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Home    |   Currents   |   Spreading the Water Wealth: Making Water Infrastructure Work for the Poor*

Spreading the Water Wealth: Making Water Infrastructure Work for the Poor*

Apr 22, 2009

Environmental JusticeInternationalWater

Patrick McCully and Lori Pottinger **

Want of clean water, decent sanitation, and adequate food
and energy strips people of their dignity and their most basic rights.
Inequitable access to water, especially for growing crops, is a major factor in
global poverty and a death sentence for millions each year.

According to the World Bank, “[t]he ‘easy and
cheap’ options for mobilizing water resources for human needs have mostly been
exploited.”[1] If the
World Bank were right, this would be a depressing message for the 1.1 billion
people without easy access to safe water.[2] The
good news is, the Bank is wrong. Many technologically easy and relatively cheap
options for water provision exist that can help lift hundreds of millions of
people out of poverty, end widespread hunger, and reduce the daily workload of
women and children. The bad news is that the World Bank-led large-dam lobby is
aggressively supporting a resurgence in water mega-projects.[3]

“Modern” water management for most of the twentieth century
has meant huge, capital-intensive river-engineering projects that sought to
transform entire regions through the generation of hydropower for industries
and diversion of water to irrigate commercial farms. While these projects
provide around one-sixth of the world’s output of both food and electricity,[4] this
“big is beautiful” form of water management has been intensively criticized in
recent years for its technical and economic failures, for benefiting the
well-off at the expense of the poor, and for its massively negative impacts on
ecosystems.[5] Dams
and diversions have altered 60 percent of the flow in the world’s major rivers;
displaced 40 to 80 million people; destroyed wetlands and farmland; and left
aquatic species struggling to survive.[6]

This global-scale destruction of river, wetland and lake
ecosystems has also taken a huge human toll. As argued by the UN Millennium
Ecosystem Assessment

[T]he harmful effects of the degradation of ecosystem
services . . . are being borne disproportionately by the poor, are contributing
to growing inequities and disparities across groups of people, and are
sometimes the principal factor causing poverty and social conflict. . . . Rural
poor people tend to be the most directly reliant on ecosystem services and most
vulnerable to changes in those services.[7]

Generating enough economic growth to lift the world’s
poorest people out of poverty and meet there basic water, food, and energy
needs can only happen if investments are redirected away from conventional
water mega-projects and towards affordable, decentralized and environmentally
sustainable technologies. The primary obstacle to this necessary solution is
not a lack of appropriate technologies or methods, but generation of the
political will and institutional capacities to implement these options.
However, large-scale investment in low-cost, decentralized and community-based
water projects represents the only chance of reaching the Millennium Development
of halving the number of people in extreme poverty by 2015.

The Reality: The Easy and Cheap Options are Underexploited

The great majority of the world’s extreme poor are small
farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. While the number of urban poor is
rising rapidly, roughly three-quarters of the world’s poorest people live in
rural areas.[8] The UN
Millennium Project
describes the world’s 525 million small farms as the “global
epicenter of extreme poverty.”[9] Most
poor rural farmers live on arid lands and are dependent upon rain-fed farming
for their livelihoods. While most agricultural investment in developing
countries has gone into major irrigation projects, 60 to 70 percent of the
world’s food is produced from the 80 percent of cropland that is rain-fed.[10]
Malin Falkenmark of the Stockholm International Water Institute and Johan
Rockström of the Stockholm Water Institute estimate that providing a decent
diet to everyone in the world by 2050 will require increasing the productivity
of rain-fed farming.[11]

Purifying water at a Bolivian school using solar disinfection.

