The Road from Thirst

Read Time:4 Minute, 20 Second, DC – 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 (MDGs), which expire in 2015, addressing these issues
should be a top priority.

Consider this: Almost one 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 amount 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. In order 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
citizen complaints about the delivery of water and sanitation services, thereby
enhancing transparency and accountability. In Liberia, data collectors on motorbikes
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, in order 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 that they 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

A significant opportunity exists for private actors to invest in providing
affordable water-related services to poor and underserved segments of
developing-country populations, 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 share of
the world’s population lacks access to adequate facilities for human-waste disposal.
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 the 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 are
taken daily without regard for their implications for water availability and
sustainability – a situation that becomes even more complicated when water resources
cross national boundaries.

In this context, more integrated, cooperative approaches are needed to improve water
management. But negotiations for water-cooperation agreements are fraught with
perceived risks associated with issues related to accountability, sovereignty,
equity, and stability. Policymakers can mitigate these risks by building the
institutions, knowledge, and skills that are needed to manage water more
effectively, including among households, farmers, and businesses.

There is no single blueprint for international cooperation, but countries can learn
from one another’s experiences, employing strategies that have succeeded elsewhere
to broker lasting agreements between competing interests. Such strategies must also
be open to innovations in legal and financial instruments and guarantees, and they
must be viewed as legitimate by diverse constituencies, including the young people
who will inherit the arrangements that are created today.

Effective water management and sanitation have the power to transform economies –
and the lives of the world’s poorest people. There is no time – or water – to waste.

Mahmoud Mohieldin is the World Bank President’s Special Envoy.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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