Of water and wars
Interview with Dr. Ismail Serageldin, Senior Vice-President, World Bank.
"Many of the wars this century were about oil, but those of the next century
will be over water." So said World Bank Vice-President Dr. Ismail
Serageldin in a 1995 interview to Newsweek in order to, as he
says, "ring the alarm bell for the impending water crisis". With 80 countries
and 40 per cent of the world's population facing chronic water problems and
with the demand for water doubling every two decades, Serageldin's warning
is neither ominous nor far-fetched. It is very real.
Rivers, the main source of water, crisscross countries, friends and foes
alike. With over half the population living in 250 river basins which are
shared by several countries, their potential as a weapon cannot be overstated.
For instance, soon after the Gulf war, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein began
draining the marshes to the south of the country by constructing a 565-km
Third River Canal in a bid to quell the rebellious "marsh" Arabs. The Jordan
basin, the fresh water source for four nations, is West Asia's biggest source
Nearer home is the long-drawn-out dispute with Bangladesh following the
construction of the Farakka Barrage on the Ganga. And within the country,
the most notable of disputes is that between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over
the Cauvery waters.
Apart from the disputes, the other causes for concern are the enormous waste
and pollution of water. In India, for instance, 70 per cent of the water
is polluted; only 5 per cent is collected in Class 1 cities; only 25 per
cent of the collected water is treated; industrial waste accounts for 25
per cent of waste water and over 50 per cent of the pollution load. While
globally agriculture uses two-thirds of all water, in India it is over 80
per cent. This depletes the groundwater supply leading to acute shortage
of drinking water.
If these problems are created by human kind, there are others inherent in
nature. For instance, of the annual average rainfall of 1,200 mm in India,
90 per cent is lost in seepage, evaporation and run-off to the sea. The water
crisis, thus, needs to be tackled at different levels - by focussing on the
various issues that impact water-use such as energy, biotechnology, industry
and environment, and by bringing together various experts and heads of
governments - says Serageldin. And to tackle this huge task, he has not stopped
with preaching but set up, some months ago, the World Commission for Water,
which he chairs.
Serageldin holds the chairmanship of the Global Water Partnership and is
associated with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research
(CGIAR) and the Consultative Group to Assist the Poorest (CGAP). Serageldin,
who has a Ph.D. from Harvard University, has served the World Bank in various
capacities since 1972.
With over 35 books and monographs, and 200 articles, book chapters and technical
papers in various areas - including science, education, economic and human
resource development, environment, architecture, Islam and culture - to his
credit, Serageldin is a spokesperson for the poor. He has been in the forefront
of building partnerships among international organisations, governments,
scientists, educationists, communicators and society at large.
Recently in Chennai to participate in a dialogue organised by the M.S.
Swaminathan Research Foundation on "Climate, biotechnology and food and water
security" - one of the various efforts in preparation for the elaboration
of the Global Water Vision - Serageldin spoke to Asha Krishnakumar
on the coming water crisis, the danger it poses to food security, the role
of biotechnology, patents, and the mandate of the World Water Commission.
Excerpts from the interview:
Can you give us an idea of the coming water crisis?
A simple fact is that 97.5 per cent of the total volume of water available
on this planet is salty. Of the remaining 2.5 per cent, two-thirds are locked
up in the ice caps as glaciers and is not available for human use. And of
the remaining - one-third of the 2.5 per cent, which is 0.81 per cent - large
quantities are far beyond the reach of human settlements. Of the remaining
which is accessible, 80 per cent comes in bursts, as monsoons.
Thus the quantity of water you are left with for use is small. Of that we
have recaptured and harvested a certain quantity. But we still need approximately
12,000 cubic kilometres of water per annum for sustenance. And over 54 per
cent of that quantity is already being used today.
We will have at least three billion more people on this planet before the
population stabilises. And the crucial question is: given their water needs,
will they have access to enough food? Water is crucial for survival. We need
water to grow food, for drinking, for industry... This is basically the dynamics
we are talking about. We have been mismanging our scarce water resources
and this needs to change.
In what ways is water being mismanaged?
On three grounds. One, we have a fragmented approach to water. There are
those who look at it on the basis of its use for irrigation, for industry,
for hydro-power, for municipal use, as part of the environment, as wetland,
rivers, or lakes. People do not even think of the underground water, the
aquifers, how they are recharged and so on. They just assume it is there.
But, in fact, nature functions as a comprehensive, interlinked system. And
the lower catchment areas of the river systems, the river catchment areas
and the aquifers seldom correspond exactly to the administrative boundaries
of sovereign states. So, you have multiple users and many decision-makers.
That all of us need to use the scarce resource which knows no boundary is
one aspect of mismanagement.
The other aspect is that we have always considered it to be freely available.
That it will always be there. Therefore, we have not bothered to use it
Third, we have tended to pollute water not realising that this reduces its
Do we not have a system to monitor and regulate water use?
