In the modern era of increased global connection and inequality, efforts to address poverty often seem ineffective. An alternative to such pessimism is a chance to revise the means in which development practitioners perceive and measure poverty. Conventional measurement of human destitution has always developed indicators that also measure the relative affluence in developed countries. Standard use of these statistics, such as gross domestic/national product per capita or GDP/GNP, conveniently allow for cross-cultural comparisons that reduce diverse livelihoods and social relations into mere economic productivity. Certainly, these measurements carry a particular ideology with them (a relationship between production and the nation state that deserves its own essay). To acknowledge this is to hypothesize a more basic and perhaps more universal measure for poverty, one that does not integrate hegemonic notions of economic productivity as progress.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights attempts to establish a foundation for necessary rights among individuals. Similarly, poverty can be measured using a foundation of basic needs. One of the most essential elements to our biology and sustenance for the human body is water. Both access and cleanliness contribute to the consumption of our most vital and sacred resource. Contrary to the ambitions of unrestrained growth and production sponsored by measuring poverty using GNP, water presents an opportunity to assess human development through a rights-based approach. And although comparisons in access to water and sanitation facilities may be useful, human necessity constitutes the priority of such a measure.
The Sphere Humanitarian Charter sets out a number of standards in this regard, including a minimum of 15 litres of clean water per person per day, for drinking, cooking, and washing (The Sphere Project). The appropriateness of employing such measures of poverty is evident in the universality of establishing the minimum amount of water needed to sustain human biological requirements. In a world where more than one billion people in the world still lack access to safe drinking water and double that number (more than 2.6 billion people) are without access to even the most basic sanitation facilities (UNICEF), access to proper water and sanitation serves as a culturally universal to development.
Although many people are at an overwhelming disadvantage in their access to water, the global reality is that most water resources are used for other means, primarily in agricultural and industrial production. Agricultural accounts for approximately 70% of total water use—in Africa this fraction approaches 90%, while in the United States agriculture accounts for 39% of freshwater usage (which is also the same fraction used for cooling thermal power plants) (Hoffman 2004). This paradox is often justified by the growing need to provide “food security” to the increasing world population. However, the agricultural revolution can also be acknowledged as the very catalyst for the exponential population growth that has since become an accepted trait of modern industrial civilization.
Meanwhile, agriculture is considered the main staple in the both local and national food security strategies, a philosophy that is inadvertently at odds with the sustainable development of safe water and sanitation. Growing agricultural irrigation practises should thus be framed within the struggle to provide clean water to those without access. Hopefully sooner than later, agriculturists will begin to realize directing freshwater resources to industrial use is an unsustainable practise that must be rethought and redesigned in order to respond to the vast numbers of people in the world who are without access to clean water.
Although inequality is often measured based on indicators such as GDP that measure growth and production, it is important to remember that inequality also manifests itself in other ways. The crisis surrounding water also manifests itself via regional imbalances in water availability. Once one acknowledges this geographic perspective, it is not difficult to imagine how access to water can become a political and economic issue as well as a measure of poverty. Although, a lack of control and access to water for agricultural and industrial development can contribute to economic decline and increasing poverty, it also breeds inequality. Inequality also arises due to poor health conditions resulting from a lack of water for domestic use (drinking, cooking, etc.), personal hygiene, cleanliness, and sanitation facilities, alongside a set of complex and immeasurable social consequences.
If one is a firm believer that most conflict arises out of inequality, it comes as no surprise then that water is an especially scarce natural resource in the Middle East. Nowhere is this inequality more distinct than between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories:
Presently, more than 85% of the Palestinian water from the West Bank aquifers is taken by Israel, accounting for 25.3% of Israel's water needs. Palestinians are also denied their right [by the Israeli Government] to utilize water resources from the Jordan and Yarmouk Rivers, to which both Israel and Palestine are riparians. At present, Israel is drawing an annual 685 MCM [million cubic meters] from the Jordan River. …As a result of Israeli policies, Palestinians are permitted to utilize 238 MCM of the water resources to supply 2,895,683 Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza strip with their domestic, industrial and agricultural needs. By comparison, 5,757,900 Israelis are utilizing 1959 MCM. (Isaac, 2000)
Meanwhile, the circumstances in the Gaza Strip (Nassereddin, 1997) and West Bank (PWA, 1997) are much worse by comparison, and while Palestinians Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip receive continuous water supply, largely from groundwater wells in the Palestinian Territories. This disparity is clearly marked in both agricultural industries as well (Isaac, 2000).
