Water is the tapestry on which the story of our planet has been written. The water in the oceans, glaciers, rivers, lakes, rains and the glass you may have near you as you read this has not changed since the birth our world.
The water that falls on you from the shower is the same as that which fell on the dinosaurs, and which was consumed by our earliest ancestors. Put your hand in something as innocuous as a pool of water and you are literally connecting with the entire history of our planet, and our place in it.
The presence of water is- perhaps- the reason life formed at all Earth and has shaped the physical, human and ecological geography of our planet. It is no surprise that many of our world’s most ancient cultures held this unique substance with the reverence they paid to their Gods. One of the roots of the modern word ‘water’ finds itself Sanskrit- ‘apah’ meaning ‘animate’ – to give life.
Less than one hundredth of a percent of our world’s water is drinkable, the vast majority of our freshwater (around 3.5% of the planet’s water supply) is held in our ice-caps and glaciers. “As sea water is corrosive and toxic to land-based animals and plants, nearly all of the water that we must use must come from that precious one hundredth of a percent…” writes Philip Ball, adding that, “…unlike many other natural resources, water is renewable, continually replenished by the hydrological cycle.” (H2O, A Biography of Water: 1999)
It is because of this replenishment that our species has taken this resource for granted. Our population growth, industry and agriculture puts significant strain on what the planet can offer, and as Ball notes, “over the next thirty-five years, the taps will have run dry. We’ll be looking for more than the skies can offer.”
Today, almost 800 million people (1 in 9 of us) lack access to safe drinking water and over 2.4 billion (1 in 3 of us) lack access to basic sanitation. Half of the world’s hospital beds are filled with people suffering from a water-related disease, and each day 2,500 children die because their water wasn’t clean enough to keep them healthy- let that sink in for a minute. Every minute, of every day, two children are dying from utterly preventable causes, simply because they couldn’t get access to clean water.
Our world sits amid a water crisis, ranked by World Economic Forum (in January 2015) as, “…the #1 global risk based on impact to society.”
So how have we reached such a crisis with our most precious resource? and what can we do to protect water supplies now, and for our future generations?
In this interview series we speak to Guy Ryder (Chair, UN-Water & Director General of the International Labour Organisation, ILO), Professor Steven Chu (Nobel Prize Winning Scientist & 12th U.S. Secretary of Energy), Dr. Peter Gleick (President Emeritus & Chief Scientist, Pacific Institute), Christoph Gorder (President & Chief Water Officer, Charity Water), Professor Mark Zeitoun (Professor of Water Security and Policy, University of East Anglia), Barbara Frost (CEO, WaterAid), Professor Benedito Braga (President of the World Water Council) and Gary White (Co-Founder & CEO, Water.Org). We discuss how water has shaped our species, the scale of the global water crisis, how it’s impacting our species and environment, and how we can achieve a future where we have enough water for all of us, and all our needs.
Born in Liverpool (UK) in 1956, Guy Ryder studied Social and Political Sciences at the University of Cambridge and Latin American Studies at the University of Liverpool. He speaks French and Spanish as well as his mother tongue, English. He started his professional career in 1981 as assistant at the International Department of the Trade Union Congress in London.
From 1985, he held the position of Secretary of the Industry Trade Section of the International Federation of Commercial, Clerical, Professional and Technical Employees (FIET) in Geneva. In 1988, Guy Ryder became Assistant Director and – from 1993 – Director of the Geneva office of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU).
Guy Ryder first joined the International Labour Organization in 1998 as Director of the Bureau for Workers’ Activities and, from 1999, as Director of the Office of the Director-General. It was during this time that the ILO’s Decent Work Agenda was launched and won support from the international community. In 2002, he was appointed General Secretary of the ICFTU, leading the process of global unification of the democratic international trade union movement. He was elected as first General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) when it was created in 2006. He headed international trade union delegations to high level talks with the UN, IMF, World Bank and WTO and to the G20 Leaders’ Summits.
In September 2010, Guy Ryder came back to the ILO in Geneva as Executive Director, responsible for international labour standards and fundamental principles and rights at work. Among other activities, he supervised the application of ILO Conventions and Recommendations. He also headed several high-level ILO missions to address a range of issues related to labour standards in countries such as Bahrain, Colombia, Fiji, Georgia, Greece, Myanmar and Swaziland. Guy Ryder was elected as ILO Director-General by the ILO’s Governing Body in May 2012 and took office on 1 October 2012. On taking office, he pledged to position the Organization as a determined actor translating principle into action and ensuring that it had the capacity to make a major difference to the working lives of people on all of the continents. To support this he launched a major reform process geared to assuring the ILO’s authority on matters falling within its mandate. Guy Ryder was re-elected as ILO Director-General by the ILO’s Governing Body on 7 November 2016 with overwhelming support across the “ILO’s tripartite constituency”. His next term will start on 1 October 2017.
Steven Chu is the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Physics and Professor of Molecular & Cellular Physiology in the Medical School at Stanford University. His has published over 275 papers in atomic and polymer physics, biophysics, biology, batteries, and holds 11 patents. Currently, he is developing new optical nanoparticle probes for applications in biology and biomedicine, exploring new approaches to lithium ion batteries, PM2.5 air filtration and other applications of nanotechnology.
Dr. Chu was the 12th U.S. Secretary of Energy from January 2009 until the end of April 2013. As the first scientist to hold a Cabinet position and the longest serving Energy Secretary, he recruited outstanding scientists and engineers into the Department of Energy. He began several initiatives including ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy), the Energy Innovation Hubs, the U.S. – China Clean Energy Research Centers (CERC), and was personally tasked by President Obama to assist BP in stopping the Deepwater Horizon oil leak.
Prior to his cabinet post, he was director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Professor of Physics and Molecular and Cell Biology at UC Berkeley. Previously he was the Theodore and Francis Geballe Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at Stanford University. He helped launch Bio-X at Stanford University, a multi-disciplinary institute combining the physical and biological sciences with medicine and engineering, and the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology. Previously he was head of the Quantum Electronics Research Department at AT&T Bell Laboratories.
Dr. Chu has dozens of awards including the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics for contributions to laser cooling and atom trapping. He has 29 honorary degrees and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Academia Sinica, and is a foreign member of the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the Korean Academy of Sciences and Technology.
Dr. Peter Gleick is a world-renowned expert, innovator, and communicator on water and climate issues. In 1987 he co-founded the Pacific Institute, which he led as president until mid-2016, when he became president emeritus and chief scientist.
Peter developed the first analysis of climate change impacts on water resources, the earliest comprehensive work on water and conflict, and defined basic human need and right to water – work that has been used by the United Nations and in human rights court cases. Also, he pioneered and advanced the concepts of the “soft path for water” and “peak water”.
Peter received the prestigious MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship and was elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. He serves on the boards of numerous journals and organizations, and is the author or co-author of many scientific papers and 11 books. Dr. Gleick holds a B.S. from Yale University and an M.S. and Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.
Christoph Gorder is President & Chief Water Officer at Charity Water. Christoph grew up in the Central African Republic and Nigeria, where getting clean water is still a dream for millions. He’s spent the last 15 years at AmeriCares, bringing medicine, medical supplies and healthcare to people in crisis around the world. Christoph joined charity: water to lead their programs, run day-to-day operations, and help maximize our efficiency and impact worldwide.
Mark Zeitoun is the Professor of Water Security and Policy at the University of East Anglia School of International Development.
Mark’s research on environmental policy and politics follows three themes: a) transboundary water conflict and cooperation, at international, sub-national and trans-national levels; b) water policy and social justice issues; and c) urban water supply and treatment during and immediately following armed conflict. The topics are interpreted with theory from numerous disciplines, including political economy, political ecology, justice, law, politics, and hydrology. He has a particular interest in the role that power asymmetry plays, and a geographic focus on the Middle East and Africa.