Partly because the lion’s share of investment in
agricultural infrastructure and research has gone to large-scale irrigation,
rain-fed yields in semi-arid areas currently tend to be very low, especially in
sub-Saharan Africa. Fortunately, a combination of better soil and water
management could significantly increase yields in savannah lands. According to
Falkenmark and Rockström, “there are numerous examples of affordable, socially
and environmentally appropriate water management strategies that can double and
even triple yield levels in rainfed savanna farming systems.”[12]

Savannas cover two-fifths of the world’s land surface, and,
while arid, are not devoid of rain. Dryland water scarcity occurs not from the
overall quantity of annual rainfall, but from its variability and
unpredictability. Savannah farmers do not need a year-round supply of water
from an irrigation canal, but require methods to trap rain when it falls on
their farms, to recharge and pump groundwater when it is needed, to increase
the ability of soil to hold moisture, and to increase the efficiency of the
small-scale irrigation methods they use.

Rainwater harvesting involves trapping rainwater behind
small dams built across seasonally flooded gullies or depressions, or catching
it on surfaces such as roofs and storing it in tanks or jars. In addition to
storing water for later use, such rainwater-harvesting structures serve the
important function of recharging groundwater by allowing collected rainwater to
percolate down into the ground. A number of groups are working to spread
rainwater harvesting to the world’s poor farmers, including:

  • The Rainwater Harvesting Implementation Network (RAIN)
    focuses on field implementation of small-scale rainwater-harvesting
    projects, capacity building of local organizations, and knowledge exchange
    on a global scale. During its first two years of operations, RAIN helped
    create a total storage capacity of approximately 19,983 cubic meters in Ethiopia, Senegal and Nepal. The group also sets up Rainwater Harvesting Capacity Centres in the
    countries where it works.[13]
  • In the past five years, a program called Mother's
    Underground Water Tank has built more than 90,000 underground water tanks
    in China's most water stressed regions, benefiting about one million rural
    residents. Each water tank has a capacity of thirty-five cubic meters. The
    program also has built 1100 minor centralized water supply facilities. A
    project of the China Women Development Foundation, it has now expanded
    from the drought-stricken northwestern part of China to include to rural
    communities in the southwestern Carst region.[14]
  • In India, the group Tarun Bharat Sangh has helped farmers
    in the dry state of Rajasthan build thousands of water-catchments devices
    to restore groundwater and provide drinking water.[15]
  • In Brazil's dry northeast, where millions live without
    regular access to clean drinking water, a community-driven initiative is
    building low-cost cisterns for the poor. The Million Cisterns Project aims
    to provide drinking water to five million people in the next decade.[16]

Rainwater harvesting is particularly beneficial when coupled
with affordable technologies. For example, simple drip irrigation kits
drastically reduce the quantity of water needed to irrigate crops and
human-powered treadle pumps efficiently withdraw recharged groundwater.
International Water Management Institute (IWMI) researchers cite studies
claiming three- to four-fold yield increases for farmers in Burkina Faso, Kenya and Sudan using drip irrigation and hand-watering made possible by rainwater
harvesting.[17] Across
South Asia, the group International Development Enterprises (IDE) introduced
an effective, low-cost drip system that resisted clogging and sold for
one-fifth the price of conventional equipment. Families can invest as little as
three dollars to buy a kit that irrigates a forty square-meter kitchen garden.
These systems provide a 300 percent annual return on investment, which can be
reinvested to expand the system’s coverage by an acre or more. In 2004, farmers
in India purchased enough IDE equipment to irrigate 20,000 acres. The group’s
founder, Paul Polak, expects that within ten years low-cost drip systems will
irrigate several million hectares in India alone, an amount larger than the
total worldwide area under drip irrigation today.[18]

Treadle pumps provide water, food, and income to more than 1.5 million Bangladeshi farmers.