Yes. There are what have come to be known as the Dublin principles. These
principles were reaffirmed in Rio, Agenda 21, Beijing, Marakkesh and so on.
All recognise water as a free commodity which has an economic value. They
recognise the economic, ecological and institutional principles of empowering
people, the community and so on. All these principles are adopted by sovereign
states. But they are not being implemented adequately.
Why are these principles not adopted?
Because most of the problems concerning water seem long-term. And most of
the advantages for its use are short-term. This is what I mean by mismanagement.
In most developing countries, agriculture by far makes the largest use of
water. And irrigation systems are not as efficient as they should be. Globally,
agriculture uses up to two-thirds of the available water. In countries such
as India it is close to 90 per cent. So, the efficiency of water use in
agriculture becomes an important factor.
Do you think factors such as free electricity, power subsidies and so
on play a role in efficient use of water?
Let me give you an example: In my country, the water-scarce Egypt, we have
1,000 cubic metres of water per person a year - half that of India's average.
In the oaklands, where water is free, they still follow conventional irrigation
methods which use more water than necessary, resulting in water-logging,
a common feature in the past. Now as water is a prized commodity in Egypt,
most people have invested in drip-irrigation systems in order to conserve
water. They are also careful about selecting crops which have high value
so that they get more value per crop. These are the kinds of results you
get if you are careful about water use. So people have to adopt and adapt
technologies that use water in a better way.
In Egypt, we have a certain advantage in that there is very little
evapo-transpiration along the Nile, and all water goes back into the river.
So, if water goes into the fields and is not properly used there, it goes
back into the Nile and is used again. So, the core word for water is efficiency.
Coming back to your question on subsidies, contrary to general statements,
subsidies have been defended in the name of the poor. But they do not, most
often, benefit them. Subsidised water rates in cities are, for instance,
defended in the name of the poor. Yet, water does not reach everybody. The
poorest of the poor usually have no access to piped water. They end up buying
water, paying 10-20 times more than those who get water by just opening the
tap. And yet, the rates for using tap water is defended in the name of the
poor. That is really unfortunate. It will have a dramatic impact on the
livelihood of the poor. The rich will manage to insulate themselves in any
situation. It is the poor who will suffer.
So these are the kinds of questions that need to be addressed. I am not against
helping certain sections. But it should be done efficiently and should also
be well-targeted. It should empower people and not destroy the livelihood
of the people in the long term.
What are the implications of a water crisis on food security?
I can give you some dramatic numbers to explain this question. Assume three
billion more people on this planet - in India it is quite stark at 500 million
- before the population stabilises. To meet the food requirements of the
three billion more people, assuming that there is no increase in per capita
food consumption, and further that only 40 per cent of the additional food
comes from irrigation (which is a very conservative figure because during
the Green Revolution 80 per cent of the increase in food came from irrigation),
you will still need 17 per cent more water to irrigate - though there is
a 70 per cent increase in irrigation potential - than what you are getting
At the same time, you know that the urban population is going to double,
and that industry and pollution will grow - it may at best remain constant
in spite of increased industrialisation and a rise in urban population. With
that sort of figures, I wonder if we will have enough water to produce the
quantity of food needed. So we have to do something much more dramatic in
terms of improving the efficiency of water use and agricultural productivity.
There are then the local, regional and global issues which cannot be divorced
from one another. They have to be looked at in a holistic way to maintain
global balance. That was precisely the reason for creating the World Commission
When was the Commission set up and what does it envisage for India and
the rest of the world?
The Commission was set up on August 11, 1998. And we intend to finish our
work (Global Water Vision) and present it on March 22, 2000 (the World Water
Day) when the World Water Conference is to begin in The Hague.
The Vision aims to look at the future, asking the kind of questions we have
just discussed. The idea is to evolve an approach that will lead to solutions
accompanied by action plans; to link the local and global aspects, and provide
a workable framework for water management at different levels.
We have five thematic panels that look into many other issues which will
have an impact on how water is managed. The five panels are:
One, transformations in information technology, which is going to make major
strides in communication.
Two, those concerning energy - such as hydro-power and so on.
Three, issues of biotechnology. This panel looks at the application of genetics
to develop plants that are drought-tolerant, that use less water, and so
on. It also looks at developing expertise, tools and ways of reducing the
requirement for water-borne sewerage and waste water; water re-use in the
case of high-value agriculture; drinking water use in cities, and so on.
Four, institutional transformations. In this we look at the role of pressure
groups, civil society, private sector, the government - all actors relevant
to the institutional arrangement of water management.
Finally, we are looking at data, analyses and forecast models.
Then we have three conventional sectoral panels - water for food; water for
people's use and industry; and water for the environment.
We also have two groups. One, the World Commission for Dams, chaired by Dr.
