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CGP Water Series | Life, Water, Development

June 7, 2011

Clean water. It’s the most basic of all needs, and throughout history human civilizations have sought to control its sources and abuse them incessantly. But today’s reality is distinct: an ever-increasing number of individuals and organizations view the command of water resources as one which entails responsibility. In a sentence, the conversation has shifted from how to acquire it to how to provide access while ensuring sustainability.  In this post we briefly explore the history of access to water problems, the links between water issues and development, and the current state of affairs in the developing world.

Background. Water’s importance is relatively well understood: its absence is a significant barrier to life and development. This knowledge has spurred action from a multitude of sectors.  The demands for global monitoring prompted the Declaration of the International Water Supply and Sanitation Decade in the 1980s.

In the years since, the world has moved to recognize the importance of water on development. As John Dernbach has noted, these goals can be inferred from the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. Since, relevant international instruments have been more aggressive and explicit about tackling water and development issues.

UNEP contends that the “[e]quitable and sustainable management of water resources is a major global challenge”. Similarly, UNICEF acknowledges on its website that tackling the challenges by itself is both unwise and unrealistic: “UNICEF is part of a growing global effort to meet this challenge. Together with governments, NGOs and other external support agencies, UNICEF is expanding its efforts to meet the [water] challenge”. This is particularly important given that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has written that the world requires between $92.4 billion and $148 billion annually to build the required water and sanitation systems.

The Global Water Crisis. In the words of a 2006 UNDP report:

“Unlike wars and natural disasters, the global crisis in water does not make media headlines. Nor does it galvanize concerted international action. Like hunger, deprivation in access to water is a silent crisis experienced by the poor and tolerated by those with the resources, the technology and the political power to end it. ”

Multiple sources have gathered data that substantiate a global water crisis. A 2010 World Health Organization study reports that about 900 million individuals lack access to an improved source of drinking water. Global Water Challenge, a collective of “leading organizations in the water and sanitation sector” informs that illnesses borne from lack of water and inadequate sanitation facilities kill more children under the age of five than HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined. According to Water.org every 20 seconds a child dies of a waterborne disease.

In addition to concerns over health, any development conversation must touch on the global water crisis. According to a 2009 UN-Water report, two thirds of individuals lacking access to drinkable water live on less than $2 a day; one third of these individuals survives on less than $1 a day.  Moreover, the constant search for water has implications for education, entrepreneurship, health, and gender. As Water Aid, an international NGO, has reported, in some African countries, women must walk up to 10 miles each day to reach sources of water sources that may not even meet adequate health standards. Water collection activities have a relatively high opportunity cost because they conflict with things such as engaging in other economic activities, education, and raising children.

What to Do. The call to action on the global water crisis is an urgent one. The World Water Council, a self described “international multi-stakeholder platform”,  notes that per capita demand for water is growing at a faster pace than world population, as people and industry demand water more than ever before. Questions surrounding the price of water and its allocation within societies are bound to be problematic and will not be easy to resolve.

But not all is lost. One positive development that has lowered coordination and networking costs was the establishment of the Millennium Developing Goals (MDGs). In regards to water, the goal is to halve the number of people without access to sustainable sources of drinkable water by 2015. According to the UN’s most recent available update, the world is on track to meet the goal—but much remains to be done.

The UK’s Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, for one, observes that within the last fifty years significant progress has been made. It would be unwise to ignore how corporate social responsibility has played an important role helping secure and expand water access. Take for instance Coca Cola’s partnership with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which has set out to “conserve priority river basins around the world and integrate sustainability into [Coca Cola's] operations worldwide”. Some have been less gifted in selecting partners, like Starbucks’ controversial purchase of Ethos–a water bottle company that donates 10 cents for each bottle purchase. While these individuals efforts can be lauded, more can still be done (and, certainly, more intelligently). Concerted action, a more tailored focus, and clever innovation might reward us with more tangible results. In partnership with the many organizations focused on water issues, communities and grass roots organizations may finally quench the thirst of millions.

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