The Harsh Economics of the Global Water Crisis

Personal Health

Every morning when you wake up and perform what you may perceive as insignificant chores, you might not realize that for 2.6 billion people around the world, your morning shower or just one flush of the toilet is the essence of luxury. The United Nations has declared that every human being is entitled to 20 liters of safe water every day. In Europe, we have the privilege of using 200 liters per day, while in the US, the average person uses up to 400. The average person in the developing world tries to manage on less than 10 liters of contaminated water to do all their daily chores.

From August 17-23, the Stockholm International Water Institute hosted the 4th annual World Water Week, bringing together 2,500 of the world's leading water experts to discuss the "progress and prospects on water" with a focus on sanitation. Notable honorary dignitaries, presidents, laureates and ministers discussed the world's water challenges and revealed the latest innovations for addressing global water issues. I attended a range of seminars that presented strategies to tackle the current global water and sanitation crisis. Confronted with some very alarming findings, I was profoundly moved to recognize that water can be and is a cause for human degradation.

Twenty percent of the world's population faces water shortages and lives without sustainable access to safe drinking water. At a time of worsening food crises, water resource disputes and global climate change, they further endure poor health due to poor sanitation. The overall water balance has been tipped, resulting in a multitude of conflicts. Estimates show that that global water consumption is increasing at twice the rate of population growth. As Andrew Liveris, CEO of Dow Chemical Company has pointed out in his work, "Water is the oil of this century but the key difference is, water has no substitute."

Water and sanitation go hand in hand. According to the World Health Organization, 80% of all world sickness is attributable to unsafe water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene. It is our era's greatest scandal that 1.6 million children die of preventable illness each year. Every day, 5,000 children die from diarrhoeal diseases related to unsafe water.

In 2002 the United Nations set a Millennium Development Goal to halve the number of people without access to sanitation and water by 2015. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon declared 2008 as the year to combat the global sanitation crisis and has labeled the securing of safe water and sanitation for all as "one of the most daunting challenges faced today." However, with the current slow rate of progress, this global target will not be met in our lifetime. As an example, Sub-Saharan Africa will not meet these goals anytime before 2076. Reviewing progress against the goals set in 2002, it is saddening to witness that six years later 55 nations are failing dreadfully to reach their water related targets.

The economic impact of poor sanitation is shocking. The most recent report by the Water and Sanitation Programme (WSP) revealed that in 2006, the impact of dire sanitation cost Indonesia $6.3 billion, or 2.3% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Additional findings by the WSP found that in Africa, an estimated 5% of the continent's GDP is lost to illness and death caused by unsafe water and the absence of sanitation facilities. According to the Asian Development Bank, "it is more costly to not care about sanitation than to do something about it."

With all the technological innovations available and money spent on the Water Week event, I found myself wondering how the global water and sanitation problem has escalated to this level of a disaster? With only $9.5 billion a year, or just one-third of the annual global spending on bottled water, the world could meet the MDG sanitation target by 2015 and provide everyone with a toilet by 2025.

The truth of the matter is that even though investment in sanitation is still considered unaffordable, it's not. According to Water Aid's Chief Executive Barbara Frost it's just not as "politically sexy" - there is enough money around, "but the key issue is how to direct it." So while water continues to be seen as a political priority, sanitation is not. Amy Leung, an urban development specialist from the Asian Development Bank explains, "Health doesn't cut it. It's all about the money, and sanitation is definitely not on the top agenda. But we aim to prove to governments that it's costing them economic growth. We want to argue that sanitation is a good investment and we should approach the ministers of finance rather than health."

R. Andreas Kraemer, Director of the Ecologic Institute for Berlin and Vienna, says "there is no one solution for the world - we need regional policies and national change, therefore good governance is a key factor in solving this issue. Policies are very good in optimizing the current situation but do not address the future. We need to develop policies that can be implemented as we learn. However many of the technocrats in charge of water management solutions want to keep their power intact by controlling policy. Parliamentarians rarely understand the engineer's complex work and therefore contribute little to solving the crisis."

It always seems so easy to quantify what the developing world needs, but as a spectator at Water Week, I couldn't help but wonder why the voices of the people who are actually affected by the harsh water resource cycles were not included. Why are people who live with these struggles not here to share their needs and thoughts about these issues? I highly doubt that any of the week's attendees have ever experienced the harshness of water shortage or lack of sanitary facilities. Have any of them ever had to defecate out in the open and quench their thirst from the same pond?

The water crisis is driven by many factors such as inequality and poverty, where the burden falls most heavily on women. At a seminar produced by Safer World and Gender Water Alliance (GWA), the water conflicts in Uganda and Sudan were presented and discussed. In Uganda, the competition for water resources can resurrect historical animosity and cause conflicts between communities. Issues also arise as a result of disagreements over whether the water should be utilized for domestic or agricultural purposes.

In Uganda, as in most African countries, women are by social tradition required to fetch water as the task is considered highly embarrassing for a man. Girls in Uganda are often denied education because they are tasked with carrying water from far distances. The Equity of Inclusion Adviser Rukeya Ahmed of Water Aid believes the whole burden of water and sanitation is feminized but the management of it is male focused. "However I don't believe a shift to a female-only focus will lead to fairness and sustainability in water utility; there should be a division of labor."

According to GWA, gender is a key variable in all water sectors. They say research and practical experience demonstrates that effective, efficient and equitable management of water resources is only achieved when women and men are equally involved in the consultation processes as well as in the management and implementation of water related services.

Safer World suggests a "conflict sensitive approach" as a solution to sustainable water resources management and water conflict resolution. They revealed that communities in Uganda appreciate this approach because it creates a platform for both men and women to discuss ways to minimize the negative impacts of community conflicts and inequalities.

The UN's Declaration of Human Rights states that every human being has the right to life. Water is the essence of life yet nobody seems to respect its importance as such. At the end of the World Water Week, I had reached the conclusion that in order to change the world we really need to start by talking about the silent dilemmas around us. It is important to realize that this global crisis cannot be solved with a "quick fix."

Access to safe drinking water or sanitation facilities should not be a luxury, nor an act of charity, but an obligation by the global community to ensure that no person is denied this right. I believe that in order to address the needs of billions who live without proper water and sanitation we need strong leadership because as the great human rights lawyer Parul Sharma once said, "it is more difficult to combat the poverty of the mind than material poverty." We need to overcome the stigmas related to the sanitation crisis and educate all people of its critical consequences.

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