Cities and water - The challenges of good water governance in the 21st century

The challenges of good water governance in the 21st century

“Water is the source of all life”
the Quran

“Only when the last tree has been cut down,
only when the last fish has been cut,
only when the last river has been poisoned,
only then will you realise that money cannot be eaten”
Cree Indian prophecy

Brothers and sister, firstly, let me say Assalamualaikum, may peace be upon you. I start with the word 'salaam', peace, because more than any other word, it represents the essence of our work, our agenda for human security, our mission. This 'peace' has three dimensions:

1.peace with ourselves
2.peace with mother earth and the profound and infinite space we call the universe
3.peace with all living things, people and others.

Today, unfortunately, we live in a world where 'peace' is severely shattered, decimated by the evil forces of violence, waste and manipulation. We have a global politics dominated by insincerity and double standards. We have a global environment that is under severe critical stress. We have a global economy that is driven by an ideology of greed and selfishness. In many areas, we see the mother of all failures 'bad governance'. The magazine, The Economist once said, "Of all the ills that kill the poor, none is as central as bad governance."

Keynote address by Dato (Dr) Anwar Fazal, Senior Regional Advisor, The Urban Governance Initiative (TUGI), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Advisor, Water Watch Penang, at the Global Water Forum, Osaka, 18 March 2003. The views expressed are personal. For further information, contact anwar.fazal@undp.org or secr@waba.po.my

The Civilisational Challenges

The governance of water is going to be one of the central survival issues of humanity. There are at least three important mega lessons for humanity from history:-

1.every major civilisation was ultimately destroyed because it did not make peace with nature this is sometimes called "ecocide";

2.if you want to know where any country's future is heading, just look at their principal cities if nations cannot manage their cities, there is little hope they can manage the future this leads to "urbicide" ie cycle of self destruction!

3.water is the source of life and there is no other connector more powerful, more necessary and even more destructive. Just remember the ice age and the power of vapour to create lightning, thunder and fire! Remember 'heavy water' and the nuclear energy!

The Management of the Future

It has been said we never learn from history and one is condemned to repeat it. The incorrigible optimists (and that includes me) believe that the future need not be so that

1.the future is not something we get to, it is something we create;

2.change is the only constant and that managing speed, complexity and tensions will be the skills required; and

3.paths are not just to be found but are to be made.

The Nine Realities

Our cities are creative incubators of civilisation but they are also cradles of squalor and violence. Today as we move from the agricultural and the industrial revolution into the 'urban' revolution, the world is going to face challenges like never before. The "Berlin Declaration on the Urban Future" in July 2000 stated the following nine realities:

  • "For the first time in human history, a majority of the world's 6 billion people will live in cities;
  • The world is facing explosive growth of urban population, mainly in the developing world;
  • Urban poverty, affecting especially women and children, is on the increase, with one in four of the world's urban population living below the poverty line;
  • In many countries, social conditions continue to deteriorate and the health and well being of their citizens are threatened by the HIV-epidemic and the reappearance of major infectious diseases;
  • We live in a world of great diversity, in which there is no simple answer and no single solution to the problems and challenges facing our cities;
  • Many cities, confronted with hypergrowth, are failing to cope with the challenges of generating employment, providing adequate housing and meeting the basic needs of their citizens;
  • Some highly dynamic cities have achieved development with equity, with poverty substantially reduced, illiteracy eliminated, the women educated and empowered, and birth rates falling;
  • Other cities face an ageing population, urban decay, unsustainable use of resources and the need to adapt and change;
  • No city in any part of the world is free of problems; in particular, none is truly sustainable."

To respond to this nine realities, we need a 'holistic' or 'comprehensivist' approach. The single worst critical lacking is that this approach is grossly absent. The dynamics that challenge us include:

  • most people are seriously ignorant about the issue of water in its totality
  • its borderless character transcend local and national political boundaries
  • its both a 'common or public' good as well as increasingly an 'economic' and 'private' good. With deep concerns about the corporate hijacking of public services.

The absence of adequate local, national and global governance frameworks and the rapid destruction of natural systems, including wetlands (earth's kidney) poses an immense and urgent challenge. These include the following three:

  • The challenge of balancing ecology, equity and economics
  • The challenge of education, engineering and enforcement
  • The challenge of balancing "life giving and life protecting", industrial and agriculture use; and the recreational and scenic

The Good Governance Agenda

What can we do? What is being done? A lot and there are many wonderful stories. The is no shortages of ideas or solutions but there is often lack of will, lack of systems, and most of all, ignorance, selfishness and greed. There must be a fundamental shift towards a 'culture of water' that recognises its sacredness, its memory and transformative power and its life-giving properties and the need for treating it with care "it is the source of all life" as the Holy Quran reminds us, as do the other scriptures.

For a view of these ideas, there are many bazaars and marketplaces at this Forum and a galaxy of events will give us an opportunity to experience and share more.

