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Water: water management in developing countries

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Water: water management in developing countries

This Communication aims to establish the guidelines for the European Community's policy and priorities in relation to water management in developing countries. The main aim is to ensure sustainable and fair access to clean water, suitable for all purposes, which meets, in particular, the basic needs of the most disadvantaged populations.


Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament of 12 March 2002. Water management in developing countries: policy and priorities for EU development cooperation [COM(2002) 132 final - Not published in the Official Journal].



Population growth together with changes in lifestyle and economic development in developing countries have heightened the pressure on water resources that are already limited. Environmental problems, especially climate change, add to these pressures. Since it is a resource that is essential for life, the supply, improvement and sound management of water are key elements in achieving the European Union's main objective in relation to its development policy, namely combating poverty. Furthermore, poor water management can be a source of conflict.

The European Union and its partners must face up to major challenges. In 2000, 17% of the world's population did not have access to a secure water supply and 40% lacked adequate sanitation. Most of these people lived in Africa and Asia.

For several years, the water issue has increasingly been on the agenda at international level. In December 2001, the Bonn International Conference on Freshwater made recommendations on the priority themes in this field. This communication serves as a basis for the Community's contribution to the international debate.

The Community's current water-related strategies and activities

The social sector has been identified as a priority for the Community development policy and the management of water resources is an important element of this sector. The guidelines adopted in 1998 form the basis of Community activities and have been used to define the orientations contained in this communication. They establish a holistic and strategic approach for water management and use. Water management is considered to be an inter-sectoral question as it has an important role to play in all areas of development: health, food security, transport, trade, etc. Regional cooperation is of particular importance since water is often a transboundary resource.

Future guidelines

It is essential to integrate water management into all development policies. With a view to achieving the goals in this field, the Commission sets out a number of ideas which are summarised below.

Raising the policy profile

More attention must be paid to the fragility of water resources and a more resolute political approach encompassing all the areas linked to water management, such as environmental sustainability, pollution, etc. must be adopted. The six development priorities of the European Community are the overarching framework for these activities. Within these priorities, the Commission identifies three objectives:

  • ensuring a supply to every human being, especially the poorest, of sufficient drinking water of good quality and adequate means of waste disposal;
  • sustainable and equitable transboundary water resource management;
  • cross-sectoral coordination to ensure fair and appropriate distribution of water between users of different kinds.

Implementation of an integrated approach to water management

The Commission identifies five activities required to achieve integrated management of water resources, namely:

  • awareness and participationUsers must be aware of the importance of water as a resource and their responsibilities in relation to sound management of this precious resource.Ownership is a key factor in the success of the policies and the participation of actors at all levels is thus essential;
  • institution capacity buildingThe success of activities depends largely on the capacity, resources and expertise of the institutions concerned. Support must be provided for the institutions responsible for water management;
  • demand-based managementIt is not enough to manage only water distribution; supply must also be managed. The challenge is to reduce demand while increasing output through initiatives such as reuse of water, protecting water resources, etc.;
  • expanding the knowledge baseThe necessary knowledge and information are essential for drawing up effective policies;
  • coordinationCoordination among donors (the Community, Member States, the United Nations, NGOs, etc.) must be strengthened.

Water-related action for its different uses

The approach must encompass all uses of water. The Commission highlights the priority actions in the following fields:

  • secure water supply and adequate sanitation for allEmphasis is placed on the importance of sanitation;
  • use of water in agriculture for food and production to ensure food securityThe Commission highlights the importance of saving water and promoting healthy agricultural practices to avoid contamination of water sources;
  • protecting and restoring water resources and ecosystems to contribute to the long-term sustainability of water use;
  • water as a source of energy and resource for industryRational water use must be ensured and pollution must be reduced and avoided;
  • management of water-related risks and of coastal areasRisks relating to floods, droughts, etc. must be prevented through the establishment of warning systems and rapid response capacity systems.

All sources of public and private financing must be mobilised to implement these actions.

Key global challenges

The international community must tackle some significant questions that are becoming increasingly critical as water resources become scarce. The three major challenges are:

  • transboundary water management for conflict prevention;
  • the implications of climate change;
  • the impact of the globalisation of trade on water management.

Given that water resources are increasingly limited, the possibilities of conflicts over transboundary water management are on the increase. Support must be provided for measures aimed at improving regional cooperation on the management of transboundary water resources.

Developing countries are particularly vulnerable to the problems linked to climate change, such as floods and droughts. Assistance in the form of research and capacity-building that enables them to prevent and react to growing problems is necessary.

With regard to trade, the liberalisation of international trade could have a positive impact on developing countries. Imports of water-intensive food crops may be a more practical and cost-effective approach to ensuring food security. However, it is important not to compromise a country's long-term prospects of overall food security or have a negative impact on farmers who grow food crops in developing countries.

A strategic partnership must be established at international level in order to achieve objectives and resolve problems. This process should be followed by the developing countries and encompass civil society.

Last updated: 12.09.2007