Partnering in groundwater governance
Some 97% of the ready-to-use freshwater on Earth – that in liquid form − comes from underground aquifers. Groundwater is thus a public good for an obvious reason: it is a collective lifeline. In June 2010, the United Nations formally acknowledged the right to water, in a binding resolution adopted by 122 countries.
The question is: how do you ensure equitable access and prevent depletion and pollution when there are so many competing players? About 43% of the water used for irrigation worldwide comes from aquifers. In Europe and North America, however, the biggest user of freshwater is industry. It thus made sense to invite private corporations to the table last March when 22 countries of the UN Economic Commission for Europe met in Delft (Netherlands) to discuss ways of improving groundwater governance. The regional consultation was organized by UNESCO, the FAO, Global Environment Facility, World Bank and International Association of Hydrologists, within the Groundwater Governance Project described overleaf.
The roundtable explored avenues for involving the private sector more closely in groundwater governance. Instruments already exist but, whereas governments rely on regulations, laws and subsidies to govern groundwater use, the private sector tends to be more concerned with obtaining permits, compliance reporting and avoiding ‘bad behaviour’ that might damage its reputation with consumers.
Corporations which drill into the Earth in search of water, minerals, oil or gas gain vast knowledge of the subsurface. As this gives them a comparative advantage and comes at great cost, some corporations are reluctant to share their data with the public sector, particularly if this could expose them to future liability. Yet the public sector needs this knowledge and data. Now, more than ever, the public sector needs the financial might that corporations can wield; much of existing water infrastructure, for instance, has been provided or financed by the energy sector. How then can the public sector drive a sharing culture with the private sector? Some panellists had the answer: with big carrots and small sticks!
The panellists – from Schlumberger, Shell, Heineken, Vitens, Nestlé Waters, etc – expressed readiness to cooperate and share their data. They could see that consolidating ties with the water community, government and agriculture sector was in their best interests. After all, as Andrew Cameron from Shell observed, many decisions that appear to fall outside the domain of groundwater governance still have an impact on groundwater use, including energy and land-use policies, trade and agricultural subsidies. The problem is the lack of clear mechanisms for consolidating these ties. One wit described the groundwater scientist community as being ‘like a ghetto.’
Then there is the ‘cultural’ barrier. Companies might need a decision ‘by Monday,’ for instance, but governments do not work to such time scales. Conversely, companies’ long-term investment plans rarely match the short cycle of electoral mandates. Could the best way to engage people across sectors and scientific disciplines be to focus on a risk-based approach, a language understood by all stakeholders?
The mood of the meeting was summed up by Ronan LeFanic from Nestlé Waters. ‘It is the first time that we can present our vision and expertise on this topic and discuss with a broad range of experts how to enhance groundwater governance,’ he enthused. ‘We are willing to participate in future meetings to follow up the conclusions of this roundtable.’
UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme is taking him at his word. In September, it is organizing a full-day seminar for the public and private sectors. Several panellists have agreed to help prepare the programme.
Assistant Director-General for Natural Sciences