The paramount water challenge of development agencies has, for decades, been that of freeing up women and children from the endless grind of fetching water. However, more and more people are gaining access to clean water. 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 this World Water Week to celebrate this success, and learn from challenges encountered along the way so that the success can continue beyond 2015. 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 siltation, 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 over 1,600 people killed. It has also been reported that up to 18.6 million people are affected and 1.25 million houses have been damaged or destroyed.
A recent report from the World Bank and the Water and Sanitation Program (WSP), “Climate Change and Urban Water Utilities: Challenges and Opportunities”, notes that many countries are already taking measures to adapt current infrastructure to increased changes in the Earth’s climate.
A separate report from the World Bank and the WSP shows that despite global food, fuel, and economic crises, water utilities in developing countries are slowly becoming more self-reliant and sustainable. The report is based on information from a network of water utilities around the world, called the International Benchmarking Network for Water and Sanitation Utilities (IBNET), which uses benchmarks to compare their performance.
However, IBNET’s Blue Book also reveals a second challenge that 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 per cent in 2000 to 43 per cent in 2008 — mostly because of the triple effects of the fuel, food and financial crises. Third is the impact of fast growing urban populations on the availability of water supply. Rapid urbanisation puts heavy pressure on utilities to provide or expand quality services to accommodate the spike in demand. This will require large investments. Urbanisation 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.
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.
Such successes offer hope that although the challenges are great, they are not insurmountable. Recognising successes and replicating them at a large scale and across borders will finally see everyone with access to safe, more sustainable water and sanitation.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 9th, 2010.
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