Water and Social Resource Scarcity | The Water Page

by Leif Ohlsson and B. Appelgren PADRIGU and FAO, AGLW. ( in draft March 1998)ABSTRACT: Water scarcity is commonly perceived as an often absolute shortage of a natural resource, although, when regarded from a management point of view, it may be better described as a lack of adaptive capacity, and thus as a social resource scarcity. Some definitions of the concept social resource scarcity are suggested. The basis for applying the concept to water management is explored by reviewing the conflictual potential of water management practices. Attempts to find a basis for quantitative indices of social adaptive capacity to water scarcity are reviewed, and their relative virtues to a qualitative analysis discussed. Pending a workable measure of institutional capacity for water management, an index based on UNDP’s Human Development Index, combined with conventional indices of water scarcity, is suggested. Finally, the heuristic value of the concept social resource scarcity is tested in a case study of the Nile basin. INTRODUCTION: Water scarcity increasingly is perceived as the limiting factor for both agriculture and industry in many developing countries; as the most probable source of conflict between countries over a renewable natural resource; and as a source of increasing competition between rural agricultural areas and the urban industrial sector. It is conventionally perceived as a natural resource scarcity, often as an absolute shortage, and thus also as an absolute limit for development. Managing water scarcity by definition entails dealing with scarcity with the intention of overcoming it, either by supply-side increases or demand-side regulation. Often regarded as the -solution- to potential conflicts over the natural resource water, such regulation in fact contains the seeds of a new kind of conflicts, best described as second-order conflicts, incurred by the very attempt to overcome the source of the potential first-order conflict, water scarcity. Water scarcity, when dealt with by societies and states, thus very quickly surfaces as a scarcity of social adaptive capacity, which is what merits an attempt to delineate and delimit a concept of social resource scarcity. The heuristic value of such a concept would be to indicate where the need for institutional building is greatest in order to pre-empt outbreaks of internal conflicts, and consequently the need for a shift in donor countries’ and developmental agencies’ attention to these sectors. Nile Basin Case Study: Social water stress in the Nile Basin  Given a perception that focuses on the risk for internal tensions due to difficulties to adapt to water scarcity, a vital task is to get a handle on the order of magnitude of this risk as compared to the risk for tension between countries over access to the resource per se. As discussed in the main study, such and index would have to be based on the adaptive capacity of a society. Adaptive capacity is a most general and multi-facetted concept, however, intuitively comprising general socioeconomic development, education, human rights (including and stressing women’s rights), general institutional capacity, etc. For water issues, it certainly ought to include some measure of water legislation, and water resources management capabilities. In the absence of a general and well worked-out consensus on how such an index should be constructed, it was suggested in the main study that the UNDP Human Development Index (HDI) could be used as a proxy, since it is generally accepted and at least contains the three important factors life expectancy (as a proxy for general level of development), educational attainment (as a proxy for institutional capacity) and real GDP per capita. Combined with standard indicators for water scarcity, a social water stress index was constructed. Applied to the Nile Basin states we get the picture in Table 8. Note here how the application of a social water stress index changes the picture dramatically compared to conventional measurements of water stress. As will be seen from the column “WSI Water Stress Index”, Burundi and Egypt are the two most water-stressed countries in the Nile Basin according to standard hydrological indicators (number of persons per flow unit); with Burundi roughly 50 percent more water-stressed. But according to the social water stress index (SWSI) suggested here, Burundi is fully four times more socially water-stressed! This is due to its low social adaptive capacity, as measured by the HDI (Human Development Index). Burundi thus ranks as the most socially water stressed country in the Nile Basin, with Egypt taking merely the fift place, after Kenya, Rwanda, and Ethiopia, although Egypt is more water-stressed than these countries according to standard hydrological indicators (WSI). Egypt’s low rank on the list of socially water-stressed countries is due to its comparatively higher social adaptive capacity, measured by the HDI.WSIWater Stress IndexHDIHuman Devel-opment IndexSWSISocial Water Stress IndexWSI(rank)SWSI (rank)rank9360.6145,7660.3331,9500.2441,1120.4633,3520.3282,9640.3571,2150.1875940.247Standard hydrological indicators HDI taken to indicate social adaptive capacityComparison between water stress and social water stress Taking two countries, Kenya and Rwanda, which appear to be on the same level of water stress according to standard hydrological indicators, Rwanda in fact appears more than twice as socially water-stressed as Kenya, due to its lower social adaptive capacity. The difference between the two ways of looking at water stress/scarcity may be clearer by listing in which category the basin states will belong, according to hydrological indicators, as compared to the social water stress/scarcity categories suggested here (Table 9; cf. also Table 4).Table 9: Comparing categorizations; Nile Basin statesHydrological water stress/scarcity categorySocial water stress/scarcity categoryWater-scarceWater-scarce “beyond the barrier”Water-stressedWater-scarce “beyond the barrier”Relative sufficiencyWater-scarceWater-stressedWater-stressedWater-scarceWater-stressedRelative sufficiencyRelative sufficiencyRelative sufficiencyRelative sufficiencyRelative sufficiencyRelative sufficiency Applying the Social Water Stress/Scarcity Index thus moves Burundi, Rwanda towards one category more serious social water stress, as compared to hydrological indicators (Ethiopia is even moved two categories!), while Egypt is moved to one category of less serious social water stress. Other countries retain their hydrological categories. The result seems to be consistent with qualitative judgements made by water resources management experts. The water scarcity of Egypt is compensated for by their relatively higher social adaptive capacity, while the lower social adaptive capacity of Ethiopia, Burundi and Rwanda certainly merits that their water stress is categorized more seriously than captured by merely hydrological indicies. FOR INFORMATION PLEASE CONTACT: or