Progressio Ireland
  • Date submitted: 28 Oct 2011
  • Stakeholder type: Major Group
  • Name: Progressio Ireland
  • Submission Document: Download
Keywords: Education (2 hits),

Full Submission

1. Introduction

There is no doubt as to the importance of the 1992 UNCSD Rio Earth Summit. Since the summit, however, there has been a disappointing lack of progress, particularly with respect to the issues of environmental degradation, competition over scarce resources and climate change. This revisit to Rio signifies a major opportunity to attempt to speed up the progress on these areas.

Water has been recognised as essential for sustainable development as highlighted in Agenda 21. However, it very much remains a key concern and this commitment to Agenda 21 needs to be reiterated and strengthened. For Progressio Ireland, water is an area of concentration and expertise. In particular, we look at the issues of fair and sustainable access to water for poor and marginalised communities. In this submission, therefore, Progressio Ireland will draw particular attention to the significance of water as an urgent issue for Rio+20, including its vital role for poverty eradication.

Progressio Ireland is an independent Irish organisation that is part of the Progressio family. The Progressio family works internationally to enable people in developing countries to challenge and change the situations that keep them poor. We work in partnership with civil society organisations in 11 countries around the world and we also work within Ireland and the wider European context to push decision-makers to change policies that support inequality and keep people poor. Our work is guided by two themes: participation and effective governance and sustainable environment.

The summary of the submission is outlined below. Later in the document there is a more detailed explanation around these issues.

2. Summary

a. Progressio Ireland recognises the importance of Rio+20 for reigniting progress and commitment to sustainable development on a domestic and global scale, in the context of increased environmental degradation, competition and conflict over scarce resources, and climate change, and urges the secretariat to ensure that these concerns are put at the heart of the agenda.

b. Water should be a key focus area under the Rio+20 process, as a fundamental element that underpins both life and livelihoods, and therefore represents an essential part of sustainable development and human development. This should build on experiences, knowledge and conclusions from previous Earth Summits, as well as other relevant processes and new research, including the impacts of climate change on the water cycle and the importance of water as a development issue.

c. Water insecurity and scarcity affects a large proportion of the world's population, with a particular impact on the world's poorest people. Environmental degradation and competition over water resources is increasing and, furthermore, climate change is expected to have a substantial impact on the hydrological cycle, with follow on effects on people and ecosystems. A clear poverty and equity focus must therefore be at the heart of Rio+20.

d. A Green Economy cannot function without water, as recognised by both UNEP and many water experts, such as in the World Water Week statement on Rio+20. Water is not a ?sector?, and its cross cutting nature makes it a fundamental part of many important aspects of a Green Economy, such as agriculture and energy. Green Economy policies therefore need to include recognition of the importance of water to ensure water related impacts are fully acknowledged and accounted for, in particular where usage can have direct or indirect impacts on other sectors.

e. A Green Economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty reduction must be underpinned by principles of social equity, including on water. This includes a core focus on sustainable and equitable water resources management, with clear poverty and equity objectives, and active involvement of key stakeholders.

f. A strong gender approach must also be included. Women are generally the main water managers on a household level in developing countries, both for consumptive and productive use, and their knowledge and participation should be acknowledged, and they should be provided with adequate support according to their needs.


Only 2.63% of global water is freshwater, which includes a large part that is tied up in snow and ice. Despite this, there is currently no overall global water scarcity, but a number of regions are chronically short of water, and climate change is expected to make this worse. It has been estimated that out of the 2.8 billion people that live in areas facing water scarcity, 1.2 billion live in "physical water scarcity" and 1.6 billion in "economic water scarcity", meaning that water access is not limited by supply, but constrained by financial, human or institutional capacity.

Water is a resource that has many uses. Frequently tension arises around the availability and prioritisation of these uses (e.g. the ?water, food and energy nexus?). Looking at freshwater supply alone is therefore not sufficient if we aim to ensure sustainable access of water for all, which also caters for other vital needs, such as for food production, energy provision and ecosystems, which also needs to be assessed in terms of impacts of climate change.

In addition to the basic need of water, food production is particularly important given that 70% of freshwater withdrawals are for agricultural purposes, highlighting direct linkages between water availability and food security concerns. There are also direct linkages to the rural poor, recognising that smallholder farms feed one-third of the world's population. Furthermore, increased reliance on water intensive sources of energy is raising questions around long term sustainability even for many renewable energy sources, a concern that also needs to be recognised within climate change mitigation policies and water management policies.

Poor people are often hit hardest and despite progress on the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 7 on access to water, 900 million people still lack access to safe drinking water. Large private companies in developing countries often monopolise water use, leaving very little access to water for the poorer residents. The UN Human Development Report (2010) also claims that those living in slums in Sub Saharan Africa actually pay more for drinking water than residents in New York or Paris. Women are often particularly affected, since they are often responsible for water management on a household level, both for consumptive and productive use. Furthermore, as the world population reaches 7 billion and continues to increase, changes in consumption and production patterns, environmental degradation, pollution and a number of other factors will have implications for water availability. Lack of progress on access to water also often has fallback effects on other MDGs, such as gender equality, hunger, health and Education.


