Protecting Water: Ten Principles

Reproduced with permission from a Special Report issued by
the International Forum on Globalization (IFG), entitled "Blue Gold"
Chair, IFC Committee on the Globalization of Water

IN ORDER TO TAKE the kind of action needed by all levels of government and communities around the world, it is urgent that we come to agreement on a set of guiding principles and values. The following is offered as an opening dialogue:

I) Water belongs to the earth and all species. Water, like air, is necessary for all life. Without water, humans and other beings would die and the earth's systems would shut down. Modern society has lost its reverence for water's sacred place in the cycle of life as well as its centrality to the realm of the spirit This loss of reverence for water has allowed humans to abuse it. Only by redefining our relationship to water and recognizing its essential and sacred place in nature can we begin to right the wrongs we have done.

Because water belongs to the earth and all species, decision-makers must represent the rights and needs of other species in their policy choices and actions. Future generations also constitute "stakeholder" status requiring representation in decision-making about water. Nature, not man, is at the center of the universe. For all our brilliance and accomplishment, we are a species of animal who needs water for the same reasons as other species. Unlike other species, however, only humans have the power to destroy ecosystems upon which all depend and so humans have an urgent need to redefine our relationship to the natural world.

No decisions about water use should ever be made without a full consideration of impacts to the ecosystem.

2) Water should be left where it is wherever possible. Nature put water where it belongs Tampering with nature by removing vast amounts of water from water-sheds has the potential to destroy ecosystems. Large-scale water removal affects not just the immediate systems, but ecosystems far beyond. Water is not "wasted" by running into the sea. The cumulative effects of removing water from lakes, rivers and streams for export by tanker has disastrous large-scale impacts on the coastal and marine environment as well as on the indigenous peoples of the region, and other people whose livelihoods depend upon these areas.

While there may be an obligation to share water in times of crisis, just as with food, it is not a desirable long-term solution for either the ecosystems or the peoples of any region of the world to become dependent on foreign supplies for this life-giving source. By importing for this basic need, a relationship of dependency would be established that is good for neither side. By accepting this principle, we learn the nature of water's limits and to live within them, and we start to look at our own regions, communities and homes for ways to meet our needs while respecting water's place in nature.

3) Water must be conserved for all time. Each generation must ensure that the abundance and quality of water is not diminished as a result of its activities. The only way to solve the problem of global water scarcity is to radically change our habits, particularly when it comes to water conservation. People living in the wealthy countries of the world must change their patterns of water consumption, especially those in water-rich bioregions. If they don't change these habits, any reluctance to share their water -even for sound environmental and ethical reasons -wi1l rightly be called into question.

The key to maintaining sustainable ground water supplies is to ensure that net extractions do not exceed recharge Some water destined for cities and agribusiness will have to be restored to nature. Large tracts of aquatic systems must be set aside for preservation; governments must agree on a global target. Planned major dams must be put on hold and some current river diversions must be reoriented to reflect a more natural seasonal flow or else be de-commissioned altogether.

Infrastructure improvement must become a priority of governments everywhere to stem the huge loss of water through aging and broken systems. Government subsidies of wasteful corporate practices must end. By refusing to subsidize abusive water use, governments will send out the message that water is not abundant and cannot be wasted.

4) Polluted water must be reclaimed. The human race has collectively polluted the world's water supply and must co1lectively take responsibility for reclaiming it. Water scarcity and pollution are caused by economic values that encourage over-consumption and grossly inefficient use of water. These values are wrong. A resolution to reclaim polluted water is an act of self-preservation. Our survival, and the survival of all species, depends on restoring naturally functioning ecosystems.

Governments at all levels and communities in every country must reclaim polluted water systems and halt, to the extent possible, the destruction of wetlands and water systems habitat. Rigorous law and enforcement must address the issue of water pollution from agriculture, municipal discharge and industrial contaminants, the leading causes of water degradation. Government must re-establish control over transnational mining and forestry companies whose unchecked practices continue to cause untold damage to water systems.

The water crisis cannot be viewed in isolation from other major environmental issues such as clearcutting of forests and human induced climate change. The destruction of waterways due to clearcutting severely harms fish habitat. Climate change will cause extreme conditions. Floods will be higher, storms will be more severe, droughts will be more persistent. The demand on existing freshwater supplies will be magnified To reclaim damaged water will require an international commitment to dramatically reduce human impacts on climate.


5) Water is best protected in natural watersheds. The future of a water-secure world is based on the need to live within naturally formed "bioregions," or watersheds. Bioregionalism is the practice of living within the constraints of a natural ecosystem. The surface and ground water conditions peculiar to a watershed constitute a set of essential parameters that govern virtually all life in a region; other characteristics, like flora and fauna, are related to the area's hydrological conditions. Therefore, if living within the ecological constraints of a region is key to developing a sustainable society, watersheds are an excellent starting point for establishing bioregional practices.

An advantage of thinking in watershed terms is that water flow does not respect nation-state borders. Watershed management offers a more interdisciplinary approach to protecting water. Watershed management is a way to break the gridlock among international, national, local and tribal governments that has plagued water policy around the world for so long. Watersheds, not political or bureaucratic boundaries, will lead to more collaborative protection and decision-making.

