Boutros Boutros Ghali Predicts Regional Water Wars

In an interview with the BBC, former United Nations Secretary Boutros Boutros Ghali predicted that conflicts would soon arise between countries in the Nile basin over rights to water that flows through the Nile.

Egypt has long been the largest user of water from the Nile, but countries upstream are coming closer to more intensively using that water, which Boutros Ghali predicts will lead to conflict between Egypt and countries such as Ethiopia, Tanzania and Kenya.

Boutros Ghali noted that Egypt’s population has more than tripled over the last 50 years and is still growing, putting heavy demand on Nile water resources. Boutros Ghali told the BBC,

The security of Egypt is related to the relation between Egypt and Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya and other African countries. The real problem is that we need an additional quantity of water and we will not have an additional quantity of water unless we find an a agreement with the upstream countries which also need water and have not used Nile water until now.

But the BBC interview failed to mention a major overriding problem with water in the Middle East and Africa — it is almost universally mismanaged, since it relies on bureaucracies setting water targets and policies rather than letting markets dictate the true cost of water.

In Egypt, for example, 85 percent of water goes to agriculture, and agricultural water use is micromanaged to the point where government committees plan out a year in advanced which crops will be allowed to grow where and how water will be allocated among them. Not surprisingly the result is large-scale inefficiency and misallocation of water resources.

Mismanagement of water is almost universal, even in countries such as the United States which don’t yet have severe water problems. But places like the Middle East and Northern African simply cannot afford to protect industries or individuals from the true cost and scarcity of water. Unfortunately, doing so is likely to prove very politically unpopular, but one can always hope that developing countries might prefer transparent markets in water to conflicts between states that may lead to larger problems, while leaving the underlying problem uncorrected.


Ex-UN chief warns of water wars. Mike Thompson, The BBC, February 2, 2005.

World Hits Milestone for Drinking Water Availability

The Christian Science Monitor recently noted that for the first time in history, the world’s glass is literally half full. According to World Health Organization and UNICEF statistics, about 700 million people in the developing world have gained access to safe drinking water in their residence, pushing the percentage of people with access to drinking water in their homes to more than 50 percent of the entire world population for the first time ever.

This has led to a number of related improvements in quality of life. The obvious improvement is a decline in hygeine-related diseases. Although it hasn’t kept up with the advance in drinking water availability, improvements in sanitation in the developing world have also helped reduce the incidence of such diseases.

Another important advantage is the empowerment of women. For many women in developing countries, obtaining enough safe drinking water is a task which can take up to an entire working day. The Christian Science Monitor notes, for example, that in Tanzania, women might walk four to six hours to obtain safe drinking water for themselves and their families. With women no longer devoting so much time simply obtaining water, they are able to devote themselves to other projects.


Finally, the world’s drinking glass is more than half full. G. Jeffrey MacDonald, Christian Science Monitor, December 30, 2004.

United Nations Conference on Water

Japan recently hosted the third World Water Forum that featured about 10,000 delegates from 150 countries.

The United Nations has set a goal of reducing by half the number of people without access to safe water and sanitation by 2015. But that seems very unlikely, especially as the forum itself was bogged down by competing interest groups and debate about the best approaches to bring about this admirable goal.

China received praise for its efforts to collect rainwater which has yielded enough drinking water for 15 million people. Such programs, however, rely on good governance which cannot necessarily be guaranteed over time. India also experienced a lot of initial success with a rainwater collection system which then fell victim to lack of maintenance and oversight.

But the oddest thing was the private vs. public water debate. A coalition of NGOs called the Blue Planet Project was unhappy that the last World Water Forum had given its approval for privatization of water facilities. The Blue Planet Project insists that access to water is a “right” that should be guaranteed by the state.

Right, since good governance of public resources is such a hallmark of developing countries that they are the obvious choice to manage water facilities. Privatizing water in such countries has the specific advantage of removing water management from the political realm where corruption has led to the mismanagement of water and other resources in the developing world.


Forum tackles world water crisis. Tim Hirsch, The BBC, March 16, 2003.

World meets to tackle water crisis. Ben Sutherland, The BBC, March 15, 2003.

‘Ideological battle’ over world’s water. Tim Hirsch, The BBC, March 18, 2003.

