Addressing the water-jobs nexus through coordinated policies

Per the 2016 United Nations World Water Development Report ‘Water and Jobs’ launched on World Water Day (22 March, 2016) in Geneva “three out of four of the jobs worldwide are water-dependent. In fact, water shortages and lack of access may limit economic growth in the years to come”. The UN Secretary General in his forward to the report notes that the report “demonstrates that water stress and the lack of decent work can exacerbate security challenges. It also traces the link between scarce or poor quality water, damaged ecosystems and instability that can lead to forced migration”.

From its collection, through various uses, to its ultimate return to the natural environment, water is a key factor in the development of job opportunities either directly related to its management (supply, infrastructure, wastewater treatment, etc.) or in economic sectors that are heavily water-dependent such as agriculture, fishing, power, industry and health.

Jobs in water sectors fall under one of three functional categories: i) water resources management, including integrated water resources management (IWRM) and ecosystem restoration and remediation; ii) building, operating and maintaining water infrastructure; and iii) the provision of water related services including water supply, sanitation and wastewater management. These jobs serve as the building blocks for a wide array of water-dependent job opportunities in sectors such as agriculture (including fisheries and aquaculture), energy and industry. Apart from that there are a number of ancillary jobs that enable employment in water dependent sectors. The report notes “access to a safe and reliable water supply and sanitation services at home and the workplace, coupled with appropriate hygiene, and is critical to maintaining a healthy, educated and productive workforce”.

The report in a separate section on ‘Asia and Pacific’ outlines that “over 1.7 billion people in Asia and the Pacific continue to live without access to improved sanitation (UNICEF, n.d.) and over 85% of untreated wastewater create the risk of a ‘silent disaster’ (2nd APWS, 2013a, 2013b) from the pollution of surface and ground water resources and coastal ecosystems (UNESCAP, 2010). As a result of heightened climate change (UNESCAP, 2014b), more than 50% of the world’s recent natural disasters occurred in Asia-Pacific affecting water supply infrastructure.” It notes that there is tremendous potential to create employment opportunities in the agricultural sector by increasing access to water and improving water-use efficiency in irrigation. Research and development for advanced technologies in agriculture can also foster employment opportunities in other sectors.

The report’s thrust is on how water is a crucial and pervasive input for all major types of production – so much so that estimating its relationship with economic growth and jobs is particularly challenging. So, the report stresses that water investments are a necessary enabling condition for economic growth, jobs and reducing inequalities. Failing to invest in water management not only represents missed opportunities but may also positively have the reverse impact and impede economic growth and job creation, effectively resulting in jobs loss.

The report states that “investment in agriculture also contributes to alleviating unemployment and the on-going fight against poverty. Agricultural growth can increase the incomes of the three poorest deciles 2.5 times more than growth in other sectors (World Bank, 2007) and is the basis for employment creation in other sectors along the value chain.” This is very relevant for a country like ours where a huge population is dependent on the sector, which is at the moment faced with a crisis.

More than economic growth through expanding agriculture, industry there is a need to look at water investments through the lens of ecosystem restoration, risk reduction (e.g. flooding, drought, disease), for ensuring human rights like right to water and more generally for providing benefits for human well-being like river conservation/ restoration.

The report notes that when making these policy considerations, it is important to keep in mind that water investments may not necessarily translate into national economic statistics but its overall tone and tenor is geared to maximizing the returns of water investments. It says that “targeted water investments may contribute towards reaching growth and poverty alleviation goals more effectively… Investments in infrastructure and operations of water-related services can provide high returns for economic growth and for direct and indirect job creation. In terms of direct job creation from water investments, the results are highly context-dependent but may entail some significant returns”. However, the report makes a note of India’s MGNREGA scheme as one that generates direct employment through eco-restoration and infrastructure creation. It says “at times, infrastructure projects – including water projects – have been intentionally designed for high job creation. For instance, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee (MGNREGA) programme in India, which provides work opportunities to some 25% of rural households, has largely focused on water projects, such as water conservation and harvesting, irrigation and flood, and drought protection (Government of India, 2012).”

The report in its conclusion calls for concerted long-term decision-making to address the core trends and inter-linkages affecting the water and jobs nexus. The international community is already showing the way, having set long-term goals regarding water, sanitation, decent work and sustainable development that offer an action framework for countries’ development objectives. It will be important for each country, according to its own resource base, potential and priorities, to identify and promote specific and coherent strategies, plans and policies to achieve the right sectoral balance and generate the highest possible output of decent and productive jobs without degrading the environment and compromising sustainability of water resources.

In this respect, the allocation of water resources and the provision of water services to different economic sectors, combined with higher water-use efficiency, productivity and value added, will largely dictate the growth potential for high quality jobs at country and local levels. Focusing on the economic sectors that are most relevant for environmental sustainability and job creation will prove to be the ultimate key to success.

Revisiting frameworks such as Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) to resonate with these new complexities will also be important. Moreover, stronger, better and more efficient interlinked institutions will be required to handle the increased level of complexity.

Download the 2016 UN World Water Development Report, Water and Jobs here


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