A Rice Revolution

Boosting water productivity—achieving more “crop per
drop”—is essential for feeding the world’s growing population while protecting
freshwater ecosystems and stopping aquifers from being sucked dry. A set of
principles and methods called the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) holds
the promise of a dramatic improvement in water productivity of rice and,
potentially, other water-intensive crops.[19]

While rice is one of the world's most important staple
crops, traditional growing methods require significant amounts of water.
According to Ismail Serageldin, Chairman of the World Bank Consultative Group
on International Agricultural Research and World Bank Vice President for
Special Programs, “It takes twice as much water to produce rice than any other
cereal crop—more than 2,000 tons of water is used to grow one ton of rice.”[20]
Agricultural scientists have made huge breakthroughs in reducing the amount of
water needed to grow rice, while improving yields. SRI reduces water use by 50
percent, increases yields by 50 to 100 percent, and does not require expensive
chemical inputs or hybrid seeds.[21] An
estimated 90 percent of agricultural water use in Asia is currently for rice
production, so the savings could be huge.[22]

A common argument used by the backers of high-risk
mega-projects is that, while small-scale technologies can provide benefits on a
small-scale in marginal areas, interventions on a scale large enough to
significantly increase food production and boost economic growth can only come
from large water storage infrastructure. In reality, the dam lobby has its
arguments reversed—large water infrastructure is limited in the areas where it
can expand. Large dam-and-canal irrigation schemes are generally suitable only
for broad alluvial plains alongside major rivers. In Africa and Asia, there are few appropriate sites left on which to expand irrigation mega-projects.[23]
And too often the cost of such development is prohibitive.

In contrast, small-scale technologies can be applied across
the world’s croplands. Paul Polak of IDE believes it would cost 20 billion
dollars to reach the Millenium Development Goals of bringing 100 million small
farming families in Africa and Asia out of extreme poverty between 2005 and
2015 through low-cost water technologies.[24]
This is less than one-tenth of the investment on large dams in developing
countries between 1990 and 2000.[25] Frank
Rijsberman of IWMI calculates the total economic benefit of lifting these 100
million families out of poverty as 300 to 600 billion dollars.[26]
Polak’s numbers indicate that every billion dollars invested in a mega-dam
could have lifted 5 million farming families out of poverty via treadle pumps,
drip irrigation and rainwater harvesting.[27]

Improving yields for the world’s small farms would have
significant economic impacts at the national and global levels. Not only would
increased yields enable farmers to feed their families, but benefits would
cascade through the broader economy. The improved yields would provide low-cost
food for the rest of the economy and support growth in businesses supplying
inputs to farmers and in food processing. The implications of these benefits
can be monumental. Michael Lipton of the Poverty Research Unit at the
University of Sussex states that, “[t]here are virtually no examples of mass
dollar poverty reduction since 1700 that did not start with sharp rises in
employment and self-employment income due to higher productivity in small
family farms.”[28]

Storage for the Poor

The ability to store water for when it is most needed is
also vital, especially for farmers in those regions of the world where rainfall
varies widely between seasons and years. Global warming is making the ability
to store water even more important. Large reservoir, however, are not the only
form of water storage. Water stored in small reservoirs, in groundwater and in
wetlands generally provides much greater economic benefits—and benefits that
are more likely to reach the poorest people—than that stored in large

Small reservoirs and rainwater-harvesting structures (such
as the 300,000 agricultural “tanks” in South India and the seven million ponds
in China)[29] are more
likely to benefit poorer farmers as they are widely dispersed and more likely
to be built and controlled at the community level. Large reservoirs, in
contrast, mainly provide benefits to the relatively wealthy minority of large
farmers that live in the fertile plains and receive canal water.[30]

In many respects, the best way of storing water is
underground. Groundwater does not evaporate, is well protected from biological
contamination, is geographically dispersed, and can be accessed whenever
needed, provided labor or energy is available for pumping. Crop yields in areas
irrigated by groundwater are often double those on large dam-and-canal
irrigation schemes, in part because farmers rather than irrigation agencies
control when groundwater is supplied to crops.[31]
However, in some cases, governments have tried to restrict new water
harvesting for groundwater recharge, by claiming government ownership of water
below ground.[32]

The downside of groundwater use is that in many areas it is
being used at a much faster rate than it is replenished via rainfall and
floods. In some areas of India, overuse of groundwater has led to the collapse
of agriculture and the contamination of drinking water supplies with saline
However, from the perspective of food production and poverty alleviation, it is
far more important to implement policies to manage groundwater extraction and
practices to recharge aquifers than to invest in additional big dam projects.

