The road that leads away from thirst

China Daily (Canada) - - COMMENT -

Mil­lions of the world’s poor­est people face se­ri­ous wa­ter-re­lated chal­lenges — from lack of ac­cess and short­ages to dis­putes over sup­plies — with pro­found im­pli­ca­tions for se­cu­rity, eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment and en­vi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­ity. As world lead­ers de­sign a de­vel­op­ment agenda to suc­ceed the Mil­len­nium De­vel­op­ment Goals, which ex­pire in 2015, ad­dress­ing these is­sues should be a top pri­or­ity.

Con­sider this: Al­most 1 bil­lion people world­wide lack ac­cess to safe drink­ing wa­ter, and 2.5 bil­lion people lack ad­e­quate san­i­ta­tion. The costs are stag­ger­ing: thou­sands of child deaths ev­ery day and an­nual eco­nomic losses es­ti­mated at $260 bil­lion — more than dou­ble the to­tal of of­fi­cial de­vel­op­ment as­sis­tance.

Mak­ing mat­ters worse, cli­mate change will ren­der wa­ter sup­plies more un­pre­dictable, with in­creas­ingly fre­quent and in­tense floods and droughts im­pos­ing sig­nif­i­cant hu­man and eco­nomic costs and im­ped­ing de­vel­op­ment in poor coun­tries. And the ex­pand­ing global pop­u­la­tion — set to reach more than 9.5 bil­lion by 2050 — will strain wa­ter re­sources still fur­ther.

Ur­gent ac­tion is needed to en­sure ac­cess to safe, af­ford­able wa­ter and san­i­ta­tion for all. First, dras­tic im­prove­ments in wa­ter-re­lated ser­vices — in­clud­ing sup­ply and san­i­ta­tion, ir­ri­ga­tion and drainage, en­ergy and en­vi­ron­men­tal fa­cil­i­ties — are needed to im­prove health out­comes and en­able more people to es­cape poverty.

Gov­ern­ments should take the lead in en­sur­ing care­ful man­age­ment and sus­tain­able use of scarce wa­ter re­sources. Wa­ter-in­ten­sive food and en­ergy pro­duc­tion — among oth­ers — are de­pen­dent on un­in­ter­rupted sup­plies. To set clear tar­gets for man­ag­ing wa­ter scarcity, re­li­able, timely data are needed to un­der­stand vari­a­tions in the qual­ity and quan­tity of wa­ter caused by cli­mate change and en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion, as well as to iden­tify pat­terns of wa­ter con­sump­tion by house­holds, farm­ers and in­dus­try.

Ad­dress­ing these wa­ter-re­lated chal­lenges re­quires height­ened ef­forts in four ar­eas. For starters, new and emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies can be lever­aged to de­sign more cost-ef­fec­tive so­lu­tions at scale. To­day, there are more In­ter­net-con­nected mo­bile de­vices than hu­man be­ings, pro­vid­ing an ex­ten­sive net­work to cre­ate and deliver mo­bile-based so­lu­tions.

For ex­am­ple, pub­lic of­fi­cials can use mo­bile ap­pli­ca­tions to tag and re­spond to cit­i­zens’ com­plaints about the sup­ply of wa­ter and san­i­ta­tion ser­vices, thereby en­hanc­ing trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity. In Liberia, data col­lec­tors on mo­tor­bikes have used mo­bile phones to map 10,000 pre­vi­ously un­known wa­ter points — an ini­tia­tive that in­formed the coun­try’s first wa­ter in­vest­ment plan, launched last year.

Sec­ond, to ex­pand ser­vices to the poor with­out over-bur­den­ing al­ready strained pub­lic bud­gets, pol­i­cy­mak­ers should pur­sue in­no­va­tive new part­ner­ships with pri­vate sec­tor ac­tors. Of course, this re­quires ef­fec­tive reg­u­la­tion to pro­tect con­sumers, to­gether with strong gov­er­nance struc­tures to en­sure that ser­vices can re­cover costs (and thus will be de­liv­ered con­sis­tently and at a high stan­dard over the long term). For ex­am­ple, Kenya, in a bid to at­tract pri­vate in­vestors, has pro­vided shadow credit rat­ings of 43 util­i­ties.

A sig­nif­i­cant op­por­tu­nity ex­ists for pri­vate ac­tors to in­vest in pro­vid­ing af­ford­able wa­ter-re­lated ser­vices to poor and un­der­served seg­ments of people in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, ow­ing to enor­mous un­tapped de­mand. In Bangladesh, In­done­sia, Peru and Tan­za­nia, the mar­ket for im­proved on-site san­i­ta­tion ser­vices is es­ti­mated to be worth $2.6 bil­lion.

In­deed, san­i­ta­tion is the third area de­mand­ing greater at­ten­tion. A vast per­cent­age of the world’s pop­u­la­tion lacks ac­cess to ad­e­quate fa­cil­i­ties for dis­posal of hu­man waste. Lo­cal pro­grams aimed at chang­ing com­mu­ni­ties’ be­hav­ior could con­trib­ute to a cleaner en­vi­ron­ment and bet­ter health out­comes.

As the MDGs demon­strate, de­vel­op­ment ob­jec­tives re­quire a strong im­ple­men­ta­tion frame­work, in­clud­ing suf­fi­cient fi­nanc­ing and high-qual­ity data, in or­der to scale up ini­tia­tives quickly while es­tab­lish­ing ac­count­abil­ity and en­sur­ing sus­tain­abil­ity. Here, na­tional-level po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship is crit­i­cal.

Fi­nally, world lead­ers must rec­og­nize that it will be im­pos­si­ble to ad­dress the wa­ter chal­lenge ef­fec­tively with­out con­fronting cli­mate chal­lenge. This de­mands a con­certed ef­fort to take ad­van­tage of op­por­tu­ni­ties for achiev­ing sus­tain­able growth, in­clud­ing by en­sur­ing ad­e­quate in­vest­ment.

Of course, there is also much to be done out­side the wa­ter and san­i­ta­tion sec­tors. In ar­eas like agri­cul­ture, en­ergy, forestry and mu­nic­i­pal plan­ning, de­ci­sions

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