The ?Green Economy in the Context of Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication? is one of the main focus areas of Rio+20. The Green Economy has been set in a broader concept of the intersection between environment and economy, to highlight synergies rather than trade-offs, coupled with social issues. However, no clear definition has been agreed within this context, partly due to some resistance to the concept itself. UNEP's definition is therefore sometimes used, "A Green Economy is one that results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental and ecological scarcities."

Outside of Rio+20, Green Economy is often used more or less interchangeably with Green Growth. OECD has identified Green Growth as "fostering economic growth and development, while ensuring that natural assets continue to provide the resources and environmental services on which our well-being relies". The most significant difference to UNEP's definition is the lack of reference to social equity, a key fundamental for achieving sustainable poverty reduction.

Despite a clear definition, the Rio+20 process has identified different green economy policies that indicates a general direction: green stimulus packages; eco-efficiency; greening markets and public procurement; investment in sustainable infrastructure; restoration and enhancement of natural capital; getting prices right; and eco-tax reform. "Getting prices right" is defined as better reflecting environmental externalities in market prices, especially for natural resources. A consultative bottom-up approach is also recommended, with government leadership and multi-stakeholder engagement, with careful design to ensure social equity.

Furthermore, it is acknowledged that there is no simple one-size-fits-all for poverty reduction, and that poverty eradication and enhancement of the human rights, living standards and livelihoods of the most vulnerable, deserve priority in measures promoting a green economy transition. In the long term, a development path limiting environmental impacts would be more conducive to prosperity and poverty alleviation, especially now that population growth has highlighted the limits of our planet, and the desperate need for development and growth that is sustainable. The UNHDR (2010) reiterates this, arguing that human development and sustainable development are inseparable. The poor are generally most affected by trends like climate change, environmental degradation and food scarcity, and shifts of the economy that decrease such risks will benefit the poor. Production and consumption systems that are compatible with sustainable development play a key part in this.


Water is not a new concern within the UN "Earth Summit" framework. Outcomes of both the 1972, 1992 and 2002 conferences include direct references and recommendations in relation to water, and are complemented by the MDGs. Most importantly, Agenda 21: Chapter 18 is dedicated to water- "Protection of the Quality & Supply of Freshwater Resources: Application of Integrated Approaches to the Development, Management & Use of Water Resources". Furthermore, the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation includes several references to water, many with particular reference to the MDGs, included the added target on access to sanitation.

In the Rio+20 context the challenge of access to clean water and sanitation is one of the main concerns, but also water availability more generally, noting that "increased action is imperative". Furthermore, water is being recognised in broader terms than before with a focus on its role as a cross cutting resource, including as an essential part of the ?Green Economy? and the so called ?water, food and energy nexus?. Within this context suggested solutions have largely moved away from a primary focus on management issues, towards market based approaches, including full cost valuation and pricing, to solve problems around supply and demand.

Furthermore, the Stockholm Statement to Rio+20 from World Water Week 2011 argues that water is "the bloodstream of the Green Economy", and recognises the interconnectedness of water, food and energy as a fundamental priority. It also calls for universal access to water and sanitation by 2030, over and above current MDG aspirations.

UNEP's report "Towards a Green Economy" identifies investment in clean water and sanitation services to the poor as one of the biggest opportunities to speed up the transition to a green economy in many developing countries. Not having access to water is costly, since large amounts of their disposable income have to be spent on purchasing water from vendors, or large amounts of time, in particular from women and children, have to be devoted to collecting and transporting it. In addition, the cost of water-borne diseases, like cholera and malaria, for example, is high. It is estimated that in developing countries, 80% of all illnesses are caused by water-borne diseases. UNEP estimates that under a scenario of an investment of around 0.16% of global GDP per year, water use at the global level could be kept within sustainable limits and the MDG for water could be achieved by 2015.

UNEP argues that a green economy should acknowledge where water is scarce, and manage it carefully, to ensure that use is kept within sustainable limits. The role of water in both maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services should be recognised, valued and paid for, and the use of technologies that encourage efficient forms of recycling and use/reuse are encouraged. To progress towards the pursuit of green objectives various tools can be used, such as the redesign of governance arrangements, the improved specification of property rights, the adoption of policies that reflect the full costs of use including the costs of adverse impacts on the environment, and through improved regulation. The suggested indicators for tracking progress include the number of people without access to reliable supplies of clean water and sanitation, as well as the volume available per person in a region.

The report recognises that the complex flow of water resources affects water availability and opportunities to manage it. Given the high level of water used by agriculture, while also considering the importance of agriculture, particularly in developing countries, one of the biggest challenges is to find a way to significantly increase the productivity of irrigated agriculture, so that water can be transferred to other sectors without adversely affecting the environment, food security or people?s livelihoods. The report argues that gauging the true value of ecosystems, including water, is a key part of the movement towards a green economy, coupled with market-based approaches, as well as consumer driven accreditation and certification schemes. Water entitlement and allocation systems are other options. However, the environment should have rights that are either equal or superior to those of other users of a water resource.

