How the UN’s latest initiative could end the water crisis in 15 years

“Among the many things I learned as a President,” Nelson Mandela once said, “was the centrality of water in the social, political and economic affairs of the country, the continent and the world.”

It is right therefore that water is at the heart of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) framework discussed last week by finance and development ministers in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Water is pivotal to the economic development of many countries like China, India and Brazil, to the security of many water-stressed nations, and accounts for a significant proportion of the $5-7 trillion the UN says should be invested in infrastructure annually. 

The troubling state of the world’s water security has come into clear focus over the last decade, and the challenge is urgent. Scientists forecast some 1.8 billion people will live with water scarcity by 2025. Pakistan for example has just one thousand cubic metres of water available per person this summer, a fifth of the amount at independence in 1949.

This is not only the result of climate change and reduced rainfall. No significant reservoirs have been built in the country for more than forty years, during which its population has swelled by some 90 million people. 

There are growing imbalances between supply and demand elsewhere, especially in fast-growing mega-cities like São Paolo, Lagos, New Delhi and Beijing. This disproportionately affects the poorest and most vulnerable people, but there are also mounting problems in wealthy countries.

Earlier this year, California was forced to mandate a 25 percent reduction in urban water consumption for the first time. Again, this was not only due to drought. Extraction from private groundwater wells is in some parts depleting reserves faster than the replacement rate. Other intensively farmed areas, such as the Indus Valley and the North China Plain, face similar difficulties.

Sustainable Development Goal number 6 aims to bring together public, voluntary and private sector expertise and capital around the world to address these challenges. The aim is simple and ambitious: to secure universal access to water and sanitation in the next 15 years, and to manage these sustainably.

Having its own specific goal reflects increased status for water since Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general, launched the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), in 2000. Today improvements in water are seen to deliver numerous other social and economic benefits.

The SDG’s underlying targets 6.1 and 6.2, for example, aim to secure access for all to clean water and sanitation. This can improve health outcomes by reducing diarrhoea and stunting in children, which in turn increases workforce capacity and economic productivity.

Such integrated thinking is the hallmark of the SDGs. In the opposite direction: efforts to reduce inequality among women and children can improve access, since it is often they who ensure water provision in poorer households. 

Ethiopia illustrates how effective investment in water can be. Earlier this year, the country met a key MDG water target following $2bn of coordinated investment. The UN approach galvanized action across different organizations that rarely operate in concert.

Today 48 million Ethiopians source water from a tap or hand pump, rather than from an open stream, compared with 7 million in 1990, helping to reduce child mortality by two thirds. The SDGs can be even more successful, particularly with the expected increase in participation of businesses, civil society and philanthropy.

The SDG water goal is founded on an important premise – that expanding access to quality water depends on improved management of the world’s rivers, lakes and groundwater aquifers. Water targets 6.3, 6.4 and 6.5 call for the systematic reduction of pollution from business and industry, and greater efforts to balance water use with the development of new infrastructure.

The target date for delivery of these is 2030, whereas Target 6.6 invites the world to protect and restore the mountains, forests and wetlands where most water originates in no fewer than five years.

Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary-general, in his closing statement at the Addis Ababa meeting last week called for “smart investments in people and the planet”. Target 6.6 underlines how quick and relatively low-cost investments in ecosystems – “natural infrastructure” – can support, augment or replace the function of traditional “grey infrastructure” (constructions such as dams and levees).

For example, restoring forests or vegetation around riverbanks can lower silt and nutrient runoff in rivers, reducing the need for expensive additional treatment in downstream urban areas. New York City has shown the way by investing in conservation of the Catskills watershed, as have dozens of cities in the Americas.

The same approach can deliver rapid returns in a quarter of cities worldwide, safeguarding water quality for tens of millions of people, and protecting nature that future generations will depend on.

The SDGs and their new, more diverse financing mechanism describe a comprehensive and sustainable approach to securing precious clean water for all. Their real power lies in the myriad metrics and models that are emerging to support delivery. Over the next 15 years, the availability of real-time data on the state of resources, and the effectiveness of solutions, will make contemporary decision-makers the best-informed in history.

Governments, businesses and NGOs should therefore be emboldened by the prospect that we can, for the first time, overcome challenges that are holding back social and economic progress in so many countries. In the case of water, they are no doubt already aware that time is not on their side.

Giulio Boccaletti is the global managing director for Water at The Nature Conservancy. This article was originally published in Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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