Water Forum 2011: Navigating Critical Waters

Issues, Challenges and Struggles for Water Justice and Democratization in Asia

By Mary Ann Manahan, Focus on the Global South
March 20,2011

Organization Introduction--Focus on the Global South
Focus on the Global South is a development policy research, campaigning and networking NGO committed to social, political, economic, gender, and ecological justice and transformation. It was established in 1995 and affiliated with the Chulalungkorn University Social Research Institute. It has offices in Thailand, Philippines and India. Has a Mekong and China Programme. Currently, it works development issues/grassroots activism in the “global South”- deglobalization, reclaiming the commons, peace and democracy, and climate justice.

Water Cycle
Water, as the element that sustains the living of the earth, can be sourced from the sky, under the ground and streams, rivers and lakes. Any changes of the water cycle will affect the natural, social-cultural, political and economics systems of the world. According to the United Nations, water is deemed as the primary link between the climate system, human society, environment, food, and economic development. Water is a finite and fast becoming a critical resource.

Global Water Crisis
It refers to the availability, physical access, quantity, quality, affordability, reliability, and sustainability of water.
Decrease in water availability amounts to 10 to 30 percent in dry regions in low and mid-latitudes: 75 million- 250 million people will be exposed to water stress by 2020, 350 million - 600 million by 2050 (IPCC). 1.1 billion (or 2 out of 10) people in the world lack access to safe water supply. 2.6 billion (or 4 out of 10) people in the world lack access to proper sanitation. 5 million people die, mostly children, annually from water-borne diseases.

Key International Water Targets

The Second World Water Forum (2000): 
By 2015 it aims to reduce by one-half the proportion of people without access to hygienic sanitation facilities, to reduce by one-half the proportion of people without sustainable access to adequate quantities of affordable and safe water, and by 2025 to provide water, sanitation, and hygiene for all.

UN Millennium Development Goal (2000):
It aims to reduce by half, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water.

World Summit on Sustainable Development, Plan of Action (2002):
It aims to halve, by the year 2015, the proportion of people who are unable to reach or to afford safe drinking water (as outlined in the Millennium Declaration) and the proportion of people who do not have access to basic sanitation.

Status of Water in Asia: Water Resources, Coverage/Access, and Key Issues
Water Resources Profile in Asia:
Asia is well endowed with water resources but monsoon cycles can induce large inter-seasonal variations in river flows. There are significant variations across the sub-regions- Central, South, Southeast and East. Amount of water per capita per day (available water) also varies: Central and East and South Asia lower levels than global average; Southeast Asia, more than twice.
Profile of population served by improved water supply was prepared. In Asia, the percentage coverage of total population as of 2002 is84%, just 5% less than the percentage coverage of projected population by 2015. In respect of water utilities in Asia, they are mostly public in nature.

Some Key Issues and Challenges

Water situations in Asia work as a paradox of abundance and scarcity in terms of water insecurity and poverty (sufficiency, physical access, safe/acceptability, affordability).
Equitable access is still a big issue  based on the dimensions of population growth, climate change, and competing uses (mining, industry, agriculture, and drinking). Access to water supply services is defined as the availability of at least 20 litres per person per day (lifeline) from an "improved" source within 1 kilometre of the user's dwelling” (Joint Monitoring Program on WSS of WHO/UNICEF).

Urban supply and coverage is declining because of rapid population growth  and if not addressed will limit the development of Asian countries.
There are still transboundary water issues and challenges of water resource management/watershed protection (pollution, overexploitation , competing uses/resource conflicts and wars).

Mainstream Responses to Address the Water Crisis

A hot topic remains between revaluing of water as an “economic good”/trade-able water rights and regarding it as a public good/commons and human right. Gerard Payen, president of AquaFed, an international federation of some 200 private water operators operating in over 30 countries, said “ There is absolutely no conflict between the right to water and the private sector. Our industry supports the right to water. But we are practitioners, and as practitioners, we know that proclaiming the right to water is not enough. Our job is to deliver water to people.

Issue frequently discussed in water sector reforms pushed by IFIs and government includes corporate-led privatization in water service delivery/marketization and its public delivery.
In addition, topics such as bottled water produced by big players like Coca Cola, Pepsi Co, mega-Infrastructure (dams)/High-cost technology to clean water (desalination, sewerage treatment plant, climate proofed technology) and water financing through private sector participation also derive significant public attention.

Struggles for Water Justice, Democratization and Alternatives
Private concession model of water service provision has largely failed. It is because that they have not ensured universal access, equitable, and coverage of water, skyrocketing of prices, unfixed broken pipes, corruption and unaccountability, etc.  The failure is systemic, even in financing since it still largely remains public.
The mainstream responses are creating a new set of crisis, i.e., crisis of governance. In this way, water serves as arenas of social mobilizations and actions for water justice, human right to water and democratization (e.g. Water Wars in Cochabamba, Bolivia). And water justice and democratization is about challenging and changing the “flow”.

Defending Water for Life– Water Justice

It is defined as the right to use water and right to enjoy healthy ecosystems that carry cultural and spiritual meanings. Further, it means ensuring the fair, equitable , sustainable and reliable access to and control of water for different uses and for different water users, especially for those who lack water, the poor and marginalized (waterculture.org; waterjustice.org).

Questions concerning the owners of water, the legislative users, the payers, the substitues, and changes of the flow of water were then raised.
Changing the flow has something to do with redefining the whole model of development- political, social, economic, cultural- (policies, framework that guides policies and programs), the redefining roles of each actors/players in the water sector, recovering our traditional/indigenous knowledge and reclaiming the discourse including language, reinstating and realizing community and poor peoples’ control over water- management and ‘governance ‘: planning and implementation. Most important, a highly organized and mature global movement to shape the future of the world’s water Commons, push and promote alternatives at various levels– global, national and local– and arenas- policy, on-the-ground is strongly recommended.
There are five principles we should insist in.