To reduce the cost of a transition to a green economy, the report recommends improvements in governance arrangements, reform of water policies and regulations and the development of partnerships with the private sector. Other key recommendations include the phasing out of perverse subsidies and adopting freer trading arrangements, which are believed to bring benefits to many sectors. In terms of water and sanitation, the report remains decisive on the importance of full cost accounting, but inconclusive on how best to charge poor households for access to water and sanitation services. It concludes that green economies should include commitment to factoring social equity into the transition to arrangements that influence investment and decisions by people and industry, but how this is done largely depends on the context.


The lack of a clear definition of a Green Economy within the Rio+20 context presents a potential hazard in that what is considered ?green? becomes a very broad concept that primarily responds to short term concerns, without adequate analysis of cross cutting issues or social and environmental impacts in the long term. If not managed carefully this could ultimately lead to negative impacts on sustainable development and poverty reduction, including from a water perspective. It is therefore essential to comprehensively analyse potential effects on environmental, social and economic levels, both on short and long term, and across sectors and including the impacts of climate change. This includes strong environmental and social safeguards, with a clear focus on cross cutting water related impacts, as an essential part of a Green Economy.

Green Economy policies should avoid moving into a ?new paradigm? on water, without proper recognition of lessons learned through other water related processes, particularly in terms of poverty related aspects. Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) and other similar approaches came through as viable strategies from the Rio process, and other pertinent processes. Implementation has been slow, partly due to lack of political will. However it is essential that they still form a key part of the Green Economy process. The important role of poor communities and other key stakeholders also need to be recognised, not just as beneficiaries, but as key agents and co-creators of positive change. The Rio Declaration and Agenda 21 put local communities, with particular emphasis on women, as a key component of sustainable development and it is essential that this recognition is also reflected in Green Economy policies.

As described above, the UNEP report argues that shifting to a green economy usually involves a commitment to begin charging for the full costs of resource use. The main tension is how to include principles of social equity, including how and what to charge for water and sanitation services, also recognising that this is now a human right. While market based approaches, including a full cost valuation of water, could provide benefits in terms of discouraging over usage, social equity principles are essential to ensure poor communities are not placed at a considerable disadvantage, particularly in a context of increased environmental degradation, competition and conflict over water resources and climate change. Furthermore, while some argue that there is little practical difference between private or public provision of water, attention needs to be paid to the private sector's mandate to maximise profit and implications for poor communities, as this could undermine poor communities' ability to pay. From another perspective, profit maximisation could also lead to encouragement to consume more.

To avoid negative fallbacks of Green Economy policies, principles of social equity must therefore be included, including principles of sustainable development and growth through a human rights framework. Adequate and efficient regulation is also important, as well as ensuring that poor people are involved in decision making processes in order to ensure sustainability and that their knowledge and needs are recognised. This should include women, who are often responsible for water management at a domestic level. The linkages to other poverty related processes must also be recognised. Sustainable and equitable access to water also has impacts on other development related issues, such as gender equality, health, Education, food production and work opportunities, all key elements of the MDGs. Furthermore, the potential impact of climate change must be recognised, given that the water cycle will be particularly affected, and could therefore severely undermine any progress if not taken into account. Again, poor people who are the least able to cope or mitigate the effects of climate change and water shortage are likely to be the worst affected.

Progressio Ireland?s sister organisation Progressio recently worked with CEPES and Water Witness International to research and publish the report ?Drop by drop: Understanding the impact of the UK's water footprint through a case study of Peruvian asparagus?. The report highlights tensions between large scale agribusiness and water for local communities, which can serve as an illustrative example of the importance of recognition of water related impacts and lessons for a Green Economy. The report illustrates a number of far reaching impacts of the growth of agribusiness, largely supported by international investment, including rapid depletion of the aquifer, and with negative fallbacks for poor and marginalised communities in the Ica Valley and beyond, such as lack of water for drinking and for irrigation.


The Rio+20 process presents a vital opportunity to reignite progress towards sustainable development, particularly in the light of increased environmental degradation, competition over scarce resources and climate change. The Rio+20 process should be used to strengthen the commitment to the issue of sustainable development.

Water represents a cross cutting and urgent issue that should be at the heart of the Rio+20 process, including as a fundamental aspect of the Green Economy or Green Growth.

Water is not a unique or singular ?sector? and it's cross cutting nature must be acknowledged, including the current and potential impacts on poor and vulnerable communities, and with a gender focus. This includes linkages to agriculture and energy, where both short and long term effects must be taken into account, as well as the impacts of climate change.

Social equity and participation must be at the heart of the Rio+20 and Green Economy process, with a focus on sustainable and equitable water resource management. This is also crucial for achieving the MDGs, and should recognise the human right to water, sanitation and a standard of living dependent on access to clean water.
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