Water is an essential resource for all who live on this planet. Access to a clean water supply is needed for health, cleanliness, food supply and economic growth. However, around 2.2 billion people worldwide – nearly one-third of the global population – currently lack access to safe drinking water. A key problem is the capacity for countries experiencing the biggest problems to effectively manage supplies so that safe water can be provided for all. With the world facing up to a potential future water crisis an well as a population increase, optimizing water management practices in these areas is a vital challenge in the years to come.
What is the current situation?
The water-related problems in the developing world vary across countries but typically boil down to either lack of available freshwater, prevalence of polluted or untreated water, or conflict over transboundary water resources. Factors affecting this include climate change, growth (not just population but also economic growth which leads to greater industrial and agricultural use of water) and lack of infrastructure (in terms of both regulatory power and technological capability to extract, treat and distribute water).
The need to improve water management in poorer countries has been acknowledged by the UN, which has made availability and sustainable management of water one of its Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) for 2030. Goals include:
- Universal access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation
- Reduction of pollution and untreated wastewater
- Increasing water-use efficiency
- Improving transboundary cooperation to better manage shared resources
- More community involvement in management and decision-making
Linked to this is the Global Water Security & Sanitation Partnership (GWSP), led by the World Bank, which supports the delivery of water-related SDGs. These initiatives involve governments, charities, NGOs and businesses working with local communities to address water problems.
What have been the results?
Progress in achieving the SDG water-related goals has been limited to date. According to the most recent UN findings, although there have been improvements in drinking water access, wastewater treatment and water use efficiency, the world is not on track to achieve objectives by 2030. Crucially, 129 countries are unlikely to meet integrated water resources management targets. Furthermore, only 13% of countries currently have high community involvement in water management and 30% have more than two-thirds of their transboundary water resources covered by operational agreements.
Notable stories of progress include:
- Burkina Faso – the Urban Water Sector Project has improved the country’s water infrastructure, providing 700,000 people with access to clean water
- India – a community-based program in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana State has led to more water-efficient agricultural production, benefiting over 600,000 residents
- Peru – the Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) project has aimed to strengthen institutional capacity to manage resources at both national level and in 10 selected river basins
What improvements could be made?
Two key areas where there is scope for improvement: better involvement of experts in the water sector, including water-related private businesses and social enterprises, who can assist with water-efficient planning, management and monitoring to help poorer countries save both money and freshwater supplies; and better use of the most cutting-edge available water technology, including purification, desalination and recycling technology that would enable water-stressed regions to utilize supplies other than groundwater, such as greywater, rainwater and seawater.
Transferring the necessary skills and technology to developing countries would lead to more holistic, robust and sustainable management where supplies from a wider variety of sources could be controlled in a more decentralized manner and allow for more bottom-up involvement.
Examples of innovative approaches at local community level are:
- Suriname – off-grid water purification plant that provides drinking water for villagers using a local river source
- India – a partnership between a health resource centre and Gap Inc to install community water filtration plants in rural areas
- Mexico – 19 rainwater collection systems installed in communities in Mexico City and Yucatan
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