Firstly water is life, a gift of nature and its nurturance remains the responsibility of everyone for the survival of the planet in the present and for the future. This nurturance is rooted in the respect of all living cultures, values, and traditions that sustain the global water commons. And therefore, this responsibility calls for democratic governance and sustainable, inclusive, community stewardship of water.
Secondly, states as duty bearers must work for the protection and fulfillment of the right to water, including the promotion and support of community stewardship. Public delivery and fair pricing should be restored.


Thirdly, an affirmation of the ethical basis of water as the right of all life and the rejection of the mainstream dogma of the market as the arbiter of value are needed.
Fourthly, all state and market initiatives to enclose the commons to the exclusion of the disadvantaged, marginalized and underprivileged must be firmly resisted.
Finally, community control in water governance must be ensured at all levels and across the spectra of water use.

Some Initiatives--Building and Articulating Alternatives

Public-Public Partnerships (PuPs)as one of the progressive models is a new form of local cooperation and not-for-profit partnerships between and among public water operators, communities, consumers, trade unions and other key groups. The “public” here points to people rather than mere state or government. So it is a People-People Partnership. Therefore, PUPs is seen as one form or way of democratizing water.


PuPs came from the water justice movements and through the work of the Reclaiming Public Water network. PuPs works as a principle, a practice, a pattern and a process - an inclusive platform of everyone to share ideas, feelings, and attitudes on the right and responsibility to water.


PuPs broadly aim to improv service efficiency and  effectiveness through improved  quality, increased access and greater equity for the waterless/poor and marginalized, to develop source, capacity, human resources, resource management and watershed protection, to defense against privatization, to stimulate accountability and participation through increased involvement of communities, and  greater transparency and accountability in service delivery.


There are 3 types of partnerships—Public-Public, Public-Community/Non-profit, Non-Profit to Non-Profit/Community Partnerships. These types are subdivided in to sub-types.
The partnership took on a variety of forms-from targeting service provision to the poor to providing service for all to watershed management and protection.
The PuPs vary in scope from village-level systems to initiatives undertaken by state-level water boards and by national-level association of water service providers (WSPs). 
Criteria include participation, equity, efficiency, quality, accountability, transparency, workplace, sustainability, solidarity, public ethos and transferability.


PuPs ---within the context of Improving Access for the Poor and Waterless Communities

PuPs mean joint management of water services between local communities and water utility in rural areas, cooperation between the water utility and non-profit organizations to deliver service in urban, slum communities, provision of communal water points and community water tap stands directly being managed and maintained by the community/non-profit organizations and multipartite cooperation for the provision of low-cost, indigenous, ecologically sustainable and culturally-appropriate water systems and technology.

Achievements on PuPs are based on equity, resource management, reduction of water consumption, improvement of reliability, reduction in operating and maintenance costs, and participatory budgeting. In terms of women organizations and communities setting up water systems, PuPs work to provide safe potable water, minimize time spent for fetching water, and give the women more time for livelihood activities. Ram pump and other local-sourced, low-cost technology appropriate for the local contexts are also suggested.

---within the context of Enhancing Regulatory and Management  Capacity

PuPs work for building capability for the management and workers of water utilities, strengthening labor-management cooperation within a public utility, providing technical and management training for managers and workers of water service providers (e.g. benchmarking), providing opportunities for management and employees of water service providers to cooperate in the delivery of quality public service, strengthening community-based water utilities or associative water service providers and community management of sources of water supply and/or water distribution systems. Through convergence/ democratization experiments, water operator partnerships and platforms, it aims to formulate and consolidate water cooperatives, rural water & sanitation associations, to control by communities over the source of their water supply and/or over their water distribution system in conjunction with any operative “central” water utility, to change management processes within a utility or state water boards/agencies and to improve service delivery/sharing of experiences and good practices among local-national/regional/international relationships.

--within the context of Enhancing Informational Capability/IEC

PuPs enhance informational capability for management and workers of water utilities, staff development of labor and management of public utilities, technical and management cooperation (especially in terms of information sharing between managers and workers of water service providers, and academe).
PuPs also mentor arrangements between water utilities, staff exchange and secondment between utilities and universities, alliances between local governments, water utilities and universities, partnerships between water utilities, host communities, local governments and universities.

PuPs encourage information exchange and sharing between elective officials, water service providers, and academe, community-level data collection, processing and analysis of water issues with participation of water utilities, local governments and universities, community education on water conservation and establishing of water harvesting structures, estabilishment of rainwater harvesting structures, check dams that allow pockets of fresh water to form underground.

---within the context of Maintaining Biodiversity for Sustainable Sources of Water and Use Conflicts

PuPs are multi-partite alliances for the protection and conservation of bio-diversity in watersheds & river basins identified as sources of water supply (including transboundary waters), internal arrangements and legislative action to protect biodiversity in areas identified as critical sources of water supply, cross-disciplinary bio-physical, socio-cultural, political, economic and socio-ecological characterization of areas identified as sources of water supply, and community-level justice systems for enforcing indigenous rules on resource ownership, extraction and use.

Lessons Learned
A Vote for the Public as an issue of water justice and democracy and dealing with the decentralization trends in water service delivery and resource management are needed. Integrated solutions include that linking of water supply with resource management and combining on-the-ground problem solving with policy advocacies. We also need to reclaim, create spaces/platforms, (e.g. DRTS in the Philippines) and build movements for alternatives at various levels (e.g. Reclaiming Public Water).