I. Asmal, South Africa's Minister for Water and Forests, who is also a member
of the Water Commission. And the other group works on National Sovereignty
in Inter-national Waters. This is headed in turn by former heads of state
All this is at the global level. We start with a bottoms-up exercise by seeking
regional views - in 10-15 regions of the world. Then, there is the confirmation
of the regional views in the thematic and sectoral panels with two special
outreach programmes, one for women and the other for youths.
This major process has been on for some months now. The whole effort is aimed
at linking the various issues and synthesising them into decisions for the
future with a frame-work for action accompanying it. The frame of action
obviously is going to be extremely structured because there is enormous
variability in water availability. For instance, in North America we have
10,000 cubic metres per person a year. Egypt has 1,000, India 2,000 and Jordan
It is an enormous task you have set for yourself in a short span of 18
months. At what stage is the Commission now?
It is indeed an enormous task. And I am very encouraged by the response I
have been getting in taking on this challenge. It is co-sponsored by all
What time-frame are you looking at?
We are looking at 2025 and then beyond that to 2050. Why that far? This is
because we consider issues, the solutions to which take a long time to have
an impact. For example, alternatives to water-borne sewerage and the use
of the flush. Now, every time you flush, you use up as much water a poor
family might use for a whole day. So, we need to develop alternatives for
these things. It seems the solutions to these are not in the offing even
by the late 20th or the early 21st century. And even if the horizon for these
technologies is 2025, they may not have an impact until 2050. We do not want
to say that anything that does not have an impact now is not something worth
considering. From my experience in agriculture, I have found that investments
in research give results only after 15-20 years. So, though we are looking
at 2025, the long-term horizon is 2050.
One of the thematic panels you spoke about was transformations in
biotechnology. Broadly speaking, what are the research efforts developed
in biotechnology to conserve water?
The issue in biotechnology is to conserve water using plant breeding programmes.
For instance, increasing drought and salinity tolerance among plants in order
to breed plants that are less thirsty so that we can get more crop per crop.
The second area is to look at alternatives. For example, to look at breeding
methods outside the conventional ones. Then, the issue of treatment of waste
water. For example, biological remediation of water which can be used for
high-value fruits and vegetables and so on. There are a number of other areas
where biotechnology can be of use.
What are your views on patents in biotechnology?
This is a major issue. Patents in biotechnology and genetically modified
organisms (GMOs) raise a whole lot of ethical and legal issues. Patents are
in some sense justified as huge investments go into research. But what is
most important is not to overlook indigenous and small farmers. So, while
dealing with patents, aspects of equity, benefit-sharing, recognition of
the rights of indigenous peoples and so on are very important. Also, the
recognition of international agreements such as on biological diversity and
farmers' rights. All these issues need to be addressed together.
Some countries have made headway in this. For instance, India is developing
a legislation that tries to take into account the different regimes under
the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants
(UPOV), the World Trade Organisation and the Convention on Biological Diversity.
We need to evolve that into a more coherent multilateral system that recognises
the role of the private sector to do what it does best and to recognise the
importance of international and national public goods that have to remain
in the public domain to protect the poor and vulnerable.
What is your position on the Terminator technology that has been patented
by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Delta Pineland
Let me first make CGIAR's (Consultative Group on International Agricultural
Research) position on Terminator technology clear. Since most Third World
farmers are small and marginal, who hold back seeds in one season to sow
in the next, CGIAR will not be releasing seeds that contain Terminator
On the other hand, there are some good things to be learnt from this technology.
A complicated piece of science is involved here, and therefore there is a
lot to be learnt about how to approach problems by switching genes on and
off, controlling their expressions and so on. Second, it is conceivable that
even if it is designed for one purpose, it could be used as a potential biosafety
measure. This is certainly something worth exploiting.
Coming to the other thematic panel, an institutional transformation, what
is the role of the private and public sectors in water conservation?
There is no question that institutional transformation is necessary. The
idea that everything needs to be done by the state is not working out well.
Private operators have a role to play. The state and the private sector have
to share some responsibility. The notion that the state or the private sector
is going to have a natural monopoly is not quite true. Experience shows that
you can break down the pieces of the system, and it works just as well.
Innovations from that idea coupled with community action, help of local groups,
users and state regulation, private sector investments and a range of
institutions that need to be brought in place and so on, are very important.
Do you still think that the wars of the next century will be over water?
We are taking steps to avoid precisely that. That statement of mine in 1995
in Newsweek, which was picked up by CNN, was intended as some kind
of setting off the alarm for people not to continue with the fragmented attitude
towards water. Since then a lot has been done in the right direction. Many
programmes were started - the Marrakesh Forum was formed, the World Commission
for Water in the 21st century was set up, and a whole lot of discussions
initiated on ending the fragmented attitute towards water use.
Let us hope all these things, along with the developments in science and
biotechnology, will help us handle the water situation.