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What is Water Poverty?

Updated: Apr 8

Water scarcity can be defined by: a lack of sufficient water or not having access to safe & sustainable water supply. Who defines what is safe, do we accept guidelines without question? Sustainability is a fluid concept that evolves with technology and community cohesiveness.

Water poverty, although similar to scarcity is a slightly different tone of concept. You can have scarcity of water, even when it seems abundant.

A global example: Bangladesh.

“...Bangladesh, has abundant groundwater resources and rainfall as well as rivers in flow, which mean that aquifers are regularly recharged (Ahmad, 2000). Groundwater depletion will probably not become a general problem in the country, but over utilisation of surface water sources and sinking groundwater tables may become a problem in certain areas (especially the northwest region) in some parts of the year (March/ April) and in years with relatively little rainfall. Further, in the coastal areas intrusion of saline water might become a problem. Irrigation development in Bangladesh, as in other countries of Asia, has been part of a more general “groundwater boom” based on an informal, private and fairly unregulated exploitation of groundwater (Shaha et al., 2003). Although this “boom” has improved the livelihoods of millions of people and has mobilised huge private investments into the water sector, future development may lead to increasing problems of resource depletion and pollution…”

P. 99 Poverty and Water: Rural Poverty in Bangladesh

How we access the water, who is accessing it, determining cost and distributing it are all part of the concept of what creates or destroys water poverty. Scarcity, in economic terms can be mitigated solely by who determines the standards in the first place. Could not the same thing be said for water?

In my college years, a documentary during my environmental studies courses etched itself into my brain. It was called Blue Gold, The Water Wars It scared me.

Years later, we still speak of the same issues but I find that no mainstream conversation aside from the occasional New York Times PSA makes its way into the scheme of our societal consciousness. It's there, but not "there" enough for people to be truly concerned.

Investors in the Western United States know the contentiousness of water availability, and want to profit from its privatization.

"...Transferring water from agricultural communities to cities, though often contentious, is not a new practice. Much of the West, including Los Angeles and Las Vegas, was made by moving water. What is new is for private investors — in this case an investment fund in Phoenix, with owners on the East Coast — to exert that power. .... “They’re going to make big bucks off the water, and who’s going to suffer?” she said. “It’s the rural counties going up against big money.”..... “The whole history of the American West is about moving water,” Mr. Gammage of Greenstone said. “One of the things I think we’ve learned over time is that a resource like water is best allocated through kind of a combination of market forces and regulatory oversight.”

“....Poverty is still the gravest insult to human dignity, and is still with us despite decades of international efforts to eradicate it. Life at the edge of existence…” This is how the former Chair of the World Commission on Environment and Development, and former Prime Ministor of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland, characterised poverty. Today, more than 20 years after the Commission presented their report Our Common Future, the claim is still as valid as then.

Poverty can be defined in absolute and relative terms. Absolute poverty refers to individuals abilities to meet their basic needs. In other words, individuals do not have the resources to meet their basic needs for healthy living and a dignified existence. They do not have the resources to provide for food, shelter, clothing and medical services, among other things. Relative poverty, on the other hand, compares the status of individuals against others in a community or society in terms of an income and wealth standard. The broad definition is also acknowledged and used by many, including the EU, the World Bank, and the UNDP. The UNDP considers poverty as a denial of human rights, good health, adequate nutrition, literacy and employment. It further asserts that “these are not favors or acts of charity to be bestowed by the governments and international agencies, instead they are human rights as valid today as they were when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted. As a consequence of the denial of their rights, many of the world’s poor suffer oppressive political measures which hinder their development, and therefore poverty also has a political dimension.

Pg. 2 Poverty and Water: The Inextricable Link

“.....Shame and Honour. As mentioned earlier, distrust can be a healthy part of a democracy, and scepticism of authority is a valuable resource. On the other hand, disengagement and shame-based feelings intensify social exclusion and have a negative effect on democracy. Being excluded from the dominant knowledge exchanges reinforces a negative sense of self, entrenches feelings of shame and makes positive social action and participation in new institutions difficult. Knowledge is a crucial resource for securing participation and it has a political dimension. In order to build successful institutions there needs to be a leveling of the playing field to enable equal partners to come to the table with an opportunity to negotiate as equals and not merely as recipients of information. In the case of the water sector, on both sides, old networks are not easily unstuck and new networks are struggling to take shape. Both trust and shame are invisible drivers of social action yet they are critical attributes for the establishment of new patterns of belonging; they are essential ingredients when building new forms of solidarity and commitment to participate in management and decision making within the water sector…..”

Pg. 61 Poverty and Water: Changes in the Water Sector in South Africa

Water poverty and scarcity, one is real, the other is an illusion that becomes real through its presence in the grid of society. Both are prescient in determining tangible action: locally and abroad.

A windshield survey is not enough to determine the scope of local issues with water access, but it's the only legal method available because of the limited capabilities of public databases based on Census Data, for example.

“....Extensive review of urban infrastructure programs, notably by the World Bank, revealed that many municipal water authorities in developing countries were grossly inefficient and wasteful of scarce supplies. Population growth and changing living standards were causing water consumption and waste output to rise dramatically, putting extra strain on services. Public utilities could not keep up. Leakage and mismanagement were rife (Black, 1998: 52)....”

[This was a dramatic and savage attack on public institutions delivering water, emphasizing the visible problems rather than analysing the reasons for these deficiencies. Public sector failure has become an important theme in an explanation of the difficulties in meeting the needs of the rural poor, and international finance organisations are increasingly becoming engaged in advocacy of private sector participation as a solution to these pressing difficulties.]

P. 37 (Poverty and Water: Water for All)

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