The interests have been cultivated by his role as co-lead in the London Water Research Group and the UEA Water Security Research Centre, both of which take a critical perspective at international transboundary environmental cooperation and conflict, and ‘hydro-hegemony’. The activities follow a professional career in water policy, management and negotiations. Mark has worked as a humanitarian-aid water engineer in conflict and post-conflict zones, including in Chad, Congo-Brazzaville, Lebanon, Iraq and the West Bank and Gaza. He consults regularly on water negotiations, policy and governance for a variety of organisations. He is author of Power and Water in the Middle East: The Hidden Politics of the Palestinian-Israeli Water Conflict (IB Tauris 2008), and contributes regularly to debates through public lectures and media pieces.
Barbara Frost has been Chief Executive of WaterAid UK since September 2005. During this time the global organisation has expanded into 37 countries and substantially increased its income from £26.9 million a year to over £83 million in 2014/15.
Barbara believes that WaterAid’s success is due to retaining a clear focus on safe water, improved hygiene and sanitation to the world’s poorest communities and our emphasis on everyone’s right to these most basic of services. Barbara has led on the development of our two Global Strategies that promote WaterAid’s aims and links the work of all WaterAid teams at country and regional level and across the globe with other WaterAid member countries – the UK, US, Australia, Sweden, Canada and Japan. She also also played a pivotal role in creating WaterAid international.
Prior to joining WaterAid, Barbara was Chief Executive of Action on Disability and Development; an international development organisation working with disabled people’s organisations in Africa and Asia to assist them to claim their rights and improvements in their living standards.
Before coming back to work in the UK Barbara worked for the international NGOs ActionAid, Save the Children and Oxfam Australia. She was based in Southern Africa; Mozambique for four years and then three in Malawi. She was responsible for managing and leading country programmes addressing a broad spectrum of development needs.
Benedito Braga is Secretary of State for Sanitation and Water Resources for the state of Sao Paulo and professor (on leave of absence) of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Escola Politecnica of University of Sao Paulo (USP), Brazil.
Prof. Braga was elected to his first three-year mandate as President of the World Water Council in November 2012 and was reelected for a second term in November 2015. Before this, from 2006 to 2012, he served as Vice-President of the World Water Council and chaired the International Steering Committee (ISC) of the 6th and 7th editions of the World Water Forum in Marseille (France) and Daegu-Gyeongbuk (Korea).
He was a member of UNESCO – International Hydrologic Program committee that designed its phase V (1995 – 2000). At UNESCO, he was elected President of the Intergovernmental Council of the International Hydrologic Program (2008-2009). He served as senior advisor to the Secretary of Energy and Sanitation of the State of Sao Paulo, Brazil in 2010 and was a member of the Gulbenkian Think Tank for the future of water and humankind based in Lisbon, Portugal (2010 – 2012).He served on the Board of Directors of the Brazilian National Water Agency – ANA from 2001-2009. He was President of the International Water Resources Association (1998-2000)
He is the recipient of the 2002 Crystal Drop Award, given by the International Water Resources Association – IWRA in recognition for his lifetime achievements in the area of water resources management. In 2009, Prof. Braga was awarded the Honorary Membership of the American Water Resources Association – AWRA for his eminence in the field of water resources. In the same year he was awarded the Flavio Terra Barth Award of the Brazilian Water Resources Association for his contributions to the water resources policies of Brazil. In 2011 he was awarded the Honorary Diplomate from the American Society of Civil Engineers due to his long and distinguished career in the field of water resources.
Gary White is Chief Executive Officer and Co-founder of Water.org, a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering people in the developing world to gain access to safe water and sanitation. (Water.org is the resulting organization of the July 2009 merger between WaterPartners, co-founded by White in 1990, and H2O Africa, co-founded by actor Matt Damon). White’s entrepreneurial vision has driven innovations in the way water and sanitation projects are delivered and financed, and these innovations now serve as a model in the sector.
White has led Water.org during a period of rapid expansion, growing revenue by an average annual rate of 50 percent since 1994 and positioning Water.org as an innovative leader in the global water supply and sanitation space. He developed the organization’s WaterCredit Initiative, creating new financing options for poor populations to meet their water supply and sanitation needs. White is a leading advisor in the water and sanitation space, counseling organizations such as the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, MasterCard Foundation, PepsiCo Foundation, Hewlett Foundation, and Diageo on responses to the global water crisis. White is a founding board member of the Millennium Water Alliance and Water Advocates.
In 2002 he received the Distinguished Alumnus Award presented by the School of Public Health at the University of NC-Chapel Hill. In 2003, he was named a fellow of the British American Project. In 2008, he was inducted into the Philanthropy World Hall of Fame. In March 2009, WaterPartners received the Skoll Foundation’s Award for Social Entrepreneurship and White was inducted into the community of Skoll Social Entrepreneurs. In October 2009, White received the ONEXONE Difference Award for his work over the past two decades in addressing the global water crisis. In 2009, he was named an advisor to the Clinton Global Initiative. In 2010, he was named the Kansas City Global Citizen of the Year by the mayor of Kansas City, MO. In 2011 he was named to the TIME 100 list of the world’s most influential people. Also in 2011 he was named one of 28 Alumni of Distinction among a pool of more than 50,000 living graduates of Missouri University of Science and Technology. In 2012 White received the World Social Impact Award from the World Policy Institute as well as being named one of the Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneurs of 2012. Most recently Gary was invited to join the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Water.
White’s educational credentials include three degrees in Civil and Environmental Engineering from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Missouri University of Science & Technology.
Q: Why do we need water?
[Guy Ryder] It’s a simple answer: we need water to live. And as there is more and more human life, we need more water to sustain us. But of course, water is finite, and the proportion of water that is useable by humans is very small, so the question is not just ‘why do we need water’ but also how are we going to ensure availability for human consumption, and how are we going to take better care of this precious resource so we can improve water quality, increase efficiency and share water with every other living thing.
[Dr. Peter Gleick] Water is vital for everything we do and care about. Every aspect of human activities from the most basic aspects of survival to the production of food and energy to the generation of all economic activity requires safe, affordable, and reliable access to freshwater. And the ecosystems on which we all rely for a wide range of environmental services are also integral to the water resources of the planet. In short, freshwater is the most important, and most neglected, of our critical natural resources.
Q: What made you passionate about our world’s water crisis?
[Prof. Peter Glecik] My love of water issues comes from a long passion for the natural environment and for working to find solutions to global problems. My early training as an engineer, and then a hydroclimatologist, taught me about the interconnections in the natural world to water, and about the interdisciplinary challenges associated with water issues, from science to technology to economics to policy. I have had the opportunity to see water systems around the world, to travel some of the world’s greatest rivers and lakes, and to meet with people faced with unsolved water problems – all of these inspire me to continue to work to find solutions for a sustainable water future.
[Christoph Gorder] I’ve worked in humanitarian aid since 1998. I’ve worked in healthcare, public health, disaster response and many areas. I moved fully into water 4 years ago because this felt like a massive global problem that we can solve in our lifetimes.
Access to clean drinking water for all is possible, like we eradicated smallpox and polio. This is a tangible goal, we can measure our progress, and it’s hugely exciting work.
[Barbara Frost] Water is life, and is the most basic thing we need.
Only when I started working in water too- did I realise how neglected the whole space of public health, sanitation and hygiene was. In our country, we take it for granted that we have clean water and flush our toilets. It’s not a popular political issue, and as such it hasn’t been translated into international development priorities.