You can also find valuable insights of specific actions in the following four sites:

  • UN HABITAT II Best Practices website which is a powerful database of what works. This has some 1600 proven solutions from more than 140 countries and a significant number on water resource management. Check the website: www.bestpractices.org/

  • The website Urban Resources Water Management that gives you a 'pentagon' of assistance under 5 headings:
    -understanding the importance of water
    -initiatives, programmes and projects
    -micro-action: what can we do ?
    -documents and info repositories, and
    -organisations and institutions
    The website is: www.org/uem/water/

  • The Urban Governance Initiative (TUGI) of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) too has very useful popular mobilisation and educational tools:
    -Water Watch a community guide
    -"Running Water an Action for Better Cities" information package.
    -A popular Report Card tool on Water and Sanitation
    The website is: www.tugi.apdip.net

  • "The Civil Society World Water Vision for Action" represents the deep concerns of over 150 peoples' organisations local and global, and challenges us all to look carefully and deeply into water rights and its place as a common good. The website is www.blueplanetproject.net/english/resources

These four sources will open up a multitude of other windows of knowledge.

Principles of Good Governance

Nothing, however, will work effectively if we don't have in place a framework of good urban governance. At UNDP, we have identified at least nine fundamental principles or core characteristic that we use as benchmarks for good governance and these must also form the anchors of a good water policy strategy. Let me quickly share them with you:

1.Strategic Vision
Leaders and the public have a broad and long-term perspective on good governance and human development, along with a sense of what is needed for such development. There is also an understanding of the historical, cultural and social complexities in which that perspective is grounded.

2.Rule of Law
Legal frameworks should be fair and enforced impartially, particularly the laws on human rights.

Transparency is built on the free flow of information. Processes, institutions and information are directly accessible to those concerned with them, and enough information is provided to understand and monitor them.

Institutions and processes try to serve all stakeholders.

5.Consensus Orientation
Good governance mediates differing interests to reach a broad consensus on what is in the best interest of the group and where possible, on policies and procedures.

All men and women have opportunities to improve or maintain their well-being.

7.Effectiveness & Efficiency
Processes and institutions produce results that meet needs while making the best use of resources.

Decision-makers in government, the private sector and civil society organisations are accountable to the public, as well as to institutional stakeholders. This accountability differs depending on the organisation and whether the decision is internal or external to an organisation.

All men and women should have a voice in decision-making, either directly or through legitimate intermediate institutions that represent their interests. Such broad participation is built on freedom of association and speech, as well as capacities to participate constructively.

For more specific ideas, you can reach some good governance through this website: www.undp.org/water where a dedicated UNDP team is working on Effective Water Governance.

The "Panchasila" or five principles of water

If I had to make a simple and clear statement about 'water rights' and reduce it to articulate it as five principles (which in Sanskrit and Malay languages is 'panchasila'):

i)respect the right of water that it is sacred and is life
ii)respect the right of water that no person is denied access to it
iii)water resources must be managed with efficiency, effectiveness and equity
iv)the knowledge about caring about water must be central to the capacity building of professional dealing with water
v)there must be popular participation of all the stakeholders involved in the care and management of the water cycle


There are many ideas, small and big, and new, from rethinking flush-toilets to better use of rooftops, from new concepts of cleanliness and safety to caring use of water and of course, fair pricing. Water is too important to be left for corporate high-jacking or partisan politics. We must ensure a truly community, caring, committed approach at the local, national and global levels and always, always recognising the natural systems, the sacredness and the power of water. Work for a new Culture of Water. Your life depends on it. Let us respect the right of water as well and the right to water!

We must never forget the many water roles as Raymond Nace said eloquently in 1965: its role as the "Planetary Air Conditioning", the "Earth's water wheel" and the "global distillation system".

And never forget it is the source of life!

I like to conclude by reading you a poem by one of Asia's leading poets, Cecil Rajendra. He wrote this poem called "Aquarian Connection" especially for the World Water Forum and requested me to share it with you:

"Words of tongue
do not matter:
Voda or Wada
Maji or Pani
Agua or Wasser – this is the glue
that holds
all life together.

It has neither
shape, taste
colour or odour
but an awesome
power to break
batter, devastate
deluge & destroy;
yet power too
to resuscitate
sustain, heal
cleanse, create
bless & revive
not so much
essence of life
as life itself.

In water conceived
nurtured, nourished
we, no more
than walking
sacks of water,
too often take
this boon for granted
wobble towards disaster.

From water we came
(several millenia ago)
with water now we flow
our liquid lives
so intertwined
that when water goes
we GO!!"

Thank you.

Keynote address by Dato (Dr) Anwar Fazal, Senior Regional Advisor, The Urban Governance Initiative (TUGI), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Advisor, Water Watch Penang, at the Global Water Forum, Osaka, 18 March 2003. The views expressed are personal. For further information, contact anwar.fazal@undp.org or secr@waba.po.my

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