6) Water is a public trust to be guarded at all levels of government. Because water, like air, belongs to the earth and all species, no one has the right to appropriate it or profit from it at someone else's expense. Water then, is a public trust that must be protected at all levels of government and communities everywhere.

Therefore, water should not be privatized, commodified, traded or exported in bulk for commercial purpose. Governments all over the world must take immediate action to declare that the waters in their territories are a public good and enact strong regulatory structures to protect them. Water should immediately be exempted from all existing and future inter national and bilateral trade and investment agreements. Governments must ban the commercial trade in large-scale water projects.

While it is true that governments have failed badly in protecting their water heritage, it is only through democratically controlled institutions that this situation can be rectified. If water becomes clearly established as a commodity to be controlled by the private sector, decisions about water will be made solely on a for-profit basis.

Each level of government must protect its water trust: municipalities should stop raiding the water systems of rural communities. Watershed cooperation will protect larger river and lake systems. National and international legislation will bring the rule of law to transnational corporations and end abusive corporate practices. Governments will tax the private sector adequately to pay for infrastructure repair. All levels of governments will work together to set targets for global aquatic wilderness preserves.

7) An adequate supply of clean water is a basic human right. Every person in the world has aright to clean water and healthy sanitation systems no matter where they live. This right is best ensured by keeping water and sewage services in the public sector, regulating the protection of water 5upplies and promoting the efficient use of water. Adequate supplies of clean water for people in water-scarce regions can only be ensured by promoting conservation and protection of local water resources.

Governments everywhere must implement a "local sources first" policy to protect the basic rights of their citizens to fresh water. Legislation that requires all countries, communities and bioregions to protect local sources of water and seek alternative local sources before looking to other areas will go a long way to halt the environmentally destructive practice of moving water from one watershed basin to another. "Local sources first" must be accompanied by a principle of "local people and farmers first." Local citizens and communities have first rights to local water. Agribusiness and industry, particularly large transnational corporations, must fit into a "local-first" policy or be shut down.

This does not mean that water should be "free" or that everyone can help themselves. However, a policy of water pricing that respects this principle would help conserve water and preserve the rights of all to have access to it. Water pricing and "green taxes" (which raise government revenues while discouraging pollution and resource consumption) should place a heavier burden on agribusiness and industry than on citizens; funds collected from these sources should be used to provide basic water for all.

8) The best advocates for water are local communities and citizens. Local stewardship, not private business, expensive technology, or even government, is the best protector of water security. Only local citizens can understand the overall cumulative effect of privatization, pollution and water removal and diversion on the local community. Only local citizens know the effect of job loss or loss of local farms when water sources are taken over by big business or diverted to far-away uses. It must be understood that local citizens and communities are the front-line "keepers" of the rivers, lakes and underground water systems upon which their lives and livelihoods rest.

In order to be affordable, sustainable and equitable, the solutions to water stress and water scarcity must be locally inspired and community-based. Reclamation projects that work are often inspired by environmental organizations and involve all levels of government and sometimes private donations. Bur if they are not guided by the common sense and lived experience of the local community, they will not be sustained.

In water-scarce regions, traditional local indigenous technologies, such as local water sharing and rain catchment systems that had been abandoned for new technology, are being revisited with some urgency. In some areas, local people have assumed complete responsibility for water distribution facilities and established funds to which water users must contribute. The funds are used to provide water to all in the community.

9) The public must participate as an equal partner with government to protect water. A fundamental principle for a water-secure future is that the public must be consulted and engaged as an equal partner with governments in establishing water policy. For too long, governments and international economic institutions such as the World Bank, the OECD and trade bureaucrats have been driven by corporate interests Even in the rare instances that they are given a seat at the table, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and environmental groups are typically ignored Corporations who heavily fund political campaigns are often given sweetheart contracts for water resources. Sometimes, corporate lobby groups actually draft the wording of agreements and treaties that governments then adopt. This practice has created a crisis of legitimacy for governments everywhere

Processes must be created whereby citizens, workers and environmental representatives are treated as equal partners in the determination of water policy and recognized as the true inheritors and guardians of the above principles.

10) Economic globalization policies are not water sustainable. Economic globalization's values of unlimited growth and increased global trade are totally incompatible with the search for solutions to water-scarcity. Designed to reward the strongest and most ruthless, economic globalization locks out the forces of local democracy so desperately needed for a water-secure future. If we accept the principle that to protect water we must attempt to live within our watersheds, the practice of viewing the world as one seamless consumer market must be abandoned.

Economic globalization undermines local communities by allowing for easy mobility of capital and the theft of local resources. Liberalized trade and investment enables some countries to live beyond their ecological and water resource means; others abuse their limited water sources to grow crops for export In wealthy countries, cities and industries are mushrooming on deserts. A water-sustainable society would denounce these practices.

Global sustainability can only be reached if we seek greater regional self-sufficiency, not less. Building our economies on local watershed systems is the only way to integrate sound environmental policies with peoples' productive -capacities and to protect our water at the same time.