Water down

A kid drinks safe and clean water. Photo by: waterdotorg / CC BY-NC-SA

What’s the development buzz today, on World Water Day?

Perhaps it is about aid worker security, value for money and the use of country systems. Aid to Pakistan, the Palestinian territories, Mali.

Perhaps it’s about the just-released U.S. Global Water Security Intelligence Community Assessment or the new U.S. Water Partnership, a public-private alliance that includes Coca-Cola Co., Procter & Gamble, Ford Motor Co. and other corporate and nonprofit players. Or the other new commitments by governments, foundations and philanthropists.

Perhaps it’s about the recent U.N. announcement that the proportion of people who lack sustainable access to safe drinking water had been halved between 1990 and 2010, and that by 2015, 92 percent of the global population will have access to safe drinking water.

Or that an estimated 1.1 billion people still lack access to safe drinking water, 2.6 billion don’t have adequate sanitation, and 1.8 million die every year from diseases associated with a lack of access to safe drinking water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene.

It’s unlikely we’ll meet the sanitation target set as part of the Millennium Development Goals. Think of the billion-dollar losses water-related diseases cause economies around the world each year.

Water supplies per person have been declining at alarming rates, the Asian Development Bank reports, and while around 80 percent of Asia’s water is used to irrigate crops, much is used inefficiently — more than half of it is said to leak, evaporate or run off. In Pakistan, an estimated 5,000 cubic meters of water fell on a person in 1947 — due to population growth, it is now less than 1,000.

China, India and the United States make up more than a third of the world’s water footprint, 92 percent of which represents agricultural uses, especially the consumption of cereals. The average person in the developing world uses less than 3 gallons of water per day; in the United Kingdom, that number is closer to 36 gallons and in the United States, between 100 and 175 gallons.

It would cost an additional $30 billion to provide access to safe water to the entire planet, the United Nations estimates. That’s much less than we spend on bottled water each year. And I’m reading that it takes 5 liters of water to make 1 liter of bottled water.

Twenty years after water was declared an “economic good,” 12 years after the MDGs were crafted, and two years after the United Nations declared access to safe drinking water and sanitation a human right, a campaign focused on water may be inspired by rising sea levels, women in Africa and Asia who walk for miles to fetch water — or children who do the same instead of attending school.

But this issue is closer to home: Unless we act now, more than 40 percent of the world’s population will live in areas experiencing high water stress by 2050, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

So it’s no wonder that the recent announcement on the MDG water target having been met five years ahead of schedule didn’t prompt much celebrating.

Providing true access to safe drinking water and sanitation to a fast-growing population will require all the technological innovation, political will, passion and support we can muster.

Read last week’s Development Buzz.

About the author

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    Rolf Rosenkranz

    Rolf Rosenkranz oversees a talented team of in-house journalists, correspondents and guest contributors located around the globe. Since joining Devex in early 2008, Rolf has been instrumental in growing its fledgling news operation into the leading online source for global development news and analysis. Previously, Rolf was managing editor at Inside Health Policy, a subscription-based news service in Washington. He has reported from Africa for the Johannesburg-based Star and its publisher, Independent News & Media, as well as the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, a German daily.