Wetlands, which store large amounts of water, have greater
ecological, economic, and societal value per cubic meter of water stored than
reservoirs. Wetlands provide water storage and purification, absorb floods,
irrigate crops, and produce economic and livelihood resources such as game,
fruits and vegetables, fodder for grazing, fuel, fish, building materials, and
tourist attractions.

A study of the proposed Kano River irrigation project in
arid northern Nigeria, which would have diverted water from the large
Hadejia-Nguru wetland, shows that water is more valuable when stored in a
wetland than in an irrigation reservoir. The study predicted that every 1000
cubic meters of water used on the irrigation scheme would generate net economic
benefits of four US cents.[34]
Meanwhile the net economic benefits of traditional uses of the floodplain were
calculated as at least thirty-two dollars per 1000 cubic meters of water—800
times greater than using the water for irrigation.[35] Another estimate puts the total global
economic value of wetlands at 70 billion dollars per year.[36]

The Way Forward

Intelligent water infrastructure development alone cannot
solve the scandal of global poverty and inequality. Many policy and
institutional changes are needed, including land reform, changes to subsidy and
trade policies, debt cancellation, a stronger role for local communities in
decision making, and an end to the ill-advised privatization and deregulation
policies of the past two decades. In addition, some local water laws will need
to be analyzed to ensure they encourage rather than hinder water regimes that
benefit the world’s poor. In particular, water rights may need refining to
ensure that rainwater-harvesting structures can be built. But without a
transformation of priorities in the water sector none of the solutions above
can make a significant contribution to reducing poverty on a global scale.

Changing water sector priorities will require the World Bank
to stop acting as the lobbying arm for the global big-dams industry. Aid funds
need to be redirected to the research, development, and implementation of
small-scale projects. Unfortunately, the institutional limitations of the World
Bank and other multilateral donors mean they are not well positioned to directly
finance such projects. As such, the bulk of funding will need to come from
bilateral institutions and non-governmental organizations. The World Bank needs
to encourage a policy environment in which decentralized, small-scale solutions
are supported rather than discouraged. It also needs to acknowledge the
superior potential of small-scale solutions in its needs and options
assessments and to desist from undermining them by promoting megaprojects.

Although not all big dams are inherently bad, water
strategies focused on big dams cannot significantly reduce poverty and they divert
money away from approaches that can. The hundreds of billions of dollars that
the big-dam lobby is encouraging to be sunk into the “hard path” for water
infrastructure could be put to work helping spread pro-poor technologies. If
they were, the impacts could be nothing short of revolutionary.


* This piece is an adaptation of Patrick McCully, Int’l Rivers Network,
Spreading the Water Wealth
(2006), available at

** Mr. McCully is the executive director
of International Rivers. Ms. Pottinger is the editor of World Rivers Review
and an Africa campaign staff member at International Rivers.

[1] See
Patrick McCully, Int’l Rivers Network,
Avoiding Solutions, Worsening Problems
7 (2002) (quoting World Bank, Water
Resources Sector Strategy—Strategic Directions for World Bank Engagement, Draft
for Discussion of March 2002
at 3 (Apr. 2002)), available at

[2] U.N. Dev. Programme [UNDP], Human
Development Report 2006
at 2 (2006), available at http://hdr.undp.org/en/reports/global/hdr2006/.

[3] See Patrick McCully, Int’l Rivers Network,
Spreading the Water Wealth
3–4 (2006); see generally World Bank, supra note 1.

[4] See World Comm’n on Dams, Dams and Development: A
New Framework for Decision-Making 13–14
(2000), available at
http://www.dams.org//docs/report/wcdreport.pdf; José
Goldemberg & Thomas B. Johansson, U.N. Dev. Programme et al.,
World Energy Assessment Overview 2004 Update 28 (2004), available at

[5] See,
e.g., Patrick McCully, Silenced

[6] See World Comm’n on Dams, supra note 4,
at 13–14.

[7] Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Ecosystems and
Human Well-being: Synthesis Report
17 (2005).

