Coping with Water Scarcity

As we stand at the mid–point toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals, which include a specific target on halving the number of people without sustainable access to safe water, the world still faces serious challenges in water supply and sanitation. Today, over 900 million more people need to gain access to an improved water source by 2015, and over 1.3 billion people need access to improved sanitation, if the specific targets are to be met. The theme of this year’s World Water Day, “Coping with Water Scarcity,” draws attention to this reality, and the fact that chronic water stress affects nearly 800 million people worldwide and threatens the collapse of ecological systems, intensifying competition for water and heightening cross–border tensions. While the world is not running out of water in an absolute sense, water insecurity still poses a real threat to human development in many places and for a large proportion of the world’s people. About 700 million people in 43 countries live below the water–stress threshold of 1,700 cubic metres per person per year. In 20 years, 3 billion people will live in countries under that threshold. The growing thirst for water from expanding cities, industry, agriculture, and energy demands puts the already fragile food and livelihood security of the poor even more at risk. The 2006 Human Development Report called for access to a safe and affordable water supply to be recognized as a human right, and for a Global Action Plan to respond to the water crisis. On this World Water Day, we reiterate that call, remembering also that failure to adequately tackle this challenge will affect our ability to meet all the MDGs. The challenges of the water crisis are largely driven by fundamental inequalities. Perversely, we live in a world where the less you earn, the more you pay for water. The poorest households in many developing countries can spend as much as 10% of their income on water, while in the developed world spending more than 3% of earnings on water is seen as economic hardship. Indeed, the challenges of the water crisis are largely driven by fundamental inequalities. As highlighted in last year’s Human Development Report, scarcity of water is not purely a physical or environmental deficit—it often reflects a lack of financial and political power. The poor don’t get enough clean water for the same reasons they don’t get a chance to vote, or to live free of disease, or to escape the dangers of disaster and conflict, or to empower themselves economically: Too often, little or no money means little or no voice, and little or no opportunity.  Confronting the world water crisis is an essential step in confronting poverty, and supporting broader human development. Water availability will be more unpredictable, Climate change threatens to further undermine the livelihoods of poor people. Water availability will be more unpredictable, with increasing prevalence of droughts, floods and variability of rainfall patterns — yet another challenge that afflicts the poor disproportionately. The poorest people bear almost no responsibility for climate change, yet in many cases they are suffering the worst of its immediate effects. Agricultural productivity is likely to suffer in Asiaand Sub–Saharan Africa. Rising sea levels will increase the risk of saline water intrusion into the drinking supplies of low–lying countries such as Bangladesh. Developing effective and affordable adaptation strategies to reduce and manage risk and vulnerability has to become a major focus in national water–management policies, and international aid. The solutions are not primarily hydrological and technical; The water crisis may seem daunting, but concrete steps can be taken to address the emergency. World Water Day is, therefore, an important opportunity to both re–energize the debate on this crucial issue and to catalyze action. The challenge to G8 and other donors is to take to heart the water needs of the poor, and follow the recent example of the United Kingdom, which has pledged to double support for water and sanitation in Africaby next year and to double that figure again to £200 million by 2011.The global investment needed to meet the Millennium Development Goal of halving the world’s population without access to clean water is equivalent to a month’s spending on bottled mineral water in Europeand the US. Achieving that MDG delivers $38 billion in additional economic benefits to the developing world. These are numbers I hope the G8 will consider very carefully in Juneat their Summit. By strengthening management of water resources, by investing and planning now to confront current and future water problems, and by empowering countries and communities to take more control over their future water situations, we can help to trigger the next leap forward in human development. The solutions are not primarily hydrological and technical; power, politics and governance at all levels play a much bigger part. Collectively, we have the means to address the global water crisis; what we need now is commitment, collective political will and an adequate policy response to these challenges. Statement by Kemal Dervis, UNDP Administrator, on the occasion of World Water Day  

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