Water is so basic, yet so cross-cutting. Unless we have clean water to drink, unless we have safe sanitation, unless we have good hygiene… the rest of our development goals simply will not be met.
[Prof. Benedito Braga] The beauty of working with water is the interconnection it has with so many other facets of humanity. Water is involved in all our activities, right down to our religious beliefs. Water is central to development and having a healthy environment – it’s crucial to life.
[Gary White] As an undergraduate at university, I had the chance to travel to Central America. As someone who grew-up in the Midwest and didn’t have too much international travel experience, it was staggering to see things like the Guatemalan slums, and in particular I was shocked at how oppressive it was for people to have such little access to water, and for what water they had to be contaminated.
I was studying to be an engineer, and what got me passionate about water was realising that this huge crisis was completely solvable.
Q: How serious is our global water crisis?
[Dr. Peter Gleick] These problems are serious – more serious in some regions than others, and more difficult to resolve in some regions than others. The failure to meet basic needs for water means that hundreds of millions of people suffer or die from preventable water-related diseases. Some ecosystems are collapsing due to water problems. I have worked on issues of conflict over water for several decades, including maintaining the Water Conflict Chronology – a history of violence over water going back over 4000 years. I believe the risk of growing conflicts over water are increasing, not decreasing, as water scarcity and contamination continue to be unresolved, especially in the developing regions of the world where natural resources and governance capabilities are the most limited. These problems will get worse unless we pay more attention to them and move rapidly to implement the many solutions that are available to us.
[Christoph Gorder] We are in the middle of a massive water crisis. Lack of access to clean drinking water causes a huge loss of life, sickness, and productivity loss. It’s a huge drag on human development.
Around 663 million people around the world do not have access to clean water, and that’s almost certainly a huge underestimate. There are probably another 1.2 billion people who have access to water and its contaminated. Think of individuals living in developing world cities who have access to municipal water systems, but those water systems are dirty. Our water crisis slows down economies, causes a huge loss of life and is a central development issue.
[Prof. Benedito Braga] We do not have a water crisis per say, what we have is a management problem to be solved. There is enough water in the world to serve people, it’s not that the resource is lacking- but the proper management of this resource is urgently needed.
The management and infrastructure are both critical. In some places, for example the African Continent- you have the resource, but no infrastructure to manage. It’s a combination of infrastructure and management that is lacking for so many people, which we call our water crisis.
Q: What is the state of access to clean, safe water worldwide?
[Guy Ryder] There’s no question that the world has made great progress in ensuring people have access to safe water. 2.6 billion people have been reached since 1990, and today, nine out of ten people are able to drink and use water from an ‘improved’ water source, such as public taps, protected wells and piped supplies. But, that still leaves a lot of people – over 660 million living predominantly in the poorest regions of the world – drawing water from rivers, ponds and unprotected wells, or relying on unaffordable water services of unverifiable quality.
The state of water is inextricably linked to the state of sanitation. 2.4 billion people – around a third of all people on Earth – do not have access to a safe, private toilet. Human waste, when not properly disposed of, is deadly. It contaminates water sources and gets into the food chain, causing diarrhoeal diseases which kill more than 300,000 children every year. But, this is a crisis we have the power to solve. It’s estimated that most of these young lives – 58% – could be saved by safe water, sanitation and good hygiene practices such as handwashing with soap.
[Dr. Peter Gleick] There are many aspects of the global water crisis; indeed most water problems are local and regional. Perhaps the most serious unresolved problem is the failure to meet basic human needs for safe and affordable water and sanitation for the entire population of the planet. Hundreds of millions of people still lack access to safe drinking water and more than two billion lack access to adequate sanitation – an outrage in the 21st century. Our natural ecosystems are suffering from water withdrawals and contamination. National and international tensions over shared water resources are growing. Industrial and human wastes pollute many of our waterways. And global climate change is accelerating and threatening a wide range of water issues from availability to quality to the severity of extreme weather events.
[Barabara Frost] 663 million people still don’t have access to basic clean water to drink, that’s 1 in 10 of the world’s population. Our State of the World’s Water report last year highlighted the countries in the world which are faring worst on access to water. Papua New Guinea, in the southern Pacific, had the greatest percentage of people (60%) without access to water, while India had the greatest number of people without access to water (nearly 76 million).
With the advent of the Sustainable Development Goals, the bar has been (quite rightly) lifted on defining what access to water means. In addition to what we call ‘basic access’ a new figure will come in to show people who are in need of safely managed water meaning that water is available, when needed, on premises rather than in-community and that water is free from contaminants. Bringing water to every household by tap, at suitable quality, will be a real development focus for the future.
Where the issue of clean, safe access to water is exacerbated is when you consider that 1 in 3 of the world’s population, 2.3 billion people, have no access to a safe, clean toilet. Poor sanitation, poor removal of human waste, and poor handling of waste water threaten contamination of drinking water supplies and that’s a big issue.
In WaterAid’s work, we focus on access to water, sanitation and hygiene as these issues are all connected.
There is a lot of work still to be done, but we must remember what’s happened. Since 1990, 2.6 billion have been reached with safe water, and 2.3 billion with safe sanitation, we’ve made tremendous progress.
Investment in sanitation and water is not something you do as a result of gaining prosperity, it’s what drives prosperity and is central to maintaining healthy and prosperous communities.
Q: How is the water crisis impacting communities?
[Barbara Frost] The health impact of the water crisis is clear. Where children don’t have access to safe water to drink, they are subject to diarrheal diseases from worms and infestations. 315,000 children die this way every year, that’s 1 child every 2 minutes.
Women and girls are losing huge amounts of time walking to carry and fetch water, often from significant distances from their homes, and often water that’s contaminated anyway. Where there aren’t decent washing facilities and toilets, and places girls can manage their periods for example – you also see significant drop-out rates of girls from education.
Nutrition is also important. Good food alone is not the answer, if children are constantly infected with diarrheal diseases and intestinal worms then the food isn’t going to do anything.
Q: How does water access impact communities in conflict?
[Prof. Mark Zeitoun] In conflict, water access issues affect service providers and communities. Here at the UEA Water Security Research Centre, with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), we’ve been working in Basra and Gaza – and we’ve seen that protracted armed conflict and trade sanctions can impact water services in direct, indirect and cumulative ways.
The direct impact of armed conflict is- as you can imagine, a damaged water treatment plant or punctured reservoir. Very visible, relatively straightforward to repair.
The indirect impact is much more subtle; and this can be the brain-drain of service providers, engineers, technicians and maintenance people who can’t get to work, don’t want to go to work or who have fled the country. This indirect impact can be much more substantial than the direct- but together, over time and over repeated cycles of violence, they accumulate to the point where there is no real possibility of returning to pre-war conditions.
In war, the biosphere in which people live can change so substantially, that it’s no longer helpful to think of relief, rehabilitation and development as a continuum. We need to see that there is no crisis, but rather an ecology of war – the term used by the AUB’s Conflict Medicine Programme –that requires special attention and different interventions- and so a total rewiring of our brains.
The impact of armed conflict and water on people is goes deep into this urban warfare biospshere – you see a rise of communicable diseases, it can destroy farmers’ livelihoods where people may be farming for example, and it can utterly destroy dignity, when people no longer have their basic sanitation and hygiene needs met. People go to great lengths to develop coping mechanisms- gambling with snipers to get drinking water for their kids, or small neighbourhood providers that step-in to provide unregulated and sometimes unsafe supply to communities in immediate need.
In any case, armed conflict leads to a reduction in the quality and quantity of water communities receive with monotonous regularity. We see it time and time again.
Q: What is the impact of developing clean, safe water into communities?
