Water for Life Voices: The themes

  • Increasing access to sanitation and drinking-water brings huge benefits to the development of countries by improving health outcomes and the economy. The impact of diarrhoeal disease on children is greater than the combined impact of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria; providing improved sanitation and drinking-water could reduce diarrhoeal diseases by 90%, and the number of children who die each year by 2.2 million. Huge savings in health-care costs and gains in productivity can be realized by improving access to safe water and basic sanitation. Aid for water and sanitation doubled over the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade (1981 -1990) and has nearly doubled again since 2002. Despite the economic crisis, aid for sanitation and drinking-water continues to rise. The total amount of development aid for sanitation and water increased by 3% from 2008 to 2010, to US$ 7.8 billion. However when compared with other sectors (education, health for example), sanitation and drinking-water receive a relatively low priority for official development assistance (ODA) and domestic allocations.

  • Considering water quality. There are great differences in water availability from region to region - from deserts to tropical forests. In addition to problems with water quantity there are also problems with water quality. Pollution of water sources is posing major problems for water users as well as for maintaining natural ecosystems. Currently, progress on the drinking-water component of the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) Target 7c is judged as being "on track". The most recent projections suggest that only 9% of the world’s population will be using drinking-water from an unimproved source in 2015 - slightly better than the target requirement of 12%. However, assessing the safety of drinking-water according to whether or not it comes from an improved source is likely to overestimate both the proportion of the population with access to safe drinking-water at baseline and progress towards Target 7c because many improved sources will not provide safe water, particularly in developing countries. Conversely, the proportion of unimproved sources that actually do provide safe drinking-water is likely to be small. Water quality considerations are now becoming a priority when assessing progress made in access to water worldwide.

  • Reducing the gap between cities and rural areas. More than half of the global population now lives in cities, and urban areas are still better supplied with improved water and sanitation than rural ones. But the gap is decreasing. In 1990, more than 76% of people living in urban areas had access to improved sanitation, as opposed to only 28% in rural ones. By 2012, 80% of urban dwellers and 47% of rural ones had access to better sanitation. In 1990, 95% people in urban areas could drink improved water, compared with 62% of people in rural regions. By 2012, 96% of people living in towns and 82% of those in rural areas had access to improved water.

  • Understanding water and energy linkages. All sources of energy require water in the production process: the extraction of raw materials, thermal cooling processes, cleaning processes, cultivation of crops for biofuels and powering turbines. Energy is itself required to make water resources available for human use and consumption (including irrigation) through pumping, transportation, treatment, and desalination. Long overlooked, more people are becoming familiar with the water-energy nexus as demand for electricity grows and water supplies decline in certain regions across the world.

  • Improving food security through water. Water is key to food security. Crops and livestock need water to grow. Agriculture requires large quantities of water for irrigation and good quality for various production processes. Demographic pressures, climate change and the increased competition for land and water are likely to increase vulnerability to food insecurity. Today almost 1 billion people are undernourished, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa (239 million) and Asia (578 million). The challenge of providing sufficient food for a global population has never been greater. However, the deteriorating trends in the capacities of ecosystems to provide vital goods and services are already affecting the production potential of important food-producing zones. However, in some locations, better technology, management practices and policies (which take into consideration the need for appropriate trade-offs between environmental needs and agricultural production) have arrested and reversed negative trends and thus indicate pathways towards models of sustainable production and consumption.

  • Water for a sustainable future. Water is a finite and irreplaceable resource that is fundamental to human well-being. It is only renewable if well managed. Today, more than 1.7 billion people live in river basins where depletion through use exceeds natural recharge, a trend that will see two-thirds of the world’s population living in water-stressed countries by 2025. Water can pose a serious challenge to sustainable development but managed efficiently and equitably, water can play a key enabling role in strengthening the resilience of social, economic and environmental systems in the light of rapid and unpredictable changes. The health of ecosystems across the globe relies on a consistent supply of safe water. Ecosystems regulate the availability of water, and its quality. Crucial to the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals is the transition to an economy that not only improves human well-being and lessens inequality but also reduces environmental risks and ecological scarcities. During the last years, the concept of "green economy" has entered the global discourse and is contributing to position this issue.

  • Ensuring the participation of women in water-related development efforts. Water is part of global gender inequality. At a local level in many societies, women play a central role in providing water supply and sanitation. They have primary responsibility for the management of household water supply, sanitation and health. Providing access to clean water close to the home can dramatically reduce women’s workloads, and free up time for other economic activities. For young women and girls, this time can be used to attend school. Inadequate access to sanitation facilities is a source of shame, physical discomfort and insecurity for millions of women across the world. Cultural norms frequently make it unacceptable for women to be seen defecating—forcing many women to leave home before dawn or after nightfall to maintain privacy. Involving both women and men in water resource management and sanitation policies is crucial to ensure that the specific needs and concerns of women and men from all social groups are taken into account. In recent years, the involvement of women in water and sanitation projects and gender mainstreaming has contributed to change in the situation. Also, the recent increase in the number of women appointed as water and environment ministers is an exciting trend which may provide an impetus to gender and water programmes.

  • Furthering water cooperation. Water is a shared resource on which life, the environment and most human activities depend. In recent decades, competition for water has increased sharply due to growing demands to satisfy the needs of a growing population, while the resource appears to be scarcer in many areas. Water has rarely been the root of conflicts, but it can be an exacerbating factor where social and political tensions already exist. The interests of farmers, domestic users, hydropower generators, recreational users and ecosystems are often at odds regarding water, and international boundaries make the situation even more complex. But while transboundary cooperation has often been difficult, experience has shown that sharing a resource as precious as water can be a catalyst for cooperation rather than conflicts. Across the world, hundreds of treaties have been signed between riparian states and the institutions created to manage and use transboundary waters in an equitable and sustainable manner. Some of these treaties—such as the Indus Basin Treaty between India and Pakistan—have remained in operation even during armed conflict. Many of these cooperation treaties take years, even decades to ratify. The proclamation of 2013 as International Year of Water Cooperation has recently contributed to raise awareness of both the potential for increased cooperation and the challenges facing water management in the context of greater demand for water access, allocation, and services.

These are just some of the achievements the Decade has seen. What do you think some of the others are?

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