We have everything we need to provide clean water to all, so why do millions still suffer?

Clean Water Day 2019

Today is UN World Water Day, and sees events around the world aiming to increase public awareness of water’s importance in environment, health, and economy. The theme in 2019 is ‘Leaving no one behind’, an adaptation of the central promise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that as sustainable development progresses, everyone must benefit.

The United Nations World Water Development Report 2019 was also released this week.  This emphasises that “improvements in water resources management and access to water supply and sanitation services are essential to addressing various social and economic inequities, such that ‘no one is left behind’ when it comes to enjoying the multiple benefits and opportunities that water provides”.

The world is still failing to meet this ambition. 844 million people still lack even a basic water service and 2.1 billion people lack safe, clean water accessible on premises and available when needed. 2.3 billion people lack at least a basic facility for sanitation. Over 2 billion people live in regions experiencing high water stress that hinders sustainability and limits social and economic development.

The current impacts of Cyclone Idai in southern Africa illustrate only too clearly the water related impacts of extreme weather events as worsened by mismanagement of land and water resources, the vulnerability of poor people and climate change. Indeed, water is the primary medium through which climate change may alter the natural environment and impact people, ecosystems and economies.

None of these challenges should be insuperable. To start with, surely the world has the right technologies, the finance and the human capacity to provide safe, clean water and sanitation to all. Given the social and economic benefits, the case for the necessary investment is a ‘no-brainer’. What is lacking is the political will and vision to allocate the resources needed. Progress in rich countries was made possible by a coalition of interests, a social consensus and development of the necessary institutions and services led by government. Conditions today in developing countries are diverse and different, but progress must still depend on strong institutions, partnerships and political leadership. Sustained national policies over sufficiently long-term planning cycles are needed, backed by sufficient and coordinated international assistance.

The main drivers and stressors for water resource management and the sustainability of ecosystems are increasing demographic pressure, economic development, and climate change. Emphasis must be given to climate change as knowledge improves about its extent and future impacts, but in most of the world we are failing to manage land and water sustainably right now. It is perhaps fortunate that solutions implemented by households, communities and governments today will also strengthen adaptability and resilience for the future. However, water-related measures for climate change adaptation and mitigation must be analysed in all natural resource management decisions. How water is abstracted, transported, treated and used has many connections with greenhouse gas mitigation measures and the resilience of both human-made and natural systems.

It is not enough to just understand that we are over-exploiting and mis-managing our land and water. It is also necessary to understand the complexities of interactions between social and environmental systems, from the local to the global scale, which influence the availability and use of freshwater.

Only the right policies, governance and forms of collective action can steward land and water resources for sustainable outcomes. We face new situations in which current modes of governing and managing natural resources are obsolete for the social and environmental challenges facing humanity. We have moved well beyond a ‘frontier economy’ in which natural resources could simply be captured and put to productive use. Now, management matters, and it matters simultaneously for resource conservation, use, recycling and disposal of wastes.

At SOAS, water resource management research and teaching, by distance learning and on-campus, addresses key aspects of this agenda including water, globalisation and finance, water service delivery, water law and policy, water and catchment ecosystem services and water security.

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