From sewage in UK waterways, to the UN Water Summit, to COP28, how can reconceptualising the way we view water inform current water strategy?

Last month, The Climate turned to New York to see what went on at the first UN Water Summit for 45 years.

The summit saw a distinct focus on sovereignty and the current fragmentation of management that poses challenges to the political waterscape. There were over 700 pledges made at the conference, with many of them focusing on tackling this management issue, particularly at the river basin scale.

The other pledges were mainly financial contributions looking to develop infrastructure, R&D, corporate accountability, alongside seemingly vague funding commitments to “clean water for all”, or “daily safe water access”.

This feeling of imprecision and ambiguity is only amplified by the pledges being voluntary and non-binding, a critique that often emerges of UN summits.

Now, the focus must shift to COP28; can we really expect progress on water from a conference which is to be held in Dubai, a city infamous for the way in which it consumes water?

Dubai, desalination and ‘ecosystem services’

Dubai is equipped with the world’s largest desalination plant, a water purification process that is extremely energy intensive.

Desalination operations have several hidden costs: firstly, as above, there are huge emissions attached to the desalination process; secondly, continuing business as usual does nothing to tackle the growing demand for the resource; and thirdly, the hypersaline waste is not disposed of responsibly resulting in the erosion of biodiversity, and the disruption of coastal livelihoods and tourism.

The water prospects in the Gulf states are not all bad though, and renewable energy desalination has been presented as the solution to high and growing demand for this scarce resource.

Water is, of course, a resource — it is categorised as a flow resource. A flow resource is defined as a renewable resource, a component of the natural world that serves a socially valuable function with the capacity for regeneration. And nowhere is this truer than in the Middle East.

Just semantics? How the term ‘resource’ permeates discourse and practice

If ontologies refer to different ways of viewing and being in the world, then ‘indigenous ontologies’ is a term that, although general, refers to ways of interacting with our environments in a more relational and interconnected way. Clearly, there are innumerable ways of being in and experiencing the world, however, it is important to understand that what is termed the ‘Western Modern Ontology’ prevails and is rooted in Judeo-Christian beliefs that separate nature and society.

This separation of nature and society allows for water to be categorised as a resource, something that can be used, and also quantified insofar as ecosystem services can be valued as a metric of how non-human life provides goods and services for us.

The UN water summit acted to reinforce this belief in the way that it characterised clean water as a right for every person, in essence, failing to detail the reciprocal relationship: the responsibilities we have towards water. The language of ecosystem ‘services’ further confirms the one-sided relationship.

Indigenous ontologies, then, seek to challenge this arrangement and prefer to see humans as embedded within ecosystems rather than just a recipient of their services.

“[Seeing] humans as embedded within ecosystems rather than just a recipient of their services”

And although this summit was an example of stakeholders taking responsibility, the problem then circles back to the fractious and ineffective management of the resource.

The World Water Vision Report is quoted to have said: “There is a water crisis today. But the crisis is not about having too little water to satisfy our needs. It is a crisis of managing water so badly that billions of people — and the environment — suffer badly.”

The lack of foresight of water managers gone by is already having profound effects. And even since 2015, and the creation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), management has failed to improve the fate of a deteriorating waterscape.

Political technologies tackling the water crisis

‘Rainmaking’ is one such alternative belief system that recognises ongoing water management as a responsibility. Julie Livingston in her 2019 book Self-Devouring Growth refers to the rituals whereby communities gather to ask the people of the past to release the rain for the people of today.

Livingston describes these traditional practices as a way of making sense of your own place within something larger. It is a governance strategy wherein the main aim is intrinsically to avert crisis as a token of respect to our ancestors as well as to the future custodians of the Earth.

While we may not expect everyone to follow such a practice today, the key takeaway is this: a resacralization of water, treating it as a product and offering of the past treatment of the Earth rather than a right bestowed upon us, could help us to better manage it.

Another potentially useful reconceptualisation of water has been foregrounded by indigenous activist groups such as Idle no more, a Canadian protest group, whereby the land, water and sky are granted a derivative of ‘personhood’. In this regard then, water itself must have a representative at monumental summits such as the UN Water Conference and COP28.

The World People Conference on the Rights of Mother Earth and Climate Change did just that; it granted agency and a spokesperson for land, water and sky. Importantly though, this conference was held in Quito, Ecuador — a country where around ​​1.1 million inhabitants identify as indigenous. The conference was pivotal in creating a new understanding of the law: creating governance systems that provide both support for humans and to the entire life community.

Responsibility and regulatory bodies: sewage venting in UK waterways

Recent media attention has been given to the negligence and blatant law breaking from water and sewage companies in the UK.

Peter Hammond and Ashley Smith were pivotal in revealing this scandal, and spotlighting the incompetencies of organisations such as the Environment Agency (EA) who’s monitoring and enforcement capacity make it all too easy for sewage companies to vent raw sewage into UK waterways.

You would assume that the responsibility for wastewater disposal lies with the water companies since households pay monthly for this service. And we should be further safe in the knowledge that the EA regulates these operations, and enforces best practice.

However, successful wastewater disposal is hampered both by the greed of water companies (£50bn in dividends paid to investors over ten years), alongside the EA’s chronic underfunding, understaffing and apparent lack of concern.

What can we take away from this? Hope for the future?

Water is of course a management concern, but this crisis also stems from an underlying assumption about what water is and what it does for us.

The recent water conference was important since attention was given to solutions, with deliberations spanning the need for better data collection, enhanced governance systems, capacity development opportunities and funding gaps in the water sector.

However, the EA is evidence that even with increased funding, there continue to be shortcomings in regulatory organisations that are responsible for managing and safeguarding the water cycle.

Now, granting personhood to water might seem far-fetched or even impractical in a UK setting. However, it does offer a challenge to the current way of seeing nature as a resource or a series of services. Herein lies the problem of valuing nature and employing market-oriented mechanisms for conservation.

Luckily, there are more indigenous voices due to be present at COP28, and Ms Al Mubarak, a key regional figure that will be present at the conference, heads the Race to Resilience campaign. Race to Resilience is a UN-backed campaign looking to put people and nature first in order to pursue resilience, meaning populations “don’t just survive climate shocks and stresses, but thrive in spite of them”.

Taking into consideration alternative ways of knowing nature may contribute to a reworking and improvement of current systems. And there is perhaps no better time than right now to look at a potential reconceptualisation of water and its services.

This is particularly potent since it seems that it is only when the well is dry, we know the worth of water”, and indeed, when the well is contaminated with effluent.