4 challenges facing a new high-level panel on water

By Jeff Tyson 29 January 2016

A woman gathers water from a small hole in a dry riverbed in northern Kenya. A new high-level panel on water aims to help achieve Sustainable Development Goal 6: to ensure access to water and sanitation for all. Photo by: Marisol Grandon / Department for International Development / CC BY

Last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim and Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon announced they will jointly launch a new high-level panel on water, designed to mobilize action and financing for Sustainable Development Goal 6 — “ensure access to water and sanitation for all.”

The new panel, which has the support of the U.N., the World Bank and institutions such as the World Resources Institute and the World Water Council, will be co-chaired by the presidents of Mauritius and Mexico and will include eight other heads of state from developed and developing countries.

Last week’s announcement came as a big victory for water and sanitation champions who see their sector as a key component to the success of other SDGs. But ensuring access to water and sanitation for all by 2030 will require overcoming significant hurdles.

Here are four challenges the new panel will have to overcome:

1. Strengthening weak water delivery institutions.

Expanding access to water and sanitation around the world requires strong institutions, knowledgeable engineers and swift communication between government ministries. But the water sector too often lacks this functional capacity according to Margaret Batty, director of global policy and campaigns at WaterAid.

“It’s a fairly low performing sector,” Batty said, adding that the international development community should be careful not to invest in services such as toilets and latrines without considering the “broader enabling environment around the delivery of basic services.”

Sector strengthening might be one area where new types of partnerships might emerge, Batty said.

2. Tackling systemic inequality in water access.

More than 2.4 billion people lack access to basic sanitation services like toilets or latrines, according to the World Bank. Part of addressing this daunting need means tackling inequalities, according to Batty.

“We need to start with the bottom, those not in the spotlight,” Batty said.

Providing access to water and sanitation to the poorest and most vulnerable in developing countries can save lives as well as empower individuals to have a greater say in their communities. But actually achieving this on a large scale is still a major hurdle to be crossed.

“The social dimension of sustainable development has often been undervalued and underestimated and not been given enough attention let alone sufficient resources,” Alice Bouman-Dentener, interim chair of the Global Water Partnership told Devex.

3. Raising the profile of the water crisis.

Clean water access has struggled to attract attention from heads of state. The assembly of a high-level panel on water is a first step towards putting the issue closer to the top of national political agendas.

“This leadership from the top is exactly what we need. It’s exactly what we require,” Batty told Devex.

In order to ensure access to water and sanitation for all, more political weight has to be harnessed, and this new high-level panel might have the clout and resources to do that.

With 10 heads of state included in the group, national leadership could pave the way to international progress.

4. Finding new methods to sustainably finance water access.

Water scarcity negatively affects more than 40 percent of the world’s population and that number is projected to rise, according to the World Bank. Meeting this statistic head on means mobilizing sufficient funds and making sure those funds are sustainable. Historically, funding for water and sanitation projects has lagged behind the demand for them. U.S. foundations, for example, have directed less than 2 percent of their funding to water issues in recent years.

Traditional overseas development assistance will be a critical part of this financing package, but so will public-private partnerships and other forms of creative financing, said Batty.

One of the priorities for the new high-level panel will be to promote innovative financing strategies and implementation techniques, but as Batty told Devex, the nitty-gritty of what the panel will accomplish in the realm of finance is not yet clear.

What are some other challenges standing in the way of ensuring access to water and sanitation for all? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

Jeff tyson 400x400  1
Jeff Tyson@jtyson21

Jeff is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Washington, DC, he covers multilateral affairs, U.S. aid and international development trends. He has worked with human rights organizations in both Senegal and the United States, and prior to joining Devex worked as a production assistant at National Public Radio. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations and French from the University of Rochester.


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