Water is the lifeblood of the planet, vital for reducing the global burden of disease, and critical for socio-economic development, healthy ecosystems and human survival itself. Water is also at the heart of adaptation to climate change and is a key factor in managing risks such as famine, migration, epidemics and inequalities. Access to water supply and sanitation, however, is very unequal, whether this is measured between urban and rural areas or between disadvantaged groups and the general population.
Some disheartening statistics about water are almost mind-boggling. The United Nations (UN) and the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) tell us that over 1.7 billion people are currently living in river basins where water usage exceeds recharge, leading to the depletion of ground water and the degradation of ecosystems. Over 80% of wastewater is discharged into bodies of water without treatment. Added to these facts is the related problem that the potential demand for water is projected to increase by 55% by 2050. OECD claims that water-related disasters are the most economically and socially destructive of all natural disasters. Since the first World Water Day in 1993, floods, droughts and storms have affected 4.2 billion people worldwide, including millions in the U.S., and caused $1.3 trillion of damage.
For those of all faiths, water is the symbol of God’s generosity and blessings. In the psalms, loved by Christians, Jews and so many others, God is praised as the good shepherd who leads one to quiet waters. In Matthew 5:45 we read that God sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous. In John 4, Jesus asks the Samaritan woman for a drink of water. And there are so many other instances in the beloved books of all faiths about the significance of water, which for many Christians is also a symbol of baptism.
Yet in today’s economy, we often do not share water generously and with compassion. It is being appropriated and is a source of contention – even frightening crises – between neighboring peoples. Demand for this life-giving element is ever increasing, fuelled by the growth of people living on this planet, climate change, as well as our methods of production and our lifestyles that often serve an unquestioned pursuit of profits and gratification. Because contaminated water is a major cause of illness and death, water quality is a determining factor in human poverty, education and economic opportunity.
Responding to these challenges requires a range of interventions. Preventing water pollution is critical to improving drinking water quality. But prevention also includes disinfecting water at the household level as well as water management at the community level. In some situations, more than one type of intervention is needed. For example, both improvements would be required for piped water systems, even with intermittent service.
We are all aware of the degradation of the water catchment areas due to deforestation through agricultural and industrial development. This has caused unnecessary flooding, severe illnesses and death. We see images on TV and our computers about droughts in Ethiopia, Somalia, or Kenya, causing widespread migration and a steady stream of refugees searching for water. Yet, despite the lack of rainfall, water is available in those countries – 1,000 feet below the ground – if the equipment were available. We read about communities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in rural India, and other poor countries in Southeast Asia or island countries like Haiti, which use rivers as a drinking fountain, swimming pool, laundromat and public toilet. Yet, every day, women fill pails and old cans with this same contaminated water and take it back to their families.
The foregoing is only an abbreviated description of the global water crisis. In numerical terms, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), there are about 785 million people who do not have access to clean water; 2.5 billion people who lack access to adequate sanitation; and, over 800,000 children who die each year from various forms of diarrhea due to unsafe water and sanitation, making diarrhea the second leading cause of death among children under the age of 5. The good news is that since 1990, the number of persons able to access improved drinking water and sanitation resources has increased by about 2 billion. We are now talking about improving the situation for the “bottom billion.”
But are we also aware how interdependent and interlinked water and energy are, the theme of this year’s World Water Day? The United Nations, the sponsor of World Water Day, reminds us that energy generation and transmission requires utilization of water resources, particularly for hydroelectric, nuclear and thermal energy sources, on which so much of the world depends. Conversely, about 8% of global energy generation is used for extracting, treating and distributing water to various consumers. Thus, the water-energy nexus should be focused on wholeheartedly, especially in addressing inequities for those who live in impoverished areas without access to safe drinking water, adequate sanitation and sufficient energy services.
On World Water Day this year (as well as throughout the year), the UN is asking us to begin a policy dialogue that focuses on the synergy between water and energy and how they impact one another. The increasing demand for fresh water and energy will strain resources in nearly all regions, especially in developing and emerging economies. Thus, the UN is calling for actively engaging key stakeholders in helping to improve coordination between water and energy planners, which can lead to a reduction in inefficiencies and greater innovation in policies that lead to improvements in both their services. The UN is paying particular attention to identifying best practices that can make a water/energy-efficient “green industry” a reality across the globe.
An example of the type of innovation the UN is seeking is solar sanitation, described by the CDC as an “inexpensive, innovative, and effective form of human waste treatment that uses concentrated solar energy to treat waste so it can be safely discarded or potentially used for fertilizer or fuel.” (http://www.cdc.gov/features/worldwaterday/ )
Each year during the week preceding World Water Day, a large conference of several thousand people from professors to college students, from advocates to interested people, convenes in Stockholm to discuss the topic associated with the year’s World Water Day’s theme. This year, as the time limit for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) draws to a close and the global community is taking stock of how it can move towards a sustainable future, these discussions may serve as input for the water/energy nexus of that future.
Already, various UN groups have developed a major publication under the auspices of the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) presenting a global goal for water to replace the water goal in the MDG that expires in 2015. The MDG goal, agreed in 2000, aimed to halve the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation between 1990 and 2015. However, the WHO/UNICEF monitoring team, although applauding the increase in people’s access to improved drinking water (see statistics above), are clear in their assessment that, despite progress, existing indicators do not address the safety and reliability of water supplies.
Whatever goals and targets are finally selected to replace the MDGs, they must be amenable to being tailored to different national policy contexts, and that includes many areas in the U.S. that are vulnerable to flooding, drought, water pollution and problematic waterways. And they must be strong enough to drive progress in eradicating poverty in the post-2015 world where water is fast becoming the "gold" of the 21st century.
Let us undertake our advocacy roles first, by heeding the message of World Water Day to focus on the meaning water holds for the global community, especially for those either without access to what most of us take for granted, or for those suffering from water-related disasters. After reflecting on the goal of "Securing Sustainable Water for All" and how we might contribute to its achievement, we may then be ready for the action implied in Matthew 25: "I was thirsty and you gave me drink."