[Barbara Frost] It’s those individual stories of girls who can now get an education and fulfil their dreams of being doctors and teachers… it’s mothers who tell us they’ve now got healthy, happy children when they’ve previously had children die of preventable water-related disease… it’s mothers who are able to generate income for their families, because they’re not walking for hours to collect water. It’s those stories that keep us going.
The transformational effect of water in communities is profound.
Q: How does water impact the social, economic and health outcomes for a society?
[Guy Ryder] No person or community can function properly without safe water and sanitation. Beyond the obvious need to quench one’s thirst, how can people stay clean, work safely, maintain a toilet, manage menstruation, run a business, a hospital or a school without a supply of water? For hundreds of millions of people, especially for women and girls, life is dominated by fetching unsafe water and paying medical costs to treat the effects of drinking it.
The impact on a country is massive. Diarrhoeal illnesses caused by unsafe water, poor sanitation and hygiene is linked to 50% of child undernutrition, which can lead to stunted physical and mental development. And, loss of productivity due to those same illnesses is estimated to cost many countries up to 5% of GDP.
[Dr. Peter Gleick] The failure to provide safe, affordable water and sanitation to all the world’s people is an inexcusable situation for the 21st century, and the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are an effort to eliminate this problem by 2030. If the world is successful, many water-related diseases can be reduced or even eliminated, with enormous economic, social, and health benefits. And given that the United Nations in 2010 declared that such basic water services are formal human rights, the achievement of the SDGs should be a top priority.
[Christoph Gorder] If you look at the causes of death for the vast majority of children under 5 who die in our world, the majority are linked to a lack of clean water in some way; it could be directly where- for example- you drink water contaminated with E.coli which causes fatal diarrhoea if untreated- or because you don’t have access to water for hygiene or sanitation, it causes an environment in which disease can thrive.
Water goes beyond the water you drink out of the cup, huge public health benefits come from sanitation and hygiene (both of which are impossible to deliver without water).
Many communities are spending their whole lives fetching water instead of going to school, farming, taking care of their livestock, or whatever other productive uses for their time they have. People are spending their lives trudging long distances, with 20L of water on their back like beasts of burden.
It’s so clear when you go into one of these villages…. Many times there is a school nearby, and if you go to the nearby water-point- the kids who should be at school, are fetching water for their families and they don’t go to school!
The loss of time faced by communities without access to water is a huge cost that many simply don’t realise the scale of. It is probably equal to, if not greater, detrimental economic impact, than the public health burden of unsafe water.
Q: How is our water crisis impacting the wider ecosystem?
[Dr. Peter Gleick] One under-appreciated aspect of the water crisis is the ongoing destruction of natural ecosystems due to the withdrawal of water for human use. Many river deltas and lakes are drying up – and their fisheries and ecosystems suffering — because humans take all the water they need without concern for the environment, including the Colorado, Yellow, Nile, San Joaquin rivers and places like the Aral Sea and China’s Poyang Lake. We are seeing global outbreaks of toxic algae due to rising global temperatures and uncontrolled disposal of excess nutrients into waterways. It is vitally important that sustainable water strategies include the support, protection, and restoration of natural ecosystems.
Q: What are the factors exacerbating the water crisis?
[Barbara Frost] The most significant issue is a lack of political will and financing: A lack of sufficient political will at local, national and international level holds back progress towards providing water and sanitation to everyone everywhere. Linked to this is insufficient funding for WASH related work, despite the fact that we have known for over 150 years that dirty water and poor sanitation causes disease. Governments are often more interested in opening a new hospital (even one without a functioning water tap!) than a new tapstand and latrine. But governments at all levels have to make delivering water and sanitation a priority, with funding to match.
There has been also a failure of integration of WASH as an issue – so for example, in many countries, providing access to water is seen as an issue for the Water Ministry, while sanitation may be handled by another ministry entirely. Then you may have a Ministry of Health which doesn’t see the provision of clean water and safe sanitation in hospitals as “their” issue. Or the ministry running schools may not view the ability of a school to provide its pupils with clean water and sanitation as essential to ensuring that pupils, particularly girls, stay in school and are able to learn.
In developing and richer countries, there are many factors which are exacerbating the water crisis. In particular- climate change, and our own usage of water.
People think about climate change (quite rightly) in terms of reducing carbon emissions, but the result of climate change is often felt through water in floods and drought. Water and climate change are interlinked, but more emphasis is on mitigation not adaptation and resilience. The latter must be focussed on, people are suffering right now- as we speak.
The right to water and sanitation are absolutely key to poverty eradication, prosperity and human development. With the right leadership, drive and financing- the problem is eminently solvable. We just need to join these elements with the desire to make change happen.
With the Millennium Development Goals, we saw huge progress in China and South East Asia- the goal around access to water was reached early. This gives us hope and a target for the rest of the world to meet.
Conflict is also a huge issue. We already see everyday low level conflict over access to water – for example between householders and herdsmen as to who has access to scarce water supplies. If access to that water becomes more unpredictable, then we could see conflict escalate.
WaterAid doesn’t believe that large-scale conflict over water is likely; instead, it’s likely to be expressed in everyday brutality, localised violence, in which the poorest and least powerful are most likely to suffer.
Currently it is estimated that 2.7 billion people live in basins where water scarcity is severe for at least one month every year (PLOS One, cited by WA). India’s official Ground Water Resources Assessment classifies more than one sixth of the country’s groundwater as overexploited. And on the North China Plains aquifers (underground water reservoirs) are dropping by up to 3m per year in some areas; the World Bank foresees water scarcity in China as having “catastrophic consequences for future generations” unless water use and supply can be balanced.
However, concerns about physical water scarcity are misleading. Often there is enough fresh water to meet basic needs – what is really at issue is how water is allocated in the face of competing demands. Poverty, inequality and poor management of water resources are often the root of why poor communities do not have access to water.
The elephant in the room however is meat-eating. The amount of grain required to feed animals is one of the most ineffective uses of water.
[Gary White] Conventional wisdom, quite rightly, talks of this looming water crisis at the macro-level that asserts we’re running through our supplies of freshwater.
We focus on the poor, and for them – the water crisis is something that’s happening today. We’re losing over a million people a year to water-related disease, 663 million people don’t have access to a clean water supply and 2.5 billion people lack access to proper sanitation.
The water crisis is already at huge proportions, and we need to do things today to level the playing field. There is a macro-water issue, but in cities around the world today everyone, somehow, is getting water. It’s just that the water going out into the utility grid are the middle and upper classes. The poor aren’t accessing the grid.
The subsidies that go into the water system are upside-down, you have the poor who have to go and pay water-vendors 10x the price for a litre of water versus utility companies. It just isn’t right or fair.
Our remit is to be advocates for the poor, levelling the playing field, and giving them access to the grid.
Q: How is climate change impacting our global water resources?
[Prof. Steven Chu] Climate change can change rainfall patterns significantly, but we must remember that local weather conditions are much harder to predict than global averages. In the United States for example, there’s always a fear that we would get hotter summers- and that has turned out to be true. Crops that previously didn’t need irrigation now do. Our water supplies are also impacted by this.
A lot of our water supply comes from snow in the winter, which melts through into the early spring. In the Rocky Mountains, there is a slow-melt which can go into May, June or even July. If you have spring rain instead of spring snow, the water melt is diminished. Even if the precipitation itself remains constant or increases, you may not have as much water supply as the snow provides. The amount of snow in mountains, saved over the winter months, provides us with greater supplies of water than our dams.
Climate, by its definition, changes over several decades. You may have changes in weather over a decade, but over several decades, you can see it’s climate that’s changing.
