Environmental Governance and the Global Water Crisis

The United Nations General Assembly on 28 July 2010, explicitly recognized the human right to water and sanitation and acknowledged that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realisation of all human rights. It goes without saying that sustaining the environmental integrity for future generations begins with more effective water management today. Yet, our fresh water sources are silent receptors of our wretched refuse, our neglect and apathy and represent all our incapacities and failures-a microcosm of the evils plaguing our society. There are cases from across the globe where without reason or any kind of remorse we have neglected our water resources and now, they are on the verge of dying. While lack of access to safe drinking water and sanitation are usually discussed in the context of developing countries, developed countries too have faced situations where the citizens have been denied of the basic human right to safe drinking water.


The Flint water crisis, US began in 2014 with the contamination of the Flint water distribution system when dangerous levels of lead content were found in the water supply system which had major implications for the local residents where majority of the population of children under 18 years of age (the most negatively impacted age-group) was exposed to elevated levels of lead water. Increased levels of lead, a potent neurotoxin, in bloodstream are associated with increased risk of developmental effect on children. Approximately 12 people died from Legionnaires’ disease (a severe form of pneumonia) over the course of Flint water crisis and the population had to switch to bottled water for their drinking water needs. Despite the legislations like Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act in place, the authorities failed to prevent pollutant discharge into the river and to ensure and protect the quality of drinking water supply to the population. It took dozens of lawsuits and class action suits to bring a reactive effort on part of the officials to address the issue. Why did it take local protests to bring national attention to the Flint water crisis? Recognising the threat, why did the regulatory authorities tolerate it?


The quality of the regulatory systems implementing environmental legislations and laws ensuring safe drinking water indeed depends on the efficacy of their compliance and enforcement. It is quite evident that the implementation of these legislations lags behind and the  gap between the legislations and their compliance mechanism needs to be closed. While the Congress passes legislations, it is the job of the Environment Protection Agency to formulate guidelines for implementation of these laws and to some extent the power is devolved to the States to enforce the regulations themselves. Developing countries, on the other hand have most of the power concentrated at the Centre with local governments playing only a minor or no role in this arena. For developing countries, finding a balance between environment and economic development has been an area of concern and pollution is seen as the price of progress.


Yellow river-the third longest river in Asia, the birthplace of Chinese Civilisation, has seen an alarming level of pollution due to overexploitation of resources and water pollution. It is worth mentioning here that out of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, 5 are in China and the threat to human and environmental health has increased manifold in the recent years. The incidence of cancer, regarded as country’s leading cause of death, in the citizens relying on the river for drinking, washing and cooking needs has increased due to chemical contamination from industries to the extent that the water is now regarded as unfit for consumption. Children are most vulnerable as exposure to these contaminants over prolonged periods increases the risk of altered brain function. In addition to the Environment Protection Law in place, guidelines issued by the Ministry of Environment Protection are by and large a rhetoric, far from reality or practice. Frequent protests by environmental advocates may have led to some awakening of  environmental consciousness of authorities and the public but there is still a long way to go.


Another case from a developing country is the largest freshwater lake in India, Wular, a barometer of the Kashmir valley’s environmental health and to a large degree its culture. It has faced mindless dumping of non-biodegradable waste in its basin resulting in extreme degradation of the lake and the biodiversity that it supports. Apart from the pollution that has jeopardized the health and well-being of the local population, the wetland, the ‘natural sponge’ has lost its water holding capacity and if and when there is a flood situation in the future, and people would have lost their protection from floods. The efficacy of implementation of various water pollution control legislations-Water Act and Environment Protection Act and various regulations is a cause for concern.


Time and again, environmental advocates have brought this issue to the forefront but has it gained enough momentum? Why is the concern of the public and officials about the issue so low? While there are stark differences in the legislative systems of developed and developing countries, it is difficult to say whether the former makes for a better arrangement given the multiple examples of failure of democracy when it comes to environment protection. Given the current scenario, it is difficult to determine the need of the hour-aggressive climate policies or aggressive enforcement? The environmental justice movement has failed to build  enough momentum in the wake of failed democracy to force the governments to better enforce environmental policies and laws to ensure that the quality of drinking water is maintained.


Amidst all this, the question arises, “Is there a need to support and strengthen the participation of local communities in protecting the environment and ensuring safe water drinking supply?” Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration provides for “appropriate access for each individual to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities” and makes it imperative for each government “to facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available.” While Flint is a perfect example of a community fighting social injustice and succeeding to some extent, given the lack of employment and high rate of poverty in developing countries, the interests of the civil society groups are more concentrated towards basic human rights, thus, making  it difficult to define their role in the process of environmental governance. This problem is even more complicated in the conflict zone of Kashmir where the long standing conflict has left people in a state of divide and daily survival outweighs any other concern, most definitely environmental pollution. Yet, Kashmir has seen various civil society movements and attempts by environmental advocates to advance the cause of environment. We, as individuals, need to step in and develop skills to identify and solve environmental problems at an individual level. There has to be focus on advocating the cause of environment but in the long run the civil societies need to keep the governmental functions under check ensuring that the governments stay accountable and responsive.