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Updated: June 20, 2012 00:04 IST

Watershed in fight for survival

  • Vibhu Nayar
Comment (12)   ·   print   ·   T  T  

Rio+20 presents a historic opportunity to achieve a more equitable, prosperous and green world

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) is set to take place on June 20 at Rio de Janeiro, 20 years after the 1992 Earth Summit on Environment & Development. World leaders, experts, and U.N. agencies are expected to take stock and reaffirm global commitment to sustainable development. The summit is taking place against the backdrop of threats of catastrophic climate change, unprecedented environmental degradation and widespread market failure. Worryingly, humanity's ecological footprint already exceeds Earth's regenerative capacity. It is estimated that €50 billion worth of biodiversity is being lost each year. Even 20 years on, a billion still go hungry every day. Financially, recent market failures have pushed another 100 million people into poverty, not sparing even the developed countries.

In response, world leaders, through the “Future we want” (Rio+20 Zero Draft) have committed themselves to establishing a global “Green Economy” in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication. Rio+20 therefore presents a historic opportunity to enshrine principles for a more equitable and prosperous, and greener world.

What's at stake?

The contagious market-driven financial and economic crisis has triggered disillusionment with the prevailing socio-economic paradigm. Concomitantly, global discourse has been hastily presented with ‘Green Economy' as the silver bullet idea, but what lurks within the packaging is a matter of concern.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), in its Global Green New Deal (GGND), has defined the Green Economy as one that results in “improved human well being and social equity while significantly reducing environment risks and ecological scarcities”. This vague definition has led to apprehension and varied interpretations, like those stated by the blind men around the elephant.

The Rio ‘Zero Draft' is a breathless litany of green economy goals ranging from poverty eradication and food security to sound water management. Furthermore, this vision follows that up with laudable plans intended to protect and enhance the natural resource base, increase efficiency, and promote sustainable consumption and production patterns.

Whereas UNEP would still like to aim at “enabling economic growth and investment” with the afterthought “… while increasing social inclusiveness,” it would have us believe that the present crisis is solely due to the misallocation of capital. Therefore, if according to proponents of financialisation, we attribute economic value to natural capital, companies will behave eco-prudently, self-correcting the misallocation. This portrayal of market instruments as the sole panacea raises the prospect of indiscriminate financialisation of nature. As the World Development Movement says, “Once you accept the premise that nature has a monetary value you also accept that it is possible to buy your way out of social-environmental obligations.”

Previous experiences with similar experiments should be a cause of deep concern. Carbon trades (CDM) have actually ended up locking in high emission activities. The European Union perversely ended up subsidising high carbon industry at the expense of firms which already operated at low emissions. Commodification of forests through the REDD programme (Reduction of emissions from deforestation and degradation) has had disastrous consequences. Allowing companies to “offset” deforestation by new monoculture plantations, REDD has triggered “legal destruction” of rainforests and displacement of indigenous communities from their historic habitats. Economists Arrow and recently Blair have shown that competitive markets do not necessarily produce the optimal amount of innovation within an economy. Despite this knowledge, why do so many push for monetisation of nature with a wish list of Biodiversity Bonds, Green Banks, and speculative trading in dubious green instruments? Friends of the Earth warn about a resulting “Green Casino.” As George Monbiot wrote, “subject the natural world to simplistic cost-benefit analysis and accountants and statisticians will decide which parts of it we can do without”. Markets cannot be the sole arbiter of human development.

The Stockholm Water Group declared in 2011 that “Water is the blood stream of the green economy”. Water is indeed fundamental to the Green Economy as it underlies many growth, sustainable development and poverty issues. Principles of sustainable development presume a knowledge of the inability of water-systems to satisfy the rapacious demands of agriculture, cities, and industry; an understanding that access to water and sanitation (Watsan) is a major determinant of families' march out of poverty. In contrast, the present discourse on the Green Economy advocates the financialisation of ecosystems. Such hubris will lead to the commodification of water, with disastrous consequences especially for the poor.

Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. The Rio conference of 1992 echoed the Dublin statement “Water has an economic value in all its competing uses and should be recognised as an economic good”. The assumption was that this would encourage efficiency gains and private investments. It failed on both counts. A report, Pipe Dreams, pointed out that across Africa, private investment over two decades could bring access to only 900 people a day. Researchers Estache and Rossi also found that there was no difference in the performance of public or private companies. Eventually the sector was left grappling with Dublin-triggered ills of high tariffs, usurious water contracts and social inequity, without any of the expected gains.

