Promoting water security with demand management and soft paths

Tate (1993) defines water demand management (WDM) as "any socially beneficial action that reduces or reschedules average or peak water withdrawals or consumption from either surface or groundwater, consistent with the protection or enhancement of water quality." Brooks (2006) offers a 5-part operational definition of demand management that distinguishes between water quantity and water quality and emphasizes methods for providing water during dry spells. Both of these definitions provide scope for technological solutions but recognize that technologies must be understood as socially and politically embedded practices. In essence, therefore, demand management is a form of water governance in which the question of how water decisions are made is inseparable from the question of what decisions are made. Both Tait and Brooks use water demand management in a broad sense to include all measures that serve to reduce withdrawals of water. In this article, the term applies more narrowly to focus mainly on measures that are cost effective.


WDM seeks to achieve water efficiency at all stages from extraction to use. It is an application of environmental economics, the results of which can be measured by a physical ratio, as with litres of water applied per kilogram of crop produced, by an economic ratio, as with the cost of water applied per the value of crop produced, or by some combination of the two.

In contrast to supply management, which is generally centralized, demand management involves literally every household or firm or activity that uses water in a given location. Success with WDM therefore depends on the involvement of the people who manage water at these points of use. Thus, Trumbo and O'Keefe (2005) show how intentions and information interact to yield results in demand management campaigns, and Easter and Liu (2007) show that farmer involvement is critical when introducing water-saving irrigation methods.

In most developing countries, WDM is pursued less to save water than to reduce deficits incurred by government subsidies (Hellegers et al., 2006; Brooks et al., 2007). However, from our perspective, the promotion of water security requires that demand-side measures should also be supportive of socio-political goals including improvements in class and gender equity, wider public participation in decision-making and environmental sustain-ability. In particular, "pro-poor" approaches must be built in explicitly, just as do measures to assure that women and other disadvantaged groups get a fair share of the saved water (DAWN, 1985; van Koppen, 1999; Gender and Water Alliance, 2003).


The first steps toward a less risky and more secure water future are found with demand management, which use existing technologies and economic incentives to achieve water efficiency. However, because they begin from an anthropocentric rather than an ecosystem perspective, efficiency-oriented measures alone are not generally sufficient to achieve sustainable water management. In many places, we already withdraw so much water as to impair the ability of nature to provide ecological services (Postel and

Thompson, 2005). Water soft paths accept the importance of water efficiency, but go further by searching for changes in water use habits and water management institutions that will promote long-term ecological and social sustainability (Gleick, 2003; Wolfe and Brooks, 2003; Brooks, 2005). As such, they are an application of ecological as opposed to environmental economics.

The soft path approach changes the conception of "water." Instead of being viewed as an end product, water becomes the means to accomplish specific tasks, such as sanitation or agricultural production. Demand management asks the question "how": How can we get more from each drop of water? Soft paths ask the question "why": Why should we use water to do this at all? Why, for example, do we use water (and, commonly enough, potable water) to carry away our waste? Demand management would urge low-flow toilets, whereas soft paths might promote waterless or composting systems in homes and on-site waste treatment and reuse for commercial buildings. Irrigation is the largest use of water, accounting for around 70% of water withdrawals world-wide and even greater proportions in low-income developing countries. Demand management would urge more efficient technologies, such as drip systems with automatic shut-offs. A soft path approach would ask whether irrigated agriculture might be replaced by other modes of cropping. Many areas now under irrigation for international export are capable of agricultural production with rainwater or at most supplemental irrigation (adding small volumes of water to that provided by rain or recessional flooding at those times critical to plant growth). In such places, water security can be increased by promoting drought-resistant crops for local consumption and crops that can be grown with low-quality (e.g., saline) water.

Even more than with demand management, it is imperative that soft paths be designed with social equity, democratic decision-making and environmental protection in mind. To cite but one example, it might make economic sense to reallocate water from agricultural to industrial production. However, such a move could hardly be advised if it promotes rural migration to already over-crowded cities.

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