We’re seeing changes in patterns of precipitation globally meaning that we cannot now grow crops where we used to. Wine growers in the Napa Valley for example, are now buying land in Oregon because climate changes mean they’re not getting the cool foggy mornings and weather conditions through the year conducive to growing grapes.
The Chinese central-government takes climate change extremely seriously because of water supply. You have a Tibetan Plateau supplying between 20 and 25% of the entire world’s population with water. Over the past decades, Northern China has had water shortages because of misuses, rising population and climate change. In the Tibetan Plateau, you find water supplies are diverted by countries for their own needs rather than letting countries have equal access, this creates water-stress on nations.
[Guy Ryder] Changes in water availability will impact food security and have already proven to be a trigger for the instability and insecurity that forces people to become refugees, for example in the Sahel region of Africa. More variable rainfall means more uncertainty for people, especially smallholders or farmers. Water resources can be depleted where the climate is getting drier, and floods can devastate lives where rainfall is getting heavier and more concentrated. Rising sea levels can contaminate coastal groundwater with saltwater. And in all these different situations, it is the poorest communities that are hardest hit and least able to cope.
The way we manage water is crucial. We need to take an integrated view of water, the environment, habitats, economics and agriculture so we can innovate solutions that will allow us to mitigate climate change, protect us from extremes and adapt to the unavoidable at the same time.
[Dr. Peter Gleick] We know that climate change is happening, due to humans, and a severe risk to a wide range of issues from food production to coastal development to ecosystem health, and especially to water resources. As we change the climate we fundamentally change the hydrologic cycle. Rising temperature affects demand for water and water quality. Changing storm patterns increases the risks of extreme weather events, including both floods and droughts. Rising seas will destroy coastal freshwater marshes and habitats. Altered precipitation patterns will affect water availability. There is already evidence that these impacts are occurring, and as climate changes worsen, so will the consequences for water. Unfortunately, actions to slow climate change should have begun decades ago, and the delay in reducing greenhouse gas emissions means the world is now committed to severe changes in climate and water managers and planners have no choice but to determine how best to adapt to unavoidable impacts, while also working as hard as possible to reduce future emissions to slow the rate of climate change.
Q: How does human activity (e.g. urbanisation, population growth and industrialisation) impact water?
[Guy Ryder] The theme of World Water Day 2017 for example focuses on wastewater and how we should see it as a resource rather than just something we discard. We simply can’t afford to keep letting the vast majority of our wastewater flow back to nature without being treated or recycled.
There are some great examples from industry, agriculture and municipal governments of how we can create a more sustainable water cycle by using treated wastewater for machine cooling, vehicle washing, irrigation and even fish farming!
[Prof. Steven Chu] Water used to be seen as a right. In the Western United states, we’ve always had water shortages, and we’ve seen historically many fights around water access (mainly for agriculture). We don’t have enough water now to deal with our rising populations and higher-demand crops.
The price of water is zooming-up and our aquifers are getting depleted. In the southernmost parts of Texas and Oklahoma, the principal aquifers are largely depleted and these systems take a long time to replenish. It took hundreds of thousands of years to create these aquifers, and as they’re emptied, the rock compresses and it can take a long time for them to replenish. We now mine for water around the world; we don’t look at it as a steady-state renewable resource.
Californian aquifers have been depleted aggressively and in many places there is land subsidence measuring in the metres. People are now thinking of using dams to enable the flooding of fields in the winter to allow water to seep-back into aquifers; albeit this is dependent on having adequate rain.
We can see aquifer depletion from the same satellites that showed us the alarming rates of glacial decline. Water is depleting enough that it changes the local geology sufficiently that we can pick those changes up by satellite; and that’s frightening.
There’s a nexus between water, energy and food which is merging into one big problem.
The amount of greenhouse gases released in agriculture through grazing and land-use is about the same as the entire global energy industry. It’s a major part of the greenhouse gas problem, and can be fixed with known- better- agricultural practices.
[Dr. Peter Gleick] Water is not just a public crisis, it is fundamentally related to the private sector as well. All companies require water to produce the goods and services society demands, and some companies have a critical role to play in water management as well. I wrote a book (“Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind our Obsession with Bottled Water” Island Press, Washington DC) looking at the bottled water industry as a piece of this problem, and the contradictions between public access to basic water services and the commercialization of public water resources for private profit. But there is also good news here: there are growing efforts on the part of the private sector to think about and implement positive, sustainable strategies for water management, through groups like the UN CEO Water Mandate. Some leading corporations are seriously working toward improving their operations, reducing their impacts on water resources, and collaborating with local communities to develop sustainable water strategies and actions. Their actions will be an important contribution to changing behaviors and water policies for the private sector.
Q: How has war been weaponised?
[Prof. Mark Zeitoun] Water can be a tool, victim or one of the sources of conflict, to borrow from Peter Gleick’s framing.
You see water as a victim of conflict every time there’s a damaged waste water treatment plant like in the Diyala or Euphrates rivers in Iraq, and this leads to untreated sewage discharged into the drinking water source for the downstream population.
Water is a tool of conflict too. Israel controls the transboundary water resources of the Palestinians, and has achieved political ends with it. Mostly through the coercive mechanisms so central to the Palestinian-Israeli Joint Water Committee, Israel has been able to lay new water infrastructure for settlers, while at the same time denying many (not all) water projects for Palestinans. Here, denying water eventually leads people to leave, and providing water encourages people to settle – and so the continued colonization of the Palestinian West Bank.
Water can also be the source of conflict; it’s never the main source but certainly a source. Witness the downstream Iraqi tensions with the upstream dams in Turkey and Iran. These dams already have a big impact in Iraq in terms of farmers’ livelihoods, and the country’s self-reliance on food. This isn’t the only source of conflict between these nations, of course, but it’s one of them- and an element of tension that has to be resolved preferably sooner rather than later.
You asked about climate change –I think we need to be very careful to not explicitly blame mother nature, God or climate change for problems we’ve induced ourselves. The main sources of tensions are development pressures; usually upstream dams by late developing countries as we see on the Mekong, Tigris and Euphrates. Climate change may exacerbate (or reduce) the pressure, but the real problem is that we’re developing without talking to downstream neighbours – without invoking the principles of the UN Watercourses Convention, for example, or other aspects of International Water Law. The UNWC acknowledges the right for late-developing upstream states to use the transboundary resource in ways that are ‘equitable and reasonable’.
Q: How will water spark conflict?
[Prof. Steven Chu] When water must be divided between populous countries like India, Bangladesh and China and the upstream country (China) is having shortages, there can emerge the potential for conflict. In China, they are building a massive system of dams and aqueducts to bring water from the South East to the North; just as California built aqueducts to bring water from the North to Los Angeles and San Diego.
Water systems use huge amounts of energy too, California uses 22% of its electricity to move water, it’s staggering.
Let’s use the example of Cotton and Almonds; both of which use a lot of water to grow. California makes a lot of money shipping Almonds all over the world, and the same is true of Californian cotton. The only cotton in the world that competes with California for cotton is Egypt. You may wonder why an arid country like Egypt can compete with California for cotton? Irrigation gives it a similar water supply to California!
California still has water rationing; we’ve come out of severe droughts and we still haven’t decided how to solve the problem of the huge subsidy farmers receive around water. These instabilities must be addressed, particularly if climate changes in a way to reduce our supplies.
If the water dries up, we’re in trouble.
Q: What will be the role of water in our future energy supply?
[Prof. Steven Chu] If we could access very inexpensive energy, we could desalinate brackish water and eventually seawater. We could also recycle sewage water, it uses less-energy to recycle sewage water to be potable than desalinating seawater. There’s a ‘yuck-factor’ but it works, and is perfectly safe if done right.
