Global water crisis
Women in rural Uganda collect water from a community water standpipe. Millions of African women struggle to fetch clean water. COURTESY PHOTO
How countries around the world are grappling with challenges of too much water, too little water and too dirty water
Kampala Uganda | RONALD MUSOKE | The first global meeting on water in almost five decades took place in New York on March 22-24 with a focus on rethinking new mechanisms of valuing the world’s fresh water—one of the most important resources for sustaining life on earth.
The meeting hosted by The Netherlands and Tajikistan came at a time when at least three billion people around the world are experiencing water shortages. According to UN-Water and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), these shortages will only worsen in the coming decades, especially in cities, if international cooperation is not boosted.
Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary-General likened the UN 2023 Water Conference to the COP 21 which took place in Paris in 2015. “The UN 2023 Water Conference must result in a bold Water Action Agenda that gives our world’s lifeblood the commitment it deserves,” he said.
“In the same way as “1.5°C” enshrines the global community’s commitment to fighting climate change, the Water Action Agenda aims to manifest the political ambition to address global water challenges and fundamentally change the way we understand, value and manage water.”
Henk Ovink, the Dutch Government’s Special Envoy for International Water Affairs, and Sulton Rahimzoda, the Special Envoy of the President of Tajikistan to the Water and Climate Coalition Leaders told the World Economic Forum weeks before the conference that partnerships and cooperation will be more important than ever in 2023 if countries are to achieve SDG-6.
“Nearly every water-related intervention involves some kind of cooperation. Growing crops require shared irrigation systems among farmers,” Ovink and Rahimzoda noted. “Providing safe and affordable water to cities and rural areas is only possible through communal management of water supply and sanitation systems. And cooperation between these urban and rural communities is essential to maintaining both food security and upholding farmer incomes.”
They added: “Managing rivers and aquifers crossing international borders makes matters more complex. While cooperation over transboundary basins and aquifers has been shown to deliver many benefits beyond water security, including opening additional diplomatic channels, only six of the world’s 468 internationally shared aquifers are subject to a formal cooperative agreement.”
The conference was convened to have governments and other relevant institutions deliberate on the need to find game-changing solutions for the multi-faceted crises of “too much water” such as storms and floods, “too little water” such as droughts and water scarcity, and “too dirty water,” such as polluted water.
Experts on global freshwater resources say that since the late 1970s, when the last Water Conference took place, the world has been focused on the business of rapid growth and development. Water was available and its quality and supply were predictable, allowing the population to raise families, build cities and factories, prevent the spread of disease, boost farm yields and bring more land under cultivation.
Demand for water set to surge
But a growing global population—predicted by the UN to reach 8.5 billion by 2030— coupled with economic development and changing consumption patterns has seen demand for water resources skyrocket over the last half-century.
As a result, over 3.6 billion people are struggling to get enough water to meet their needs for at least one month every year, the UN-Water Development report noted. The global urban population facing water scarcity is projected to double from 930 million in 2016 to 1.7–2.4 billion people in 2050.
“There is much to do and time is not on our side. This report shows our ambition and we must now come together and accelerate action. This is our moment to make a difference,” added Gilbert F. Houngbo, the Chair of UN-Water and Director-General of the International Labour Organization.
“There is an urgent need to establish strong international mechanisms to prevent the global water crisis from spiraling out of control. Water is our common future and it is essential to act together to share it equitably and manage it sustainably,” said Audrey Azoulay, the UNESCO Director-General.
One in three Africans lacks water
In Africa, one in three Africans is affected by water scarcity and over 400 million people on the continent still lack basic drinking water service, 779 million lack access to basic sanitation services while 839 million lack basic hygiene, according to the 2022 report by the World Health Organization/ United Nations Children’s Fund Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP).
Available data also shows that climate change is worsening water scarcity and drought, leading to projected water scarcity for close to 230 million Africans by 2025. As many as 460 million Africans will be living in areas where water demand periodically exceeds the available supply in the same period. This scenario is also expected to impact food and energy security as the continent’s population continues to grow.
Sustainable Development Goal-6
The three-day conference in New York also assessed progress and evaluated additional steps needed to achieve UN Sustainable Development Goal 6: the global target which seeks to ensure that every person on earth gets access to water and sanitation.
These are the critical foundations on which many of the 17 SDGs depend, especially health, food, gender equity, education, livelihoods, industry, climate and environment. But, based on the current status, progress towards achieving all the targets of SDG-6 is off track and in some areas the rate of implementation needs to quadruple, or more.
In Africa, achieving SDG-6 is seen as a significant challenge because the continent has made less progress than expected in meeting water and sanitation targets. Yet, during a high-level panel on water investments for Africa, delegates were told that Africa is capable of achieving water security and sustainable sanitation for all by 2030.
According to the panel’s landmark report dubbed: “Africa’s Rising Investment Tide” published on March 22, US$10-US$19 billion is invested each year in this sector. However, going forward, approximately US$50 billion annually or US$40 per African per year is required, to achieve water security and sustainable sanitation in Africa by 2030.
The Panel’s report, therefore, signals an opportunity for a watershed moment with investment partnership between African governments and institutional investors in Africa and abroad.
“The release of this report marks a watershed moment. We are offered an opportunity to change course and reconsider the way we are thinking about investing in water and sanitation,” said Jakaya Kikwete, the former President of Tanzania who also doubles as the Alternate Co-Chair.
The report proposes sharing risks between public and private finance to unlock and scale an unprecedented pipeline of investable water projects to respond to the current global water and climate emergency.
The report notes that every US$1 invested in climate-resilient water and sanitation returns at least US$7 in societal and economic gains through improvements in health, education, energy, food security, a healthy environment, gender equality, and sustainable development goals.
Senegalese President Macky Sall, who was the Panel Co-Chair, said US$10-19 billion is invested in Africa each year, while at least US$30 billion each year is required to achieve water security by 2030. Mark Rutte, the Prime Minister of The Netherlands said failure to achieve water security and sustainable sanitation on the African continent means that they will fail at all of the SDGs.
“The appropriate development, governance and use of water resources is, therefore, a central part of the African continent’s overall development trajectory and will drive that development as well as offer significant employment opportunities,” he said.
More funding for water and sanitation
Meanwhile, the African Development Bank (AfDB) has pledged to increase its funding to African countries to boost universal water security. Dr Beth Dunford, AfDB’s Vice President for Agriculture, Human and Social Development said Africa’s multilateral lender aims to increase water security for Africa by fostering equitable, sustainable use, and improved management of water resources for poverty alleviation, socio-economic development, regional cooperation and the environment.
She said AfDB has so far invested approximately US$5.2 billion in water supply and sanitation projects over the past decade, enabling 44 million people to gain access to improved water supply and sanitation services.
Dr. Dunford said the bank, which prioritizes securing water security for socio-economic transformation through water, food, and energy ecosystems, plans to invest about US$6.4 billion in the sector over the next five years. This is projected to benefit an additional 54 million Africans.
However, Africa’s high population growth rate means that more investment is still needed to meet the demand for infrastructure and services for the provision of water and sanitation. Currently, African countries invest an average of 0.5% of the gross domestic product in the water sector.
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