‘Fair distribution of water requires a transformation in policy and science’

Published on
June 13, 2017

‘Water scarcity for the many and water abundance for the few usually go together’. When it comes to distributing the decreasing amount of water available for drinking and irrigation, many governments and international policy institutes fail to take into consideration local expertise and the customs, practices and interests of the communities that, in practice, often manage the water. According to Professor Rutgerd Boelens, this promotes an unfair distribution of water. He presented his inaugural lecture as Professor holding a personal Chair in Water Governance and Social Justice at Wageningen University & Research on 8 June.

Around the world, the water available for drinking and irrigation is decreasing in both quantity and quality. A water shortage threatens the food supply of many tropical countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia but also affects countries in the West. However, the advantages and disadvantages of water (re)distribution are not shared equally. Governments and international organisations are familiar with the issues, yet their solution is often one-sided or may even aggravate the situation.

Local farmer organisations or drinking water collectives often manage their own water supply, keeping in mind individual problems while aiming to find collective solutions. This form of management is defined by the complex challenge of serving all members of the community and resolving differences internally. In many cases, these local water management systems are maintained until water problems are ‘solved’ from above. Governments and international organisations tend to force uniform management formats with modern and efficient systems on local organisations. In everyday practice, consciously or not, this often implies redistributing water to powerful agricultural, industrial or urban interest groups.

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Centralised perspective

For governments, the distribution of water is viewed from an economic and centralised perspective with emphasis on technology and the market. In practice this system is often accompanied by unbalanced power relations, corruption, the reverence for ‘expert knowledge’ and, partly as a result, the unfair distribution of water. A great deal of the available water is redirected to ‘relations’ and large manufacturing companies and little, or whatever is left, is directed to the poor farmers who make up the majority of the population. ‘Water policy is often focused on a utopian, radical change of existing water management cultures. Without any knowledge of their inner workings, these local forms of management are labelled as being backwards and wasteful. The fantastical hydro-political systems envisioned by governments and expert institutions often cause big problems for those who have to bear the results of this uniform and one-sided policy,’ states Professor Rutgerd Boelens in his inaugural lecture titled ‘Rivers of scarcity – Utopian water regimes and flows against the current’.

Professor Boelens argues that the approach by governments, development organisations and international businesses often does not conform to local customs, agreements and traditions and sometimes even works to their detriment. Public-private partnerships are often set up to modernise water management, yet the knowledge, culture and history of the local communities and their management organisations tend not to be considered. Boelens presents examples of southern hemisphere countries, but also countries in Europe. As a result, farmers experience a significant rise in the costs of water supply, which can sometimes increase by hundreds of per cent, although it is often unclear who is actually receiving this money. Simultaneously, in many cases, maintenance is lacking and the systems deteriorate. Farmers see their yields drop which is the exact opposite of what had been projected. ‘In addition, the farming community loses its authority as water management and its autonomy in making decisions,’ adds Prof Boelens.

According to Prof Boelens, this signals the need for comparative research into the diversity of local forms of water management and how these can be linked to new, multiscale and transdisciplinary forms of water management in which government, farmers’ organisations, knowledge institutes and social and international organisation can work together. ‘This not only takes into account local needs, but also provides policy makers and government officials with a better understanding of local water issues. And this, in turn, gives farmers in southern and western countries a new perspective.’

Water resource management

Rutgerd Boelens’ chair falls under the Water Resource Management Chair group which is headed by Professor Petra Hellegers. In addition to his position as Professor holding a personal Chair at Wageningen University & Research, Rutgerd Boelens is also Professor by special appointment in Political Ecology of Water in Latin America at the University of Amsterdam. Professor Boelens is also a guest professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru and at the Central University of Ecuador. 

Rutgerd Boelens has written many academic books and articles and is the author of film documentaries and popular language books such as Aguas Rebeldes (2009), a  photo, poem, text and songs book about the fight for water and justice in the Andes, dedicated to murdered photographer and film maker Julio Garcia with whom he worked for many years to visualise the local struggles over water.