Singapore has large desalination plants now due to rocky relationships with its neighbour Malaysia who controls their water supply. Israel is now doing desalination too, and is using its water extremely well. The middle-east however is doing the exact opposite. Per capita use of water in Qatar for example is 3-4 times more than Europe, even though their aquifer is 90% gone- so guess what, they’re desalinating with oil and gas; they’re just throwing money away!
Q: How can innovative funding solutions make an impact in our global water crisis?
[Gary White] The pragmatist in me wouldn’t let me spend time walking the halls of the United Nations, World Bank and those organisations drumming up support and saying, ‘listen, you gotta’ help the poor..’
The poor of our world already pay billions of dollars a year for food, clothing, and many other things, they are economic citizens and it makes as much sense to provide assistance from the bottom-up as from the top down.
People are paying loan-sharks 125% interest on loans to build toilets, they are paying water-vendors 10x – why? They don’t have savings, but they have water-solutions they could pursue (such as getting connected to public utilities) – they just can’t afford them. They’d love to build a toilet, but they don’t have the $175 to do that…
Our concept was to give people the capital they need, and instead of becoming a bank, we decided to leverage micro-finance to create water and toilet loans. People were very reluctant at first because they didn’t see this as income generating, but we helped them realise it was income enhancing because they didn’t have to pay extortionate rates to loan sharks and water vendors anymore. They also didn’t need to spend the time searching for, and potentially scavenging water supply. 1 million loans later, our repayment rate is 99% and now the MFIs are on board.
Even though these loans were being made by our micro-finance partners (of which we now have 65 worldwide), they were still capital constrained in terms of sourcing the investment capital they needed to scale-up. These loans are slightly more expensive to administer than other loans, and so we wanted to bring dedicated capital to allow them to scale-up faster. In India for example, the regulatory market has priority sector lending and so our partners there had fluctuating access to capital even on the wholesale financial market. We wanted to provide a slightly lower cost of capital, with more consistent access to capital.
Matt Damon and I, in the back of a Jeep in India decided to get investors in the USA on-board to provide capital to our MFI partners, so they could scale-up. At the time, impact investing was just coming into its own, and we tested our hypothesis that people would take a very modest return on their capital in the USA and Europe and we could turn that into affordable capital for microfinance institutions. Our first fund was U$11 million, and that’s now being deployed in India. People are getting water and sanitation with that now. Over a 7 year period, our investors will get a targeted return of 2% per year and at the end of the 7 years they’ll get their money back and in the meantime about 1 million people will have got access to water.
Water distribution and how we handle wastewater is today, the same as it was a hundred years ago. We haven’t made any great leaps forward to make the process more efficient. It’s still that basic model of pipes in the ground and pumps to push the water through!
Innovation is not so much about technology, but about financial tools to allow people to access water. At Water.org, we have our own R&D fund- our New Ventures Fund- to allow us to pilot ideas like WaterCredit and WaterEquity, to prove those ideas and scale them up.
We focus on financial innovation rather than technological innovation to achieve the greatest impact for the poor.
Q: What are the economics of investing in water?
[Christoph Gorder] There have been several studies done which show the incredible return on investment of investment from financing water. In the region we operate- Sub Saharan Africa- the return on investment is $4-12 for every $1 invested. That return comes in the form of lowered medical bills, more time and productivity, better educated communities and more.
There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that clean water can improve people’s lives. It’s one of the least controversial human development objectives out there!
Water is one of those unifying things that almost everybody can get behind.
Q: What is the role of policy in solving our water supply challenges?
[Prof. Benedito Braga] The World Water Council has a mission to make sure that issues around water, and associated solutions, reach out to the highest political level. That is why we organise our World Water Forums every 3 years, our next being in Brazil (Brasilia) in 2018. These forums are a way to make sure high-level decision makers understand water, its management, the infrastructure associated with it, and the linkages water has with all other aspects of development including energy, food, healthcare and more.
Here in Sao Paulo for example, the biggest challenge is to make sure we have the right tariff structures to make sure that the developments we need to make in terms of water-security and water-quality can be delivered, and future-proofed. There is a lot to be done, and we need the proper resources; it’s not correct to expect that government subsidies can keep the sector afloat. Water is a highly political issue, and it’s difficult to get the proper tariffs in place as a result.
Many countries are facing public financing challenges at the moment; and the participation of the private sector in the delivery of water management and infrastructure is critical. This must be backed-up by a proper regulatory system, not just for the companies that are delivering water- but for the end-user. Regulators play a critical role in allowing the private sector to participate in water-supply, whether that’s in financing, technology or supply.
It is important that our politicians and high-level decision makers understand that water security is something that will give them benefits in electoral processes. This is the pragmatic view.
We have the technology, we can raise the funds, but if there’s no political will to put water security as a priority, then nothing will happen.
We need the political class to understand that water is a critical issue for their populations.
Q: Why isn’t our water crisis given the same level of attention as other crises (e.g. food-supply, climate)?
[Guy Ryder] I think that would have been a fair question a few years ago, but today, water, which cannot be separated from sanitation, is woven into the heart of the new international development agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals – or ‘SDGs’. This means there is agreement that universal access to safe water and sanitation is critical to eradicating extreme poverty by 2030. Indeed, the 17 different goals across all areas of life are designed to be mutually supporting.
Thinking of things in terms of single issue crises risks missing the fact that development needs to be done through an integrated approach. For instance, a factory having safe water, clean toilets and a wastewater treatment plant could help achieve progress in job creation (healthier workforce and better profits), staff retention (cleaner environment, higher morale), gender quality (good facilities for managing menstruation or pregnancy) and environmental protection (less pollution through wastewater).
[Dr. Peter Gleick] We have taken water for granted for too long. Those in the richer nations of the world assume that the high-quality tap water and wastewater systems that have been put in place will always be there; those in the poorer regions without similar access have less influence and voices that are often ignored or not heard in the global discussions on environmental and economic policy. But as water crises have grown in magnitude, it is increasingly apparent that we can no longer ignore water and the central role it plays in all other challenges, from the production of food to the consequences of climate change to the dynamics of international politics. In the past few years, we have finally begun to see concerted, coordinated attention being paid to water challenges, and the opportunity to make positive progress is growing.
[Christoph Gorder] Water has been pretty-high on policy agendas. The thing about water however, is that it lacks the drama of other human emergencies such as the refugee crisis, the Ebola epidemic or natural disasters.
For the hundreds of millions of people who are living with dirty water and who are dying because of it, this has been their life for many years, and actually was a fact of life for Western Society until a hundred years ago.
If you look at the history of New York City, London or Paris there were huge mortality rates before municipal water supplies were chlorinated, and before our understanding of biology showed how diseases were transmitted through water. Once we got proper access to clean-water in the western world, it changed the outlook for quality and length of life dramatically.
[Prof. Mark Zeitoun] Education, waste water, children’s trauma, public health… like water, these services simply aren’t as appealing to the media as violence and the political elements of a conflict. As a result, water is almost always subsidiary to the politics and the violence.
Water is as critical as education, and health in conflict situations, but they all typically get overlooked – at least until one or another side takes control of a dam.
People can develop a lot of coping mechanisms to get around the nasty deeds their fellow-men do to them. In the short term, households can install small suction pumps, treat their own water, boil water and so on. So, water is not as instantly devastating as an explosion blowing up a building – and so also not as appealing as is the violence.
One other thing to consider is that people also tend to cooperate over water, even in the worst times of violence. In the middle of an armed conflict, it’s not unusual to see communities sharing water and doing what they can to keep the water flowing. There is a great unsung army of water engineers who risk their lives and refuse to take sides, simply to get water to the people.
