Cheap Drinking Water Undermines Environmental Protections

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, May 15, 2001 (ENS) - A new study by the World Resources Institute reveals that water policies in most of the world are failing to protect the world's freshwater systems, resulting in growing water scarcity and alarming declines in the numbers of aquatic plants and animals. The study recommends that water prices should reflect the cost of supplying water and protecting watersheds.

"Freshwater is undervalued the world over," said coauthor Nels Johnson, deputy director of the World Resources Institute's (WRI) Biological Resources Program. "Freshwater ecosystems are not being managed effectively for people or for nature."


Tapwater prices in most areas do not reflect the full price of supplying water, the WRI report says (Photo courtesy Texas State Soil & Water Conservation Board)
Governments continue to subsidize water due to opposition from farmers and urban poor against raising water prices, the report says. The study, "Managing Water for People and Nature," is published in this week's issue of the journal "Science."

The study recommends that the costs of distributing water and protecting watersheds should be included in the price of water. Polluters should also be charged for their discharges, the report says.

Water is not only becoming scarce because of increased demand, but also because of higher pollution levels and habitat degradation.

"The state of plant and animal life in freshwater ecosystems is far worse than for forests, grasslands or coastal areas," said coauthor Carmen Revenga. Freshwater ecosystems occupy less than one percent of the earth's surface.


Carmen Revenga, coauthor of the report, is also lead author of the WRI report Pilot Analysis of Global Ecosystems: Freshwater Systems, which analyzes quantitative and qualitative information and develops indicators of the condition of the world's freshwater systems. (Photo courtesy WRI)
The study says that contamination denies as many as 3.3 billion people access to clean water. More than 20 percent of the world's freshwater fish have become extinct, endangered or threatened in recent decades, largely due to pollution and habitat loss.

The authors said that without reforms in the pricing of water, freshwater supplies will continue to grow scarce. They project that by 2025, five out of every 10 people will be living in water stressed river basins. Currently, 38 percent of the world's population live in such areas.

"Farmers and the urban residents will support full cost pricing of water if they can be assured of a reliable supply," argued Jaime Echeverria, a WRI economist and co-author of the study.

For example, price reforms in Chile reduced the use of irrigated water by as much as 26 percent and saved $400 million in new water infrastructure. In Andhra Pradesh, India, farmers agreed to a three fold increase in water prices as part of a package that also boosted their role in running the irrigation agency.

But raising the cost of clean drinking water could prove devastating to the world's poorest people. Bolivian labor leader Oscar Olivera became an advocate for universal rights to affordable, clean water in 1999 when the Bolivian government responded to structural adjustment policies of the World Bank by privatizing the water system of its third largest city, Cochabamba.

Olivera The new water company, a consortium led by Italian owned International Water Ltd. and U.S. based Bechtel Enterprise Holdings, raised prices. With the minimum wage at less than $65 a month, many of the poor had water bills of $20 a month.

Olivera, executive secretary of the Cochabamba Federation of Factory Workers and spokesman for the Coalition in Defense of Water and Life, known as La Coordinadora, led demands for the water system to stay under local public control. Thousand of citizens protested for weeks.

The Bolivian army killed one person, injured hundreds and arrested several coalition leaders. Olivera negotiated with the government and won when the government canceled the privatization contract and turned over control of the water system, including its debt, to La Coordinadora, which Olivera continues to lead.

Olivera was honored last month with a Goldman Environmental Prize for his efforts to protect the water rights of the Bolivian people.