Ronald Bailey’s Excellent Overview of the Problem with Water

Ronald Bailey wrote an excellent overview of the current water crisis, Water, Water Nowhere?, that identified a major cause of water shortages around the world — the lack of markets for water which tend to lead to gross misallocations of water. Bailey opens his article with a typically absurd example of the way water is price when it is controlled by political systems rather than markets,

One thousand Arkansas rice farms have just about pumped away all their ground water. Naturally, they are looking to taxpayers for relief. Specifically, they are clamoring for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency responsible for America’s waterways, to spend $200 million on a new system of reservoirs, canals, and pumping stations to divert water to their farms from the nearby White River . . . Resource economist Delworth Gardiner, a professor emeritus at the Brigham Young University, has calculated that the total cost to society of a typical federal irrigation project is $400 per acre-foot of water (and acre-foot is the amount of water it takes to cover one acre to a depth of one foot). The market value of the water ranges from $50 to $100 per acre-foot, but farmers usually pay the Bureau of Reclamation about $20 to $30. If such irrigation projects were evaluated on a true cost-benefit basis, says Gardiner, “there would be no new federal water projects at all.”

But because water allocation is dictated by political rather than market forces, there are numerous such federal water project whose main purpose is to charge taxpayers exorbitant funds to misallocate limited water supplies.

One of the main problems in getting around these existing situation is precisely that the farmers who are on the receiving end of this largesse have political clout that makes simply charging them the true value of the water they use all but impossible. But Bailey offers an interesting way to deal with this while establishing water markets through the back door. Bailey writes,

One ingenious end run around the political problems posed by subsidized water allocation is a “charge-subsidy” scheme that would involve allocating a base property right to a certain amount of water, taking into account its historical use, to individual farmers or groups of farmers. If they used more than their base amount, they would pay market prices for the additional water. If they used less, they could sell the water they saved at market prices to other users, such as cities and industries. This arrangement would strongly encourage water use efficiency and establish water markets between farmers, urban dwellers, and industrial users.

In the case of federal water projects, farmers would receive their initial allocation of water at, say, $20 per acre-foot. If they needed more, they’d pay $100 per acre-foot. If they saved water, they could sell it to city dwellers for $100 per acre-foot. In fact, it might be more profitable for some farmers to stop farming and sell all their water to other users. Such a system would not be perfect, but it would be better than the mess we find ourselves in now.

Such creative solutions are, of course, almost impossible to get past the various interest groups that lobby the government on issues like water allocation, but without some sort of market-based allocation of water, it is going to become more scarce and produce ever more convoluted political systems to allocate it in the face of government-created inefficiencies.


Water, Water Nowhere? Ronald Bailey, Reason, November 13, 2002.

Is the UN Placing Enough Priority on Urban Water?

David Satterthwaite of the International Institute of Environment and Development in London recently told the BBC that the United Nations’ goals for clean water are unrealistic and do not do enough to address water quality issues in urban settings. Satterthwaite is working on a report for the UN that will make those points.

Satterthwaite told the BBC,

According to most official government statistics, most urban people have good water and sanitation. Our puzzle has long been that pretty much every city and small urban centre I work with in Africa and Asia, and most in Latin America has very poor provision, especially for low-income groups.

. . .

There are no sewers, few open drains, and most people rely on standpipes. It’s common for there to be 1,000 to each stand pipe.

Satterthwaite argues that the total number of people in urban settings lacking access to clean water and sanitation is likely four to five times that of official statistics. He told the BBC,

Possibly the most socking thing we found was the number of urban dwellers who rely on open defecation. They have no toilet. What we found was, in many cities, there’s been a popular term for open defecation. In many cities in Africa, it’s known as “flying toilets,” because you defecate in a plastic bag and then you throw it.


UN water aims ‘unrealistic’. The BBC, February 28, 2003.

Israel’s Water Shortage

Israel is experiencing severe water shortages at the moment, though most of the shallow media coverage of the problem completely missed the main reason for the shortages — Israel’s massive subsidies that encourage wasteful water use.

The BBC recently reported that Israeli Water Commissioner Shimon Tal will call for a total ban on watering lawns for the next three years and cut available water supplied to Israeli industry by ten percent. The entire issue is a political hot potato since Israel diverts water from the Palestinian territories to provide it to Jewish settlements.

But the shortages are caused because the government underprices water to farmers. Since the 1960s, Israel has sold waters to farmers at a rate that is 35 percent below what it sells to households and industry (and the price it sells to households and industry is also likely below the market cost of water).

Not surprisingly, agricultural use of water is through the roof, with 500 million cubic meters of subsidized water expected to be used for agriculture in 2001 alone. One of the things driving this use is that much of the subsidized water use in settlements is used for nonagricultural purposes.

Israeli National Infrastructure Minister Avigdor Lieberman wants to scrap the water subsidy, which is really the only way to restore a bit of sanity to Israeli water use. Unfortunately it is likely to be politically unpopular.


Lieberman seeks end to water subsidy for farmers. Amiram Cohen, Ha’aretz, April 16, 2001.

Israel faces water crisis. Paul Wood, The BBC, May 23, 2001.