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How to manage lack of water when scarcity is the norm

How to manage lack of water when scarcity is the norm

Manipadma Jena interviews TORGNY HOLMGREN, Executive Director of the Stockholm International Institute for Water.

Growing countries have thirsty economies, and water scarcity has become the "new norm" in many parts of the world, observed Torgny Holmgren, executive director of the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI).

The combination of climate change, rapidly growing economies, urban development and poor agricultural practices in emerging South Asian economies, water insecurity for marginalized people and producers is already intensifying.

By 2030, India's demand for water is estimated to double the availability of the resource. In the name of development, forests, wetlands, rivers and oceans will be degraded, but it does not have to be this way, sustainable development is possible.

Speakers at the 28th World Water Week, organized by SIWI from 26 to 31 August, in Sweden, highlighted water scarcity as a contributing factor to poverty, conflict and the spread of diseases caused by contaminated water. , while undermining access to education for the female population.

Women are central to the collection and care of water, and are responsible for more than 70 percent of the tasks that require water in the world. But the issue goes beyond collecting the vital liquid, it is also about dignity, personal hygiene, safety, lost opportunities and reversing gender stereotypes.

Holmgren, a former Swedish ambassador with vast experience in South Asia, among other regions, spoke with IPS about how that region can address serious gender imbalances in access to water and support to transfer technology from the richest countries to the developing economies to make sustainable use of the resource.

IPS: What steps should South Asian economies take to achieve sustainable water services from their natural resources?

TORGNY HOLMGREN: South Asia is experiencing a shortage due to increased demand, driven by growing economies and populations.

A fundamental aspect is how countries manage accessibility. At SIWI we have seen countries with a great scarcity that manage the resource in a really efficient way, while others with abundance make a bad use.

It comes down to how institutions, not just governments, but communities and industry in general, manage the resource; in how water systems are organized and distributed.

There are examples of village assemblies in India deciding how to share, distribute and even treat common water resources alongside other villages in the same basin.

A good example is Stockholm Water Prize winner Rajendra Singh from India, who worked in arid rural areas with local and traditional harvesting techniques to recharge river basins, revive and store rainwater in traditional water bodies and bring the region back to life. These techniques can also be used to manage excess water from the most frequent floods.

The largest amount of water is consumed in food production, but industry and electricity generators demand more and more.

As competition for the scarce resource accelerates, we will have to restructure the categories of users in a differentiated way according to tariffs and service allocation because households and food production must have an adequate quantity.

Even reforms of irrigation systems in agriculture can regulate and save the resource as research by the previous award winner, the International Institute for Water Management has shown: if governments cut subsidies for electricity to pump water, Farmers take care of how much groundwater they extract and for how long without affecting productivity. Farmers extracted less when tariffs were higher.

IPS: What is SIWI's position on the issue of rich countries' support to developing economies with sustainable technology for water management?

TH: Water has clear advantages, it connects all the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and it is a truly global issue. If we look around us, we see similar situations in Cape Town, China and California. Water is not a North-South issue.

It is true that new technology develops fast, but a mix of that with traditional technology and local knowledge works well. We also need to adapt traditional technologies to modern needs regarding water and other situations.

They can be basic, inexpensive, and easy to use. And they can drive more efficient storage and use of “green water,” the soil moisture used by plants.

Drip irrigation began to be used more in South Asia, and in India in particular. This needs to be promoted widely. The need for recycling and the way the industry treats and reuses the resource should also be further emphasized.

Technology transfer is done in several ways. The private sector can develop the technology and create markets for it.

Governments can also provide enabling environments to promote technological development in a way that is viable for commercialization.

A good example of this is mobile cellular technology, used from mobile banking to farmers' access to climate information and recommendations in remote regions.

Technology transfer from different countries can be done through donors or banks or through multilateral agencies such as the Green Climate Fund, but any technology must be adapted to local situations.

Training, education, information and technical knowledge are, for me, the best form of technology transfer.

Students and researchers, either through educational exchanges or partnerships between universities, achieve the transfer of knowledge and can return to their countries to work on the development of technologies made according to national needs.

IPS: How can South Asia address the large gender imbalance in access to water and bring more women into resource governance in patriarchal societies?

TH: It is important that those in power promote gender balance not only in decision-making spheres, but also in educational institutions. It is important to make room for this issue in the decision-making structure of an organization.

It is possible if there is equitable access to education. We see an encouraging trend in youth seminars, where sometimes the majority of participants are women.

When planning and implementing projects it is necessary to focus on what impacts, how decisions on specific issues affect men and women separately. And projects must be budgeted in anticipation of gender.

IPS: How can the global South, under pressure to increase gross domestic product, in need of more land and more industries to lift billions of people out of poverty, balance the green and gray water fabric? What role should local communities play in maintaining green infrastructure?

TH: When a village parliament in South Asia decides to reforest, bring the rain back, and when it rains harvest the water, it is a community-focused green infrastructure initiative. If done on a large scale it can bring about a huge change in people, ways of life and societies in general.

For a long time we operated on the assumption that gray infrastructure - dams, dikes, pipes and canals built by humans for one purpose - is superior to what nature can bring us in the form of mangroves, wetlands, rivers and lakes.

Gray infrastructure is very efficient in transporting and containing water for energy production. But paving the prairie around Houston reduced the city's (American) water absorption capacity that Hurricane Harvey dumped in August 2017.

It is not a question of one or the other. We need both, and we have to choose wisely what suits us for our current and future goals.

Whether industrialized or developing countries, today we have to make smart use of green water infrastructure.

Especially in the growing urban settlements of South Asia, we need to capture rainwater, store it in green infrastructure for reuse because gray cannot do it alone.

Translation: Veronica Firm

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