Global water market

Another worrying scenario is speculation in a global water market. William Buiter, Chief Economist at Citibank, remarked “Once the spot markets for water are integrated, futures and other derivative water-based financial instruments — both exchange traded and OTC will follow”. Water would be the new Euro. Only in this Waterloo, millions would die. An investor could turn the great lakes into a private swimming pool, prohibiting any other use and plant trees elsewhere or better still pay a fine in purported compensation for the damage. This so-called Green philosophy read together with the World Trade Organisation regime could be misused to create a trade in water, undermining principles of differentiated responsibility, sovereign rights, and social equity.

Therefore, Rio+20 provides a unique opportunity to set right the global water sector. The ‘Zero Draft' has successfully overcome the resistance of Canada and reaffirmed water as a human right and water resources as critical to poverty eradication. World leaders could establish a new blue-green paradigm with a focus on four key water themes.

1. Rethink integrated water resources management and river systems restoration: Management of basin systems as a whole, while converging watershed, ecosystem and biodiversity conservation with social development and equity is an opportunity for sustainable reduction of poverty. Recognising these non-monetised benefits of conservation represents an opportunity of sustainable development and growth with equity.

2. Reinvest in sanitation and drinking water: As J. Sachs found, the average rate of growth in developing countries where the poor have access to Watsan is 2.7 per cent greater than that attained by countries without these services. Under the human rights framework, national governments should place the highest priority on Watsan provision, especially since for Asia & Africa an investment of just $7 per capita would achieve the MDGs, and every dollar invested returns $30.

3. Reach for higher water productivity by working on water and food security. Agro-eco systems should reduce their water footprint through green irrigation and better rainfed cultivation. More crop per drop could lead to GDP growth and food security, which is four times more effective in poverty reduction. The International Water Management Institute (IWMI) advocates improving water use efficiency as an effective means for reducing environmental degradation besides resulting in productivity gains. Industry should bring improvements in water use along the value chain of its processes. Reduce, recycle, reuse towards zero discharge should be a universal mantra. Cities as spatial platforms of growth require to implement a multi-pronged strategy of protection of water ecosystems, efficient water supply, audit and effective management of waste water.

4. Revisit institutional reform: Approaches like building community blue-green charters, as advocated by the Centre of Excellence for Change (CEC), provide a sustainable solution from the bottom of the pyramid. It is essential to provide a stake to the unreached, in the decision making processes of the green-water economy for sustainable development with dignity. Governance structures and processes need to be transparent, accountable and participatory to ensure sustainable, equitable and truly green outcomes from water resources.

Rio+20 summit presents a watershed in humanity's fight for survival. It is for global statesmen to prevent a Waterloo.

(Vibhu Nayar is a senior civil servant. Views are personal)

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The problem is not the rules, the problwm is the atitude..the attitude of basing everything in Markets and Economy. We have to understand that Market and Economy is a system we have established for smooth transfer of capital to increase human productivity. Productivity on a philosophical arena will mean that to be productive to the system to the society to our nature the system that we live in. But from the point of view of Market and economics nowadays to be productive means to increase the consumption of the product that you make. It urges people to use more resources rather than conserving our resources.But if you think again we will understand that how bizarre is this idea.And we always give a value to this resources to say biodiversity worth 50 billion, the point is how can you calculate the value of something that once lost can never be regained interms of currency.For eg the value that we pay for oil is not the actual value of it , it is rather the cost + profit of mining it..

from:  Dinoop
Posted on: Jun 19, 2012 at 10:27 IST

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen had established relation between poor governance and famine.Poor government mismanages every natural resource which causes poverty and hunger.Indian government recently gave evidence of its mismanagement by proposing taxing of water and and its privatization.In this capitalist world market decides everything.Therefore optimistic economist never bother to preserve natural resources even if forecast puts 2050 deadline for petroleum and coal reserves and 2030 for rare minerals(like indium,antimony).For them market forces will ultimately balance demand and supply. Now every one is waiting to see what Rio+20 concept of Green economy brings in the minds of great leaders and how its gonging to
make difference in the lives of poor and hungry . Our bleeding mother earth is also anxiously waiting to look for any relief from greedy mankind .

from:  shreyansh subham
Posted on: Jun 18, 2012 at 22:51 IST

Author rightly points out that Rio+20 summit presents a watershed in humanity's fight for survival. His emphasis on four key water themes for establishing a new blue-green paradigm in water sector deserves serious attention. Water is a key component of sustainable development, but paradoxically many countries, including India, have been unable to incorporate sustainable development into their national policies even after two decades of Rio-1992 summit, thereby causing the neglect of water sector. Time has come to change mind-set about treating water as ‘economic good’ and rather it should be regarded as a ‘development goal.’ India Water Foundation, a New Delhi based civil society has been emphasizing on this theme for the past four years. It has mooted the idea of setting up of India Water Hub as a nodal agency to look after water related issues for better cooperation, coordination and convergence in water sector in India.
Dr. Arvind Kumar
India Water Foundation, New Delh

from:  Dr. Arvind Kumar
Posted on: Jun 18, 2012 at 18:34 IST

The article very well summarizes the flaw in approach of global policies towards conservation of natural resources. It is to the point and written in a very comprehensible style.

