The task of providing drinking water

Updated: 2013-05-27 07:10

By Noeleen Heyzer (China Daily)

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Clean drinking water and sanitation are basic human rights. Lack of access to clean water and sanitation is a silent crisis that destroys livelihoods and claims more lives through illnesses than any war claims through guns.

The good news is that our combined efforts have made a difference. Between 1990 and 2010, more than 2 billion people around the world gained access to safe drinking water, which meant that we achieved that Millennium Development Goal five years ahead of schedule.

But we have an unfinished agenda. More than 600 million people will still lack safe drinking water even in 2015, the target year for MDG, with people in disadvantaged communities three to four times less likely to have access. More than 1.7 billion people in Asia and the Pacific are also without modern sanitation, which means we are totally off track on the MDG target of halving the number of people living under these conditions. And about 100 million people in South East Asia alone continue to defecate in the open.

Behind these numbers are human lives denied the opportunity to realize their potential and live with dignity. It is time we provided all homes, schools, healthcare centers and public spaces access to safe water and sanitation.

Water security, better water management and sound water governance are needed to ensure enough water supply to meet the competing demands of industry, power plants, agriculture and households. We have to ensure sufficient supply of safe drinking water, and take measures to reduce the time it takes for families, especially women, to collect water needed for daily use.

Water security is about ensuring that every person has reliable access to enough safe water at an affordable price to lead a healthy, dignified and productive life. Water security is also about sustaining, inter-generationally, the ecological systems that provide water and protecting people from water-related disasters, especially in the context of climate change.

This is magnified by the fact that more than 90 percent of the impact of climate change is water-related, and that more than 50 percent of the urban population lives in vulnerable coastal areas and flood plains.

An ESCAP study, "Building Resilience to Natural Disasters and Major Economic Crises", has called for better governance, combined with more sustainable solutions, which are better integrated with wider development strategies. And the outcome document of the Rio+20 summit has recognized the importance of integrating water into all the three pillars of sustainable development: economics, society and the environment. Sustainable solutions for water security must therefore address several issues simultaneously. I would like to highlight five:

First, persistent inequality and growing competition for water must be addressed through better public policies, greater investment in critical water infrastructure and active participation of all stakeholders, especially women and the youth, in water planning and decision-making. We cannot have high income households receiving hundreds of litres of water a day at low prices when poor families in the same country have less access to water than is needed for even the most basic human needs.

Second, we must distinguish among green, blue & gray water resources, and do more to manage the wastewater of the increasingly urban population. Gray water reuse, along with simple water conservation technologies and river rehabilitation, makes water-efficient practices affordable and contributes toward a more sustainable economy.

Third, polluters must pay. Our public and private sectors must be committed to treating municipal and industrial wastewater prior to discharge, and we must raise the cost that offenders should be made to pay for polluting rivers and other water sources. Lack of regulation and poor enforcement has for too long allowed irresponsible companies to shift pollution from the developed to the developing world.

Fourth, governments at different levels have important roles to play in the formulation of integrated river basin management plans in identifying solutions to strengthen the management of trans-boundary water resources and cross-border river basin ecosystems.

Fifth, we must recognize the important role that can be played by the private sector, which is responsible for up to 85 percent of global investment in new buildings, industry and critical infrastructure.

A few weeks ago, at the 69th session of ESCAP, the government of Thailand sponsored two water-related resolutions, which were unanimously adopted by all member states. The resolutions focus on enhancing knowledge sharing and regional cooperation in integrated water resources management, emphasizing the vital role of water in sustainable development. They also address the challenges of building resilience to water-related disasters through regional cooperation.

The ESCAP has therefore been mandated to coordinate with the other UN agencies to ensure effective use of technology and innovation in water management in order to facilitate the sharing of regional and sub-regional best practices, promote the wider integration of water management into the regional sustainable development agenda and provide and support a capacity development program to build resilience in Asia and the Pacific to water-related risks and disasters.

Moving forward, safe and affordable water and sanitation must be at the heart of our regional, sub-regional and national efforts if we are to build a more inclusive, sustainable and resilient future for our people and our planet.

The author is under-secretary-general of the UN and executive secretary of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.

(China Daily 05/27/2013 page9)