[8] U.N. Millennium Project, Investing in
Development: A Practical Plan to Achieving the Millennium Development Goals 17
The situation is different in Latin America and the Caribbean where 60 percent of the extreme poor live in urban areas.

[9] Id. at 65.

[10] Malin Falkenmark & Johan Rockström,
Balancing Water for Humans and Nature: The New Approach in Ecohydrology

9, 67 (2004).

[11] See
generally id

[12] Id. at 177.

[13] See
Rainwater Harvesting
Implementation Network,
Facts & Figures
(2007), available at http://www.rainfoundation.org/fileadmin/PublicSite/Facts_Figures/RAIN_Facts___Figures_DEC_2007_-150.jpg.pdf.

[14] Emails
from Ma Jun, Director, Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (Jan.
2007). For more information, see http://www.cwdf.org.cn/zhuati/xiangmujiangjian/zhuati01.htm
(Chinese language only).

[15] For
more information, see www.tarunbharatsangh.org/.

Phillip Wagner, Bringing Water
and Hope to Brazil’s Backlands
, Rhythm
of Hope
(2004), www.rhythmofhope.org/article_cisterns.php.

[17] A. Inocencio, H. Sally & D. J. Merrey,
Int’l Water Mgmt. Inst., Innovative Approaches to Agricultural Water Use for
Improving Food Security in Sub-Saharan Africa (

[18] See
Paul Polak, The Big Potential of Small Farms, Sci. Am. Mag., Sept. 2005. For more
information, see

[19] Ass’n
Tefy Saina & Cornell Int’l Inst. for Food, Agric. & Dev’t, Origins of
SRI, http://ciifad.cornell.edu/SRI/origins.html (last visited Apr. 3, 2009).

[20] Press
Release, World Bank Consultative Group on Int’l Agric. Research, New Rice
Techniques Promise up to 25 Percent Less Water Usage (May 17, 1999), available

[21] Ass’n
Tefy Saina & Cornell Int’l Inst. for Food, Agric. & Dev’t, SRI System
of Rice Intensification, http://ciifad.cornell.edu/SRI/advant.html (last
visited Apr. 3, 2009).

[22] Press
Release, World Bank Consultative Group on Int’l Agric. Research, supra
note 20.

[23] See,
, InterAcademy Council,
Realizing the Promise and Potential of African Agriculture 50–51

[24] See
Polak, supra note 18.

[25] World Comm’n on Dams, supra note 4,
at 11.

[26] Frank Rijsberman,
Copenhagen Challenge
, The Water
21 (2004).

[27] See
Polak, supra note 18.

[28] Michael Lipton, Int’l Food Policy Research
Inst., The Family Farm in a Globalizing World
viii (2005).

[29] See
IWMI-Tata Water Policy Program, The Challenges of Integrated River Basin
Management in India
, Water Policy
, June 2002, at 2.

[30] See,
, Rijsberman, supra
note 26, at 7.

[31] See
Marcus Moench, Jacob Burke &
Yarrow Moench, U.N. Food & Agric. Org., Rethinking the Approach to
Groundwater and Food Security
(2003), available at http://www.fao.org/DOCREP/005/Y4495E/Y4495E00.HTM.

[32] Colorado, for example, restricts rainwater harvesting. See Nicholas Riccardi, Who
owns Colorado's rainwater?
, L.A. Times, Mar. 18, 2009, available at

[33] See,
e.g., British Geological
Survey & Wateraid, Groundwater quality: Northern India
2–4 (2004), available
www.wateraid.org/documents/nindia.pdf; D.K. Saha and K. Choudhury, Saline
Water Contamination of the Aquifer Zones of Eastern Kolkata
, 9 J. Indian Geophys. Union 241 (2005), available

[34] See
Int’l Union for Conservation of
Nature, Deciding the Future of Wetlands

[35] See

[36] Kirsten Schuyt & Luke Brander, World
Wildlife Fund, The Economic Values of the World’s Wetlands
5 (2004).

Copyright 2009 The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.

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