- Date submitted: 1 Nov 2011
- Stakeholder type: Major Group
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International Rivers? Contribution for the Rio+20 Compilation Document
The UN Conference on Sustainable Development 2012 offers an opportunity for world leaders
to confront the challenges of natural resource depletion, poverty and climate change in an
integrated way. With bold thinking and concrete commitments, Rio+20 could help transform the
global economy to one that promotes equity, sustainability and security. It could facilitate a shift
in investment away from destructive, outdated technologies towards innovative, pro-poor,
sustainable solutions to meet the world?s food, water and energy needs. International Rivers
welcomes the opportunity to provide input into this critical process and offers the following
comment and recommendations on the conference?s Green Economy theme.
Poor and marginalized communities are especially dependent on natural resources for their
livelihoods. Therefore, sustainably managing, conserving and valuing these natural assets while
meeting the world?s food, water and energy needs is essential to reducing poverty. The impacts
of climate change, particularly on water, will make sustainable-development challenges more
acute. Water, energy and food security in a warming world will require major improvements in
water-use efficiency, sustainable agricultural intensification, and in decentralized techniques
that are flexible and adaptable. Small-scale, bottom-up water and energy projects offer win-win
solutions in terms of efficient and low-impact water supply, strengthened food security,
improved access to energy, and enhanced resilience to climate change. They include local check
dams, other water harvesting techniques, mechanic treadle pumps, drip irrigation, the system of
rice intensification, as well as wind, small hydro, solar and geothermal energy technologies.
These projects empower poor people, enhance their livelihood security, promote climate
resilience and have an impressive track record. If adapted to local circumstances and backed
with the necessary legal, scientific and financial support, bottom-up approaches can be scaled-
up significantly. Future development strategies need to move away from energy and water
projects that depend on stable climatic conditions and subsidies for environmentally and
socially harmful technologies must urgently be phased out. Avoiding the errors of the past will
require the application of participatory planning and decision-making processes as well as strict,
mandatory social and environmental standards. The guidelines that have been recommended by
the World Commission on Dams (WCD) are the most appropriate framework for decision
making on water and energy projects.
See World Commission on Dams (2000), pp. 195ff.
Green Economy: Food, Water and Energy Security in a Changing Climate
Sustainable strategies for meeting food, water and energy needs while conserving natural capital
must be central to a green economy that seeks to eradicate poverty. Poor and marginalized
communities are especially dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods. Therefore,
sustainably managing, conserving and valuing these resources and the services they
provide is a necessary pre-condition for achieving global targets to reduce poverty.
Without a reversal of current trends that favor natural capital depletion by, in part, failing to
value ecosystem services and subsidizing unsustainable activities, poverty eradication will
remain an elusive goal.
The threat posed by climate change exacerbates the challenges of addressing food, water
and energy needs of a growing population. Some of the worst impacts of climate change on
both people and ecosystems will be felt through its impacts on water. Rivers, the lifelines of our
planet, are already experiencing a higher rate of species extinction than any other major
ecosystem. Climate change will compound the problems caused by large dams and other water
infrastructure for species as well as for people who depend on rivers for their livelihood.
Additionally, more extreme floods will threaten the safety of existing infrastructure, and
unprecedented droughts will reduce the hydropower and water supply services that dams are
built to provide. A new paper in the scientific journal, PLoS Biology, found that ?particularly
for large [water] infrastructure projects, the risks for investors, communities, and ecosystems
are extremely high given uncertainties in future hydrological conditions?. It concluded that
?climate-infrastructure mismatches may make poor nations even poorer?.
Water security in a
warming world will require major improvements in water-use efficiency and in
decentralized techniques such as rainwater harvesting and improved groundwater
management. These low-impact solutions allow more flexible responses to changing rainfall
and streamflow patterns than large centralized infrastructure projects.
It will be essential to intensify agriculture and improve water security to meet the water,
energy and food security challenges of the future. Yet intensification should not be equated
with an increase in chemical inputs and traditional irrigation techniques, just as water
security should not be equated with big dams and centralized reservoirs. Organic and
sustainable agriculture practices should be expanded as much as possible. Decentralized, smallscale water and energy projects offer win-win solutions in terms of efficient and low-impact
water supply, strengthening food security, improving access to energy, and strengthening
resilience to climate change. These projects empower poor people and enhance their livelihood
Fortunately, solutions that integrate water, food and energy security with climate resilience
exist. They include a wide spectrum of small, decentralized, bottom-up approaches such as
local check dams, other water harvesting techniques, mechanic treadle pumps, drip irrigation,
and the system of rice intensification (SRI). Combining traditional knowledge and innovative
techniques, these approaches rely on farmers? initiatives, use water efficiently, cost less than
Matthews JH, Wickel BA, Freeman S (2011) Converging Currents in Climate-Relevant Conservation: Water,
Infrastructure, and Institutions. PLoS Biol 9(9): e1001159. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001159.
large dams, enhance the food security of the poor, and typically help conserve our natural
wealth. Similarly, a diverse mix of decentralized renewable energy projects ? including wind,
small hydro, solar and geothermal ? can strengthen our resilience to climate change, improve
energy access for the rural poor, and minimize negative environmental impacts.
Bottom-up solutions have an impressive track record. For example, SRI increases yields and
makes the rice crop more resilient to climate change through reduced use of water, fertilizer and
pesticides, but increased attention to soil biology. SRI methods have been validated in 42
countries in tropical, subtropical and moderate environments and across dry and humid
SRI has typically shown marked increases in rice yields of 50-100%, water savings of
usually 25-50%, cost savings of 10-20%, strengthened resistance to pests and diseases, and
improved resilience to the stresses of extreme weather events linked with climate change.
methods of SRI have also been extended to the growing of wheat, sugar cane and several other
crops. Making use of labor, the one factor that poor farmers typically control, they have
strengthened food security and resilience to climate change while simultaneously reducing the
need for water inputs.
