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Think Small to Solve the World Water Crisis

Costly projects by the World Bank and others are not the most effective solutions; local groups have answers too

AS villagers in Manibeli, India, are being flooded out of their homes this month by the World Bank- financed Sardar Sarovar Dam project, they have no assurances that they will have access to the electricity or drinking water produced by the dam. Ethnic Hungarians in the Danube River Valley are losing their supply of groundwater because of the Slovak government's diversion of 85 percent of the flow via the Gavcikovo-Nagymaros Dam project. And Saddam Hussein's latest tactic is to drain the swampy homelands of the Marsh Arabs, destroying their culture and livelihoods.

As populations and demands for water grow, so does the potential for violent conflict. But beneath these dramatic examples lies a pervasive, daily battle where more than one-fifth of the world's population struggles to collect enough clean drinking water to survive.

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The pressing need to stretch global water supplies recently brought about an unprecedented international gathering of environment and public health ministers at the first-ever Ministerial Conference on Drinking Water and Environmental Sanitation in the Netherlands. The ministers issued an action program for adoption by the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) at its next meeting in New York May 16. While the ministers included commitments to the goal of ``universal coverage'' for water supplies and sanitation, they did not tackle issues of financing and managing international water resources. More than 40 percent of the world's population relies on water originating in a country other than its own, making joint management of water supplies imperative.

Finding peaceful solutions to problems of water scarcity will require a combination of cost-effective, sensible technologies and the democratization of water management. We will need the equivalent of many cheap VW bugs rather than a few expensive Cadillacs.

In the last decade, governments and donor agencies like the World Bank invested more than $130 billion in public funds to bring drinking water to more than 1 billion people. However, these numbers mask the inefficiency and low performance of some of the investments that were made. For example, of the $35 billion the World Bank invested for water projects, less than 5 percent was invested in rural drinking water projects, 2.3 percent went to water conservation, and only 0.4 percent was invested in small-scale irrigation.

Two internal World Bank reviews show that both money and water resources are being wasted on ineffective and costly projects. First, agricultural productivity actually declined in almost half of 21 irrigation projects the bank financed. Second, a review of 129 water-supply and sewerage projects showed that almost all had economic returns below 10 percent, and 64 percent had excessive levels of lost and unaccounted-for water.

Many large-scale dam projects have displaced hundreds of thousands of people, often sending them deeper into poverty. The approved $10-billion-plus Three Gorges Dam in China will provide subsidized flood-control and hydropower benefits to some at the expense of an estimated 1 million people who will be displaced.

In contrast, UNICEF has estimated that 80 percent of the 1.2 million people worldwide in need could be given essential low-cost water and sanitation services for only 30 percent of the total annual capital investment cost by shifting funds from high-cost to low-cost technologies.

Instead of financing large, costly dams, scarce public funds, as well as scarce water resources, should be used to provide basic services to as many people as possible. Public funds from international aid agencies should be directed toward more-efficient water conservation and reuse programs, waste-water treatment, and pollution prevention.

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TO retool our approach to water management, communities will have to be more involved in both managing and financing water systems at the local level. Most often communities themselves know what they want and need, and they commonly are willing to pay for services. Yet, in many cases they were not able or allowed to have a voice in the process.

At its May meeting, the CSD should resolve to facilitate the negotiation of international water-basin agreements to ensure that equitable and environmentally sound management of water is promoted among countries sharing water resources. The international community would do well to start with efforts to resolve the dispute between Hungary and Slovakia, which would set precedents for other regions, such as the Nile River in Africa and the La Plata River Basin in South America.

Adoption by the CSD of a proposed water-cleanup initiative, Clean Water United - whereby countries would establish demonstration projects to clean up their most polluted river or body of water together with local communities - would also help protect freshwater resources.

As governments and communities work together to end the daily struggle for safe, clean drinking water, progress should be made toward promoting peaceful development that protects the health, human rights, and sustainable livelihoods of all. As the 50th anniversaries of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the United Nations approach us in 1994 and 1995, we should remind these institutions that their primary purpose is to promote peace and global security. Avoiding global catastrophes over water should be at the top of their agendas. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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