The Politics of Water at Davos

Discussing water at the World Economic Forum in Davos where the world’s political and business leaders gather is quite a recent phenomenon. “Water has moved up the global and Davos agenda,” declared Peter Gleick, President of the Pacific Insititute while speaking at a session titled ‘The Politics of Water’.

However, Peter Brabeck-Latmathe, Chairman of the Board, NestlĂ©, Switzerland expressed the truth that water entered policies only through the back door. “Every government wants to talk about agricultural policies and agricultural subsidies,” he said. “But most governments do not realise that other policies are so intimately linked to water policy.”

Mr Gleick agreed that governments did not understand the linkages between various sectors and water. “Water is energy, water is ecosystem health and water is politics,” he explained.

Diverting land to produce biofuels, which would cause food shortages and repercussions on water supplies was also mentioned at the session. “By failing to think about water when we are thinking of solving a carbon problem or a climate problem, we are causing a food problem,” said Mr Gleick.

Mr Brabeck-Latmathe also dwelt on the issue of water as a human right. “Only five litres of water for drinking and 20 litres of water for hygienic purposes can be called a human right,” he asserted. Having water to fill swimming pools and watering golf courses cannot be called a human right, he argued, stressing on the need to price water correctly.

Kapil Sibal, Minister of Science & Technology and Earth Sciences of India said that water was a state subject in India and was unequally distributed among the states. He said that any water policy made by the Central (Federal) Government would lead to a political upheaval and have huge impact on electoral politics.

It is sad that a subject of such importance as water is being weighed on the scale of electoral politics in India. If the political will exists, it is perfectly possible for federal governments to push states to effectively manage their water. But alas, most parties only think about riding out their term. Meanwhile, groundwater gets sucked dry, rivers and seas get polluted and business continues as usual.

Mr Sibal completely ruled out water pricing in India saying that 60% of the people in the country lived at subsistence levels and would not be able to pay for water. No one asked Mr Sibal why poverty had not been brought under control in India despite his party being in power for most years after independence from the British.

Richard B. Evans, CEO, Rio Tinto Alcan said that it is difficult to optimise a complex system if major pieces are missing. “We have pricing for food, pricing for energy, pricing for fertilisers but we do not have pricing for water,” he said.

Singapore’s environment and water minister Yaacob Ibrahim stood out in the panel discussion for being from the only country where the political will for water management came right from the top.

It is heartening to see the subject of water getting some importance at a prestigious forum like Davos. It will be better still to see some more Asian ministers talking about real successes achieved on the ground. But first, the successes have to happen.

One thought on “The Politics of Water at Davos

  1. This is heartening. People at the top are beginning to realize the truth: potable water is a limited resource.
    Perhaps with good water policy, we might be able to have a better arable land policy, or even a better policy on dealing with OPEC.

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