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Water: A source of death and life

Jaehyang So's picture

With the recent MDG summit in New York, I think it’s a good time to stop and take a look at the big water and sanitation picture. We know the numbers of people without access are daunting: 2.5 billion with no sanitation, 887 million without access to safe water. But more and more people are indeed gaining access. Since 1990, 1.6 billion have gained access to safe water. The world will likely even reach the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) set in 2015 to halve the number of people without access to clean water, according to the UN.

This is no small feat, and the world should take a moment to celebrate this success, and learn from challenges encountered along the way so that we continue beyond 2015 until everyone can access clean water and sanitation.

One of those challenges lies in climate change. Growing evidence indicates that water resources will change in both quantity and quality, while water, storm water and wastewater facilities’ infrastructure will face greater risk of damage caused by storms, floods and droughts.

More frequent and intense rain events will continue to foster flash floods, decreased water storage due to sedimentation and coastal floods caused by extreme tidal and wave events. Over the next 100 years, flooding is likely to become more common or more intense in many areas, especially in low-lying coastal sites or in zones that currently experience high rainfall. An example of this is the recent flooding in Pakistan, where early estimates are that 1,600 people have been killed. It has also been reported that up to 16 million people are affected, 450,000 homes have been destroyed and 1.5 million acres of crop land have been damaged.

However, a new report from WSP’s IBNET called the Blue Book (to be released) also reveals a second challenge, which lies in the management of water utilities.  Operation and Maintenance (O&M) of water infrastructure can enhance the quality of service and extend the useful lives of facilities. Nevertheless, the proportion of utilities that were not able to cover their basic O&M costs has increased from 35% in 2000 to 43% in 2008 – mostly because of the triple effects of the fuel, food and financial crises. The effect is especially noticeable in low-income countries, where the percentage of utilities that cannot cover even O&M costs increased most rapidly.

This is a major problem for utilities because paying scant attention to O&M even further increases costs and deepens poor performance.

Third is the impact of fast growing urban populations on the availability of water supply. Rapid urbanization puts heavy pressure on utilities to provide or expand quality services to accommodate the spike in demand. This will require large investments.

Urbanization also affects sanitation, in which we find a fourth challenge. Levels of wastewater coverage are affected by rapid increases in urban populations, although they vary according to economic development.

Despite significant improvements, at current rates, the world will likely miss the 2015 MDG target for sanitation, meaning that an inexpensive, economic solution with high return on investment is taking longer for Governments to address. Sanitation is also among the first to suffer among refugees from natural disasters or conflict-affected areas. We see the effects of this in cholera outbreaks, several of which have happened around the world just in this last year.

Many countries have demonstrated an understanding of the negative impacts of sanitation on their economy and have begun to identify solutions that work, and then implement these at a larger scale. Over 600,000 people in East Java, for example, gained access to safe sanitation as a result of inexpensive interventions implemented with the Government’s support, with another 15 million in Indonesia likely to gain access by 2015. Similarly in India, 2.5 million people are expected to gain access by 2015.

Such successes offer hope that although the challenges are great, they are not insurmountable. Recognizing successes and replicating them at a large scale and across borders will finally see everyone with access to safe, more sustainable water and sanitation.