[Gary White] If you look at the Millennium Development Goals, there wasn’t a separate call-out around water- it was hidden deep in the minutiae of the goals. With the Sustainable Development Goals, SDG6 specifically calls for access to safe water and sanitation for everyone.
The World Economic Forum do an annual global threat survey, and for the last 5 years, water (the water crisis) has been one of the top 3 threats to our world.
We don’t really know, at the macro-level, how we solve our water crisis. I was talking with Dr. Jim Kim (President of the World Bank) at Davos, and his challenge is being able to reach that last 10-15% of the population when the bank invests in infrastructure projects. That last segment of the population is not an intractable challenge; solutions like WaterCredit can give the capital to allow those communities to support themselves from the bottom up.
There’s never going to be enough philanthropic or subsidy capital to solve our water crisis. It would take U$200 billion each year, over the next 5 years to make that happen. All the subsidies combined into water, sanitation and development assistance currently come to just $8 billion a year. There’s an urgent need therefore to find new sources of capital- and we can do that from the bottom-up yet still have the poor be better-off.
Q: How do your rights and justice mechanisms play a role in the water story?
[Guy Ryder] The most obvious discrimination that affects people’s ability to access water is against their economic status. Many poor communities in developing countries find it difficult to get their voices heard by decision-makers, and so their water needs are often ignored, locking them in to a cycle of ill-health and poverty.
Even when improvements are made to water services, they might be inaccessible to older or disabled people, or be placed in areas where certain groups can’t venture into. They might also be built without consulting women, who are usually the principal water fetchers and managers. The impact of these oversights might not be due to deliberate discrimination but when the needs of the entire community are not taken into account, it can leave many people out, so the effect is the same.
Access to water is a human right, just like sanitation, food and shelter, which is why all improvements to water access must be inclusive of everyone. A national government is obliged under international law to establish accountability mechanisms and ensure access to them. They also have to ensure that they remove the hidden barriers to people, especially poor people, participating in processes that affect their lives; barriers such as lack of awareness, the high financial or time cost in travelling to see representatives, and the myriad social barriers, such as women being prohibited to travel alone or represent herself and her community.
[Dr. Peter Gleick] Access to safe, affordable water and sanitation is, without a doubt, a basic human right. I have argued this for decades, and the United Nations formally acknowledged it in 2010. The challenge now is to figure out how to turn a formal legal human right into actions that protect and support that right. As part of this challenge it is vital to acknowledge the enormous equity issues associated with the failure to meet basic needs for water (or food, or a stable climate, or any number of other things). The poorest, most ignored populations on earth suffer the most from society’s failure to meet basic needs, and principles of environmental justice demand that their needs be met, as quickly and completely as possible.
Q: Who are the key stakeholders in water supply to a nation, and what is their role in providing safe, clean water?
[Guy Ryder] It’s important to point out that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to reaching people with safe water but access to water and sanitation is a human right. Therefore, governments are responsible under international law for ensuring that it happens. Only governments can pass the laws and create the frameworks within which ministries, utilities, private companies, trade unions and community-based organisations can operate but of course the key stakeholder is the people, especially poor people.
Whatever the mix of players in the water delivery infrastructure, it must be focused on meeting the enormous demand from poor communities in an affordable and sustainable way. The solution in a given area might be piped supplies, or rainwater harvesting, gravity flow systems, deep tubewells or another technology. The crucial factor in achieving any of this is having a committed government that creates a policy enabling environment, implements policies, allocates appropriate resources and involves relevant stakeholders.
[Barbara Frost] WaterAid has a vision linked to Goal 6 of the SDG’s; everyone, everywhere must have access to water and sanitation by 2020.
We’re clear that Global Goal 6 will not be realised without government, private sector and civil society working together. As we’ve seen around the world, the countries that do have access have different provision models. In some countries, water is provided by state and local government and in others it’s provided by private companies with strong state regulations. There has to be the right regulatory frameworks in place to make sure that marginalised people don’t miss out, and that quality and pricing is maintained at a fair level…
Government, private sector and civil society must work together. In some countries for example, people without land tenure are often ignored as they are perceived to be poor payers. We know this is absolutely not the case and often those individuals pay more for their water supply than people live in cities. All sectors have to play a part, with the political will and drive to make it happen.
From national, to local government level, and in partnership with private companies and civil society there has to be a concerted drive to make this happen. In many countries we visit, we meet with a local government who- even with an assumed budget- do not have the money to even maintain existing water supplies, never mind building new community managed facilities.
Water and sanitation are a core part of environmental and human development issues. We have to integrate across environmental protection, health and nutrition. Climate change is also bringing significant unpredictability to the most marginalised communities through droughts and floods; and that’s creating massive problems.
Governments must also make sure that they have the correct regulations around abstraction of water as the stress from competing demands is getting worse.
Q: What is the role of philanthropy and advocacy in our global water crisis?
[Barbara Frost] Philanthropists are key advocates in promoting how important good investment in water and sanitation is to human development and prosperity. The growth of the funding required to finance basic services is really critical.
The Gates Foundation for example have done some wonderful work to ‘reinvent the toilet,’ to ensure sanitation can be provided using lower water volumes for the future.
Philanthropists are also key to innovation around water supply, sanitation, the disposal of human waste and so on.
If we are to reach everyone everywhere with safe water, good sanitation and good hygiene as pledged by the UN Sustainable Development Goals, then we need a wide range of partners involved
How do we convince them? The economic case for investing in water and sanitation is clear – WHO research suggests that for every £1 invested in water and sanitation an average of at least £4 is returned in increased productivity, primarily based on improved health and more time to work.
Traditionally philanthropy’s role has been a straightforward transactional relationship – this, too, is now changing. Our engagement now ranges from grants to more strategic partnerships; we work increasingly with both governments and the private sector on advocacy, helping to magnify our voice for greater impact.
Whatever the nature of our engagement and whatever the nature, or extent of our funding, we always maintain our independence and will speak out about our mission and vision and the right of everyone to access to safe water and sanitation.
There are many ways to get involved in addressing the water and sanitation crisis beyond simply donating money, although that is critically important to our mission!
Here in the UK, we have supporters who volunteer as part of our speakers’ network to talk to groups about the importance of water and sanitation. We also have wonderful supporters who write to MPs at key moments in support of overseas aid for water and sanitation. And we have many opportunities for grassroots advocacy throughout the year, including on World Water Day and World Toilet Day, with resources for activities in schools and workplaces.
Q: How can we work towards clean, safe, water for all (and for all purposes)?
[Dr. Peter Gleick]I am convinced that we can meet basic human needs for water for all. The problem is not a lack of money, or technology, and brains. The problem is a lack of commitment on the part of global, national, local, and private sector parties to work toward what I call the “soft path for water” – a comprehensive strategy for providing water for humans, ecosystems, and the planet that acknowledges the role of local communities, the human right to water, and the tradeoffs among science, economics, and politics. This will require the participation of all of us, from scientists to community advocates to corporate interests.
[Christoph Gorder] When you look at all the people who need access to clean water, the diversity of circumstances is huge. There are people living in urban slums in Lagos or Mumbai, there are people living in tropical places, rural places and even deserts.
We have focussed our efforts on remote rural communities. Government investments tend to disproportionately focus on urban environments where they have concentrations of population and can therefore get financing from the World Bank or other development banks. Rural farming communities of a few hundred people are suffering great need, and are off radar of most government programmes.
In these communities, we’re building water systems that are very high quality, and built in a sustainable way with management systems within the local community and eventually leading into local government. We want water systems to be well managed and sustainable for long-term delivery.