Although this inequality is exacerbated by an illegal and brutal military occupation, the lines of sovereignty and national self-interest are still unequivocal. It is the ideology of the nation state that makes the Israeli government feel responsibility only to and for its citizens, apathetic to the harm and consequences caused by its policies on neighbouring Palestinians. This is in many ways a metaphor for the manner in which the international community organizes and distributes it resources, including water. While water is accepted as vital to all human beings, these divisions inherently focus on its provisions for a select few. It is a system that promotes disparity in both power and the right to life, which one can conclude as the roots of all conflict. Conflict prevention will then require individuals collectively as nation states to acknowledge the scarcity of nature in a way that preserves our mutual dignities, and a fair system of trading and sharing critical resources, such as water. Unfortunately, this is merely an ideal, one that would require the unlikely commitment of individuals that form the institutions that currently possess and privatize these resources to serve profit and increase their GDP and GNP.
Issues of water and sanitation offer a universal measure for human provisions and development, one that is not linked to the hegemonic ideology of the global capitalist economy. Measuring poverty based on access to water and sanitation provides an alternative for those working in the field of development, particularly for professionals weary of spreading unsustainable growth and contributing to some of the neo-colonial and culturally imperialist impulses out there. Meanwhile, agricultural and industrial exploitation of freshwater resources can no longer continue unrestricted under the illusion of advancing food security, particularly as it impedes more sustainable initiatives in providing basic water and sanitation to those in poverty. Consequently, the use of treated wastewater for crop irrigation is becoming increasingly common.
Although there seems to be an acceptance that water resources are slowly declining, there is very little alarm. Instead measures of GDP and GNP remain as indicators of development, and agricultural industries in “developed” nations carry on consuming the majority of the earth’s water supply and contaminating what remains with millions of tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge, and other wastes. Ultimately the success of human beings on the earth as well as our tendencies towards conflict will depend on our ability to reconfigure our economic priorities and political institutions to complement the earth’s ecology. Water does not recognize political boundaries and, as such, much progress must be made towards accessing these resources with equality and sustainability. Individuals working in the field of international development have both a distinct opportunity and responsibility to study, practise and revise these relationships in a manner that is globally aware.
Hoffman, Allan R. “The Connection: Water and Energy Security,” Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, 2004. <http://www.iags.org/>
Isaac, Jad. “The Essentials of Sustainable Water Resource Management in Israel and Palestine,” Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), Spring 2000.
Nassereddin, T. “Legal and Administrative Responsibility of Domestic Water Supply to Palestine,” The Palestine Consultancy Group (GCP), East Jerusalem and the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, for the Joint Management of Shared Aquifer, 1997.
PWA (Palestinian Water Authority), "Two Stage Well Development Study For Additional Supplies in the West Bank," 1997.
The Sphere Project, “Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response,” 2006. <http://www.sphereproject.org/>
UNICEF, “Water, environment and sanitation,” 2007. <http://www.unicef.org />
On April 12th, 2007 12:56 am (UTC), (Anonymous) commented:
Got a problem? Get Betchel corp to come in and develop a water supply for you, and then when you go through the inevitable sticker shock, and realize your people cant even afford to brush their teeth, throw the bums out of the country, just like Bolivia did. Problem solved!
Actually, I don't think they would fall for it twice, and I'm sure they are still seeking a way to sue Bolivia, but When you live in a place with limited resources, you have to be very creative and disciplined as a people to produce an equitable water resource managment plan that works for everybody. I personally am still extremely impressed by the collection and sistern system that the city of Petra used. I do hope you are familiar with what this ancient city achieved, that allowed them to exist in this barren caravan crossroads. There are lots of ancient ways that could still be useful today, such as atmospheric humidity condensers, and today we can combine old and new methods to optimize, and remember, old is probably not cash dependent, but can be achieved through a co-mutual good will co-operative self-help kind of program.The currency you use here is the best ideas, and yourown labors pooled together in common cause. So what are you waiting for, Peace????