By Christopher A. Hartwell
Reason Public Policy Institute
Los Angeles, CA
Over half the world's major rivers are seriously polluted, according to a recent report from the World Water Commission, made up of government and private entities from around the world.
The commission's suggested cure for what ails the world's waterways is groundbreaking. The report advocates that waterway clean up be managed at the "lowest appropriate level," citing the importance of community-based solutions.
This conclusion, arrived at by a group consisting of the United Nations Development Program, the World Bank and the World Health Organization, is part of a sea change in thinking about environmental problems.
Most of the rivers and waterways cited in the report, such as the Amu Darya River in Central Asia, the Nile River in Egypt and the Yellow River in China suffer from what is known as the tragedy of the commons: Because no one person bears the cost of pollution, there is no incentive to stop harmful practices.
Furthermore, many countries lack a legal framework or even a stable government to protect property rights. As a result the rivers have no real protectors.
The chronicle of troubled rivers highlights a central problem of environmental protection: Third World countries have more important things to worry about than preserving the environment.
Hungry people are more concerned with where their next meal is coming from than about saving local waterways, which allows neglect and degradation. The way out for these nations is economic growth to insure the basic needs of their citizens.
Contrary to what the recent World Trade Organization protesters claimed, trade and transfer of technology to these nations can only help their environment. Growth can allow the countries in question to focus on more than mere survival.
However, a robust economy is a necessary but not sufficient condition for environmental preservation. The report notes that even in the United States, the most prosperous nation ever, the Colorado River is "exploited and polluted by agriculture."
What ails the Colorado is not an industry or specific farmer dumping into the pure banks, but the presence of nonpoint-source pollution that cannot be traced to a single source.
Environmental regulations in the United States are notoriously ineffective in dealing with this sort of pollution, suggesting a different approach is needed.
Along with economic strength, regulatory plans must allow economic power to be brought to bear effectively. Cooperative, community-based methods are a superior way to do this.
Watershed management initiatives in the Midwest and Western states have found great success with nonregulatory approaches that bring interested users together to solve environmental problems.
The Minnesota River, which two years ago was named one of America's most endangered rivers, is staging a remarkable comeback using a "pollutant credit trading" plan between Rahr Malting Co. and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
The arrangement gives the company the ability to "trade" discharge limits for reducing the amount of pollutants going into the river from other sources.
Watersheds in Idaho and Montana have benefited from similar methods. In Montana's Blackfoot River and Idaho's Henry's Fork River, parties with stakes in river health work together to deal with the problems of nonpoint source pollution.
Thanks to the World Water Commission report, the benefits of community-based, nonregulatory management of watersheds are finally being recognized.
It remains to be seen if state and federal regulators will take the commission's recommendations to heart. But even the recognition of the need for local involvement is a step forward in environmental policy- making.