We measure the impact of our projects by collecting a lot of data before and after delivery. We see a consistent decline in the amount of time people are spending fetching water- usually more than 50% – so they’re walking less distance, waiting less in queues, and this represents hundreds of thousands of hours per day across communities. The increase in water consumption in communities is drastic. In one particular area of Ethiopia, there was a 30% increase in water consumption now that they had a sustainable water-point, and the figures are still rising. To have 30% more clean-water has huge implications on childhood development, sanitation, hygiene, adult health and agriculture.
Q: How is technology playing a role in the future of the water story?
[Guy Ryder] Some of the earliest human engineering was to do with harnessing water, so the water story will always be defined by technology. However, we must take care to distinguish between gimmicks and genuinely helpful innovations. A technology that is unaffordable for many people, or that requires complex supply chains, or is wasteful, is ultimately not going to be sustainable. The main question we need to ask of any water technology is: is it appropriate for the people you’re trying to reach? For instance, to reach a large population living in crowded urban slums, it needs to be affordable, easily maintained in densely populated areas, safe and scalable.
Of course, technology is a tool, and the most effective technology won’t achieve its potential without political commitment, funding and good systems of cooperation between ministries, utilities, private companies and the target communities themselves.
Q: How should water be delivered in a humanitarian theatre?
[Prof. Mark Zeitoun] We can’t get-away from the life-saving activity of shipping or trucking in bottled water, but if that’s done on the basis that at some point the conflict will end, and the relief workers will pass over the baton to rehabilitation workers and development people… if those projects are done with that idea in mind, it will fail in the protracted urban conflicts we’re seeing in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and elsewhere.
These are long, drawn-out conflicts. We have to think long term. The relief workers have to think some years ahead, and development works have to get their hands dirty during the emergency too- blending their programmes with an understanding that this is the new normal, this urban warfare biosphere. Donors must support this shift of thinking. Much humanitarian relief funding is based on 6 month cycles of work, so cannot possibly think long term!
The funding also needs to be more flexible and come with easier reporting requirements. This isn’t a panacea, we’ve seen people like DfID trial this in areas like Yemen with some success.
You asked about commodificaiton of water and privatization of drinking-water services: Conflicts act as a clarifying filter for those wavering on taking a position on whether water should be seen as a commodity or a human right. In every conflict zone I’ve worked in, seen and analysed, it’s typically the municipality that has responsibility to deliver water (as a public good). These municipal workers go to enormous length, risking or even giving their lives to deliver water to their fellow citizens. It’s what the old folk in the neighbourhood demand of them. If they were instead working for a company, it’s likely their employer would flee the country as soon as the going got rough and the workers simply wouldn’t have the same relationship with their customers, as they did with their community. Just another reason to resist the commodification of water in development.
Relief and development workers have to build better relationships with local authorities too, so that when things get tough- they can continue to be supported in those conflict zones. This also extends to building better technical expertise. A typical relief worker can set-up a water trucking programme, but cannot restore a whole water board! And yet, that’s often the kind of help that the local service providers in protracted urban conflicts could use.
Q: How can we (as individuals) play a role in water advocacy?
[Guy Ryder] I’m always reminded of the quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” I’d ask people to learn more about the problems and solutions, and tell your friends and colleagues. There are international charities you could join to take action and raise funds for water and sanitation projects, and you could also contact your elected representative to let them know how important the issue is to you. We’ve come a long way in recent decades through concerted efforts between governments, non-governmental organizations, trade unions, members of the public, engineers, scientists, businesspeople and politicians. UN-Water coordinates the annual World Water Day and World Toilet Day campaigns which are all about peer-to-peer awareness-raising around the world, using social media and real-life events to spread messages and inspire action. So I would always say, do what you can, do it with others, and do it with passion.
Q: Will we ever have clean, safe, water for all?
[Christoph Gorder] I am really excited about the potential for us to deliver clean, safe drinking water for all. In the next 15 years I believe everyone will have access to clean drinking water. In the past 15 years alone, over 2 billion people have got access to clean drinking water around the world. If you look at where we were in 1990, versus where we are today and where we want to be? we’re on a great trajectory. The question is how quickly we can get to this objective. Every day we are not supplying clean drinking water to communities, people die. Every day- 5,000 children die from lack of access to clean water.
This is a race. We know how to solve the problem, but we need to raise the capital and mobilize the capacity to deliver clean water for al.
For overall water usage however, the situation is more concerning. In the United States, 85% of all fresh-water is used for agriculture, around 10% for industry and domestic use is a very small percentage. Industrialised agriculture and wider-industry represent the bulk of the use of our water. As economies develop, as populations grow, as climate changes- we’re seeing a huge amount of stress on global fresh water resources. This will be a major challenge for generations to come.
[Prof. Benedito Braga] I hope young people get interested in water, the same way I did many years ago. Our younger generations are interested in finance, law and many other professions- and I would urge them to think about engineering too. One of the challenges we have to get water-security for all of us, is infrastructure. In the future, we will need good engineers to design and construct the water infrastructure we need to guarantee water supply, to benefit humankind and the environment.
Q: How should the rich world nations change their relationship to water?
[Barbara Frost] Water is a relatively cheap commodity, and that doesn’t get talked about enough. People often confuse the right to water and it being free We have a right to food, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it should be free. Making sure water is properly priced therefore, is important- though it’s not a popular thing to say in the political sphere.
Water is an extremely valuable commodity, and that’s how it should be treated. In the UK, we have organisations like Water Wise who are doing valuable work, ensuring that children in schools and wider communities change their water habits.
I spent many years living in Australia, and it changed my water use behaviour completely. In water scarce countries, people know water is valuable and must be protected.
Q: what would be the impact of clean water supply for all?
[Guy Ryder] To know the answer to this question, you only have to look at the countries of the world where there is effectively 100% safe water and sanitation coverage. The main impact is on health, and when you have good public health, you can build a safer, more prosperous society.
There are also many hidden profound impacts, particularly for women and girls. Safe water and decent private toilets protect them from attack and humiliation, free up time for work and study, and give them the means to manage menstruation or pregnancy in safety and dignity. Also, hundreds of thousands of children’s lives would be saved every year from diarrhoeal deaths caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation. And because the children would be healthier, they would develop their full physical and mental potential.
The impacts are really too numerous to list. The simple truth is that a healthier, more prosperous, fairer life is only possible when you have an affordable, sustainable supply of safe water and sanitation.
[Dr. Peter Gleick] I truly believe a sustainable future for the planet is possible, and that safe, affordable, reliable water and sanitation for everyone can and ultimately will be achieved. The soft path for water offers a way forward. Achieving this goal would relieve hundreds of millions of people of unacceptable illness, release girls and young women of the back-breaking burden of trying to find water for their families at the expense of their education and future, reduce the ecological damages from our current water policies, and cut the risk of violence from disputes over access to water. These are desirable futures, and all of us should work toward them as quickly and effectively as possible.
The ecosystems, climate and geology of our planet are finely balanced and fragile; though it’s difficult for us to believe it. How many of us would look out over the ocean, and see it as weak? or see the great mountain ranges of our world as anything other than symbols of strength? Sometimes though, those perspective changes can be profound:
“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong, Apollo Astronaut
On that tiny pretty, blue pea is everything we know. Trillions of species from archaea to ourselves, co-exist in a complex, interconnected, living machine which has taken billions of years to evolve and which we, as humanity, could destroy in a lifetime.
Our air, our food, our water; essential to our lives, yet taken utterly for granted with the illusory assumption of limitless supply- built on our species’ foundational belief that we are sufficiently above nature to be removed from it.
I raised my palms to catch the rain,
And realised I was the ocean.
I made the rain,
the rain made me.