from:  Gyan
Posted on: Jun 18, 2012 at 17:41 IST

I fully agree with Dr. K.V. Peter on planet's carrying capacity and uncontrolled population growth. With the ever growing number of people, increasing greed and un-satiated hunger for power of the rich and powerful elites and decision making exploiters, conspicuous consumption of everything with concomitant generation of mountains of wastes everywhere even risking one's health, and commoditization of food and natural resources for speculation, trading and profiting are all the recipe for global violence, war and disaster. In this scenario, even the rich and powerful can live with tons of paper money but cannot live in peace. If we fail to recognize and seriously and sincerely address these ills immediately, the entire human race will perish.

Hope sanity prevails at the Rio20+ and some good and practical decisions are made to save our home -- the earth and its resources.

from:  V. Balasubramanian
Posted on: Jun 18, 2012 at 15:10 IST

"Reinvest in sanitation and drinking water: As J. Sachs found, the average rate of growth in developing countries where the poor have access to Watsan is 2.7 per cent greater than that attained by countries without these services."

What is the cause and what is the effect. Why it could not be other way round? - Coutries with growth more than 2.7% capable of providing the poor access to Watsan?
You can interpret stats as the way you want!!!

from:  Nikhil Tambolkar
Posted on: Jun 18, 2012 at 14:55 IST

Can someone please explain what "It is estimated that €50 billion worth of biodiversity is being lost each year." means.

How do you quantify biodiversity in terms of money??

from:  Prajakta
Posted on: Jun 18, 2012 at 13:32 IST

Every nation should have full soverignity to manage its Natural resources. commercialisation of nature has given a big blow to Biodivesity across the world and we are moving towards disaster at a supersonic speed. The forces of greed and unreasonable profit must be the ones financing these summits and i turn taking their interests forward. Its the developing & underdeveloped world which has to unite togather and take a bold stand on these issue otherwise Waterloo is inevitable they will be the obvious losers

from:  Abhinav Sharma
Posted on: Jun 18, 2012 at 13:24 IST

"The future we want" and "Green economy" are at cross roads.We want a world free from
hunger,illiteracy,diseases,clothed and sheltered and where humans feel secured,peace at
himself and his family and grace prevailing.There is equality and equal opportunity and no
exploitation and discrimination based on caste,creed,colour and region.Air,water and light
are in public domain and every one has the right to possess based on his needs.Unequal
distribution of wealth and hegemony of rich industrialized nations over least and developing
but natural resource rich nations should end.Carrying capacity of Globe and individual
nations in particular based on natural resources for population needs to be defined.With
population nearing 1.6 billion by 2020 in India and right to basic needs unable to be
met,green economy is only a rhetoric and jargon for the second largest populated country
where 28 percent of people do not eat even once a day.Green economy is nice to read but difficult to attain.

from:  Dr K V Peter
Posted on: Jun 18, 2012 at 11:30 IST

The history bears the testimony that any commitment, compromise arrived
at these UN conferences hardly translate into actions. Durabn summit
was not an exception and if history is anything to go by I don't see
much headway post Rio+20. Especially in the backdrop of escalating USA-
Russia-China tension over Syrian and South China Sea. The Developing
Versus developed fight has taken a huge and irreversible digging at the
environmental well being. Its true that 20% population of North
America, Japan & handful of European nations have consumed 80% of the
resources so and the rest 80% of the world is fighting for there share
in paltry 20%. This dis-balance carries the disagreement prospect in it
inherently which is visible at all UNFCCC or UNCSD. But now is time
each & every nation realize that if environment is further degraded
because of their tendency of passing the buck the disaster are
inevitable. Disasters are economical in their understanding of
developed and developing.

from:  Ajeet Tiwari
Posted on: Jun 18, 2012 at 11:03 IST

I don't know how much worth is £50 billion.I don't know what a pound is worth and even I have to convert the billion to crores to get an idea of how big the amount is.If The Hindu is published and read in India I wonder why can't it use figures and units that an Indian can perceive

from:  Arun
Posted on: Jun 18, 2012 at 08:54 IST

very good article on the rio-summit.
people should understand the value of water and preserve it.
it seems that after few years water can be a substitute as like a petrol . man can live wothout petrol but not without water.both are dispersing slowly..

from:  anandtiwary
Posted on: Jun 18, 2012 at 01:31 IST
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