies applicable in a broad sense from both a management approach and a community approach. She stressed that global water consumption has increased six-fold in the last half-century. She identified both the direct and indirect impacts of the human population on the global water supply: the supply of freshwater per person is declining as population increases; dams and other large development projects are creating pervasive threats to freshwater ecosystems, as well as leading to population displacement; and agricultural and industrial runoff are major sources of water pollution. More indirectly, land use changes such as increased agricultural clearing, construction, and timber cultivation are all leading to greater deforestation and in turn, more runoff. Growing urbanization, particularly in developing countries, is increasing the competition for a limited supply of water. Climate change is disrupting the hydrological cycle creating more floods, droughts, and other natural disasters.

Markham also discussed the issue of finding a balance between water and population. Although traditional approaches have focused on increasing supply, she also examined the idea of demand management. Markham offered three methods through which policymakers can curb demand to more reasonable levels given increasing populations. One is to encourage drip irrigation, a more efficient technology that uses less water than traditional agricultural irrigation. Second, she discussed the concept of appropriate pricing at all levels of society. Pricing needs to be changed not just for the poor but also for wealthy urban populations who often pay far under what it actually costs to get water to them as a result of government subsidies. Finally, water management policies must be developed that address ecosystem and river basin management as well as the needs of local communities to find a balance between the actual water supply and human activities.

Next, de Sherbinin reviewed the unique circumstances in five of the nine case studies and offered specific lessons learned and policy recommendations to address the problems. This case-study approach to water supplies was unique in that it looked at defining different approaches from the global management level to the more local community approaches. Additionally, for each case study selected, both population specialists and natural scientists participated to provide a balance between the ecological and demographic areas.

The case studies selected were divided into three research areas: examining aquatic ecosystems and the challenges of conservation, international river basins, and local participation in water management. The three case studies looking at aquatic ecosystems were in Guatemala, Jordan, and Zambia. For the presentation, de Sherbinin highlighted the critical issues at stake in Guatemala and Jordan. In Guatemala, health issues and subsistence rain-fed agriculture were the primary issues for the local indigenous population while in Jordan, the focus was on restoring the wetlands to their original state through cleaning and better environmental management.

The authors chose three international river basins to highlight the conflicts between rising demands and a finite water supply and looked at Bangladesh, Mali, and Southern Africa. In Bangladesh, for example, de Sherbinin pointed out that in the south, the country suffered from floods as a result of the monsoon cycle but that in the north, inequitable distribution of water leads to severe water shortages and even droughts. The issue, then, is timing, not just the volume of water available.

The last three case studies, focusing on India, Morocco, and Pakistan, addressed the issue of local participation in water management, or encouraging local communities to take the lead on equitable and sustainable use of water. Examples from the presentation focused on the issues in India and Pakistan. In the case of India, water is declining leading to out-migration of about eight percent of the population to Bangalore, the Silicon Valley of India. Pakistan, on the other hand, demonstrates the issue of disparity in access to water in an agriculturally intensive zone, where the local population successfully argued that access to water is a fundamental human right. What all of these case studies showed, is that water and population linkages are numerous and have different implications.

Water and population linkages included:

* recognizing that ecosystem conservation can also meet human needs (e.g., flood control or fisheries);

* recognizing the impact of urbanization;

* understanding that disparities in water use are often due to power relations and market forces (i.e. upstream nations versus downstream nations);

* scarcity and inequity more often lead to out migration rather than conflict;

* access to water is a human rights issue;

* and that community involvement and education are needed.

What do all of these points mean for policymakers? One, policymakers must improve institutions at all levels, particularly international levels according to de Sherbinin. Taking a page from Aaron Wolf, a noted water expert at Oregon State University, the authors of each case study argued that the focus should be on the economic benefits of water not the hydrological needs when making bilateral or multilateral agreements to avoid future conflicts. Additionally, policymakers must find a balance between appropriately pricing water while protecting subsistence users. Thirdly, technology must be a blend of traditional and environmentally appropriate methods including technical training and assistance, and communication among all stakeholders. Policymakers must implement demand management and small-scale engineering solutions to meet future needs while also studying the impact of urbanization on demand patterns. Finally, equitable solutions to groundwater sharing are imperative to ensure access for all people.

The discussion that followed centered on demand management techniques and improving technology to minimize waste water and to provide an adequate supply to everyone. On the demand side, participants addressed how to define appropriate water pricing as well as the value of focusing on economic benefits over water since it addresses underlying needs rather than promoting positions. As to technology, participants discussed the areas of technology that need to be promoted more, particularly industrial processes that can minimize the use of water while simultaneously reducing pollution.

To download a copy of Water and Population Dynamics, please visit the American Association for the Advancement of Science website at waterpop/contents.htm. To read a review of the volume, please see Issue 5 (Summer 1999) of the ECSP Report.