Water supply initiatives, such as the small check dams that the Tarum Bharat Sangh (TBS) has
pioneered, have revived several rivers and brought prosperity to arid regions throughout
Western India. In Rajasthan, supplying water from the check dams promoted by TBS costs $2
per person, whereas water supply from the massive Sardar Sarovar multipurpose dam costs
approximately $200 per person. The simple treadle pumps that International Development
Enterprises (IDE) developed have also cost-effectively lifted millions of farmers out of poverty.
Irrigating a hectare of land from the Sardar Sarovar Project costs $3,800 but only $120 using the
treadle pumps promoted by IDE.
UNDP?s 2006 Human Development Report on water security
strongly supports such a soft, decentralized approach to water infrastructure and food security.
It estimates that with an initial investment of $7 billion, extending Gujarat?s check dams all
across India?s rainfed farming areas could raise the value of the country?s monsoon crop from
$36 billion to $180 billion a year.
Building decentralized, small-scale water infrastructure not only improves the access of the
poor to water, but also makes the water sector more resilient to the impacts of climate change.
Yet these approaches have so far only received a minuscule proportion of the aid, investment
and political support that large water and energy projects receive. If adapted to local
circumstances and backed with the necessary legal, scientific and financial support,
bottom-up approaches can be scaled-up significantly. Local communities and small farmers
deserve legal rights to the land and water that they have worked with for generations. Small
See Uphoff Norman (2011), The System of Rice Intensification: An Alternate Civil Society Innovation, in:
Technikfolgenabschätzung ? Theorie und Praxis, July 2011, pp. 45-52, p. 47.
See International Rivers Network (2006), Spreading the Water Wealth: Making Water Infrastructure Work for the
Poor, pp. 2ff.
UNDP (2006), Human Development Report 2006,Beyond Scarcity: Power, Poverty and the Global Water Crisis, p.
farms and rainfed agriculture require research support on the same scale that was poured into
the green revolution. Decentralized renewable energy options deserve priority over fossil fuels
and large dams if development aid is to reduce energy poverty in a sustainable manner. Projects
that address the nexus of water, energy and food security should be focused at the local level.
Future development strategies need to move away from harmful technologies that depend
on stable climatic conditions. A recent World Bank report warns that ?long-lifespan
infrastructure, such as hydropower plants, is generally less adaptable? to climate change.
addition to their often significant environmental and social impacts, large, centralized water and
energy projects tend to prioritize the needs of urban centers, industry, and export markets. In
comparison, small, decentralized and diversified renewable energy projects are more effective at
providing access to electricity to the poor, safeguarding the environment, and strengthening
resilience to climate change.
In many cases, renewable energy projects are not more expensive
than large, conventional energy technologies, with the added benefit of not externalizing social
and environmental costs. Subsidies for environmentally and socially harmful technologies must
be phased out.
While decentralized, cost-effective approaches to water and energy supply and food security
have huge potential, building large dams and other centralized water and energy projects may
still be appropriate under certain conditions. Avoiding the errors of the past will require the
application of participatory planning and decision-making processes as well as strict,
mandatory social and environmental standards. The guidelines that have been recommended
by the World Commission on Dams (WCD) are the most appropriate framework for decision
making on water and energy projects.
This will include thoroughly assessing all available
options; recognizing affected and, in particular, indigenous peoples? land rights; sharing
benefits; and addressing the unresolved problems of existing projects.
? Before any water and energy programs and projects are initiated, national governments
and intergovernmental organizations should carry out comprehensive, balanced and
participatory assessments of all needs and options. These assessments should integrate
social, environmental and economic aspects with equal weight.
? Given the perverse incentives and vested interests favoring new projects over efficiency
improvements and restoration of existing infrastructure, national governments,
parliaments and intergovernmental organizations should make low-impact solutions
such as mechanic treadle pumps, drip irrigation, decentralized rainwater harvesting and
groundwater recharging, the use of underground storage, decentralized renewables, the
restoration of existing infrastructure and the installation of hydropower components at
World Bank ESMAP (2011), Climate Impacts on Energy Systems, Key Issues for Energy Sector Adaptation, Jane
Ebinger and Walter Vergara, 2011, p. 58.
For the risks of centralized hydropower projects in terms of climate resilience, see World Bank ESMAP (2011),
Climate Impacts on Energy Systems, Key Issues for Energy Sector Adaptation, Jane Ebinger and Walter Vergara,
2011, pp. 48, 58, 93.
See World Commission on Dams (2000), pp. 195ff.
existing irrigation facilities an explicit priority of their agriculture, water and energy
sector policies to improve access and security.
? Strengthening water, energy and food security for the poorest population groups requires
a shift of financial resources, research and institutional support from large,
centralized projects to decentralized, small-scale projects that can be managed at the
local level. National governments and parliamentarians should redirect resources from
international financial institutions to civil society organizations and others that are able
to effectively support local-level initiatives.
? Intergovernmental organizations, national governments and parliaments should
explicitly acknowledge and guarantee the customary and formal rights of local
communities to their land, water, forests and other resources in their infrastructure
strategies. This includes the right of indigenous peoples to free, prior informed consent
(FPIC) regarding projects on their lands.
? Public and private financial institutions should establish or strengthen mandatory social
and environmental standards to guide project selection and implementation. These
standards should include evaluations of the risk that climate change poses to a proposed
project as well as the expected impact of the project on climate change.
? A global initiative for universal energy access by 2030 should be carried out, with
energy efficiency and decentralized renewable options ? which are more effective at
expanding energy access for the poor than centralized large dams ? as top priorities.