EU water policies in the developing world


This article is part of our special report Water Policy.

As water shortages in developing countries become more acute due to climate change, the EU is backing policies to manage the demands of all sectors, prioritising health, sanitation and cooperation between states.

To achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of halving the proportion of the world's population without access to safe drinking water and improving access to adequate sanitation by 2015, the Commission adopted a Communication on water management in developing countries in 2002, setting out priorities for EU development cooperation on water. 

The EU Water Initiative (EUWI) was launched in 2002 to help achieve the MDGs by improving water management in the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) region and providing access to clean water and sanitation. EUWI is used to coordinate individual EU member states' development aid for water and acts as a catalyst to leverage donor and private financing. It also addresses research issues and water management problems.

The ACP-EU Water Facility, launched in 2004, aims to promote the sustainable delivery of water and sanitation infrastructure and improve water governance and Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) practices in ACP countries by helping to address the financing gap. Specifically, it provides seed financing (grants, soft loans, guarantees and micro-finance) to encourage private companies and other stakeholders to invest in clean water and sanitation projects. 

The Commission also aims to adapt lessons learned from the implementation of the EU's own Water Framework Directive (WFD) to the EUWI in each region in response to the demands of partner countries.

The principal aim of the EU water strategy for developing countries is to help reduce poverty and contribute to achieving the related Millennium Development Goal. Water management is seen as a cross-sectoral issue to be mainstreamed into other EU development policies and an Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) framework, which takes into account:

  • Supply: Ensuring water is supplied to every human being for drinking, sanitation and hygiene purposes, clearly focusing on the poor, women and children. 
  • Transboundary aspects: Management of water resources should take account of the potentially conflicting needs of different countries, with the EU facilitating cooperation between countries. 
  • Distribution: Water distribution should be coordinated so that users from different sectors get their fair share. Water policy must be mainstreamed into related policy areas including agriculture, energy, industry, health and the environment. 

Under the strategy, EU countries are encouraged to bring together the public and private sectors as well as civil society to develop and implement water policies. The idea is to move on from an approach dominated by supply management to one dominated by demand management. In their Resolution on water management, EU ministers noted that this includes pricing water services to ensure financial sustainability while ensuring that the basic needs of vulnerable groups are met. The EU strategy also supports the introduction of the 'polluter pays' principle to reduce water degradation and ensure environmental sustainability. 

To help developing countries cope with various global challenges related to water, the EU executive believes it is also necessary to:

  • Help these countries improve regional cooperation on transboundary water management to prevent conflict;
  • help them deal with the implications of climate change by providing research assistance and building capacity;
  • liberalise international trade to allow imports of water-intensive crops to ensure food security.

The EU executive already supports a number of research initiatives to improve water research for poverty reduction and contributes to the UN Development Goals in this manner [examples include SPLASH and WssTP].

"We all know that water is central to sustainable development: solving water problems means progress across all pillars of sustainable development – economic, social and environmental. It is crucial to achieve all the Millennium Development Goals. No strategy for the reduction of poverty can ignore people's vital requirements of water and sanitation," said EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas

Under the UN MDGs, many EU countries have committed to increasing direct development aid for basic services, including water and sanitation.

The UK Department for International Development (DFID) argues that national water and sanitation plans should be drawn up by each country to provide a single coordinated framework for action. Such a plan would assess current levels of access to water and estimate the levels of investment required. DFID also thinks that a single water and sanitation coordination group is required to allow government, civil society and donor representatives to work together. Countries without such a group could create one with the help of the EU's water initiative, DFID argues. 

As for coordinating UN aid in different countries, DFID suggests identifying a single UN lead body for water and sanitation at the national level, through which all donor aid for water would be coordinated.

According to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), the key to an effective water policy lies in managing demand rather than ability to supply water. WBCSD notes that demand management involves policies and practices that influence how people use water, adding that "the main tools are water conservation and tariff policies". It also underlines that demand for water must be managed to discourage over-production and thus water wastage, which it identifies as a main cause of deprivation. 

SABMiller, one of the world's leading brewers, notes that many of its operations are in areas of water stress. Therefore, "industries such as ours, which depend on water quality and availability, have a particular responsibility to manage water effectively," said chief executive Graham Mackay

The brewer, which operates in many African countries, is committed to making "more beer with less water" by using water more efficiently, understanding watersheds and engaging with suppliers. It has developed a specific watershed mapping tool to examine sites in areas under threat from long-term water stress and has undertaken a water footprinting exercise to evaluate the water used in its supply chain. 

The Stockholm International Water Institute  thinks industry can be a driving force in promoting cleaner, water-saving production techniques, because the sector uses twice as much water worldwide as individual consumers. 

NGOs from both Europe and the ACP countries are critical of the Commission's policy for water management in developing countries, describing it as a means of subsidising water management for private companies. NGOs, including Action Aid InternationalBoth ENDS, the African Network of Civil Society Organisations on Water and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, argue that the ACP-EU water facility in particular supports the expansion of the private sector into water management. "The record of the private water industry in developing countries in the last years has not been systematically assessed, despite high-profile failures and malpractices," the NGOs said in a joint statement. They believe the EU water facility should be dedicated to supporting and upgrading public-run drinking water and sanitation infrastructures. 

However, local governments in the developing world are not always in a position to finance expensive water and sanitation infrastructure themselves and the EU seed money can provide easier access to other means, including private sector funding, know-how and management skills. 

Nevertheless, the devolution of water distribution services to private companies in Europe and across the world has been much criticised. "Privatised water services have been heavily promoted by international agencies, including the World Bank, IMF and even the European Union, as a solution to increased investment needs in water services," stated Corporate Europe Observatory and the Transnational Institute. But "the tide now seems to be turning," according to the two NGOs. "Increased tariffs and a failure to deliver promised improvements have left water multinationals facing increasing opposition," they say. 

  • 2008: The International Year of Sanitation 2008 (IYS).
  • 8 Sept. 2008European Water Research Day.
  • 25 Sept. 2008: High-level event on Millenium Development Goals.
  • Dec. 2008: Commission to present White Paper on adaptation to climate change. 
  • 12-13 Feb. 2009: "Peace with Water" international meeting in the European Parliament.
  • 16-22 March 2009Fifth World Water Forum in Istanbul.
  • 2009: Third UN World Water Development Report published. 

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