How to solve the water crisis? The real answer is local

Most funding for water is controlled by governments, banks and large businesses, but it is sustainable, community-owned services that can address the water crisis.

child washes hands with water
The world is facing a water crisis - how can we solve it? Image: Asian Development Bank, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Historically, civilisations have flourished where water sources are available. Similarly, they have collapsed due to scarce water resources. Today, half of the world’s largest cities are experiencing water scarcity.

By 2025, half of the world’s population will live in water-stressed areas. We have made great strides in improving access to water in the past decade, but still 2.1 billion people do not have access to clean water, and the global population is rapidly growing.

Although water seems in abundance on our blue planet, only 0.014 per cent of all water is both fresh and easily accessible. With the present way we use this precious resource, we will not be able to achieve SDG 6—to ensure “availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.” It is essential that the global community comes together to take bold and radical steps to ensure the sustainable use, protection and maintenance of this resource.

Access to clean drinking water is a human right, and governments have the responsibility to provide their citizens with safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water for all. Yet this is far from reality in many nations across the globe.

The theme of this year’s World Water Week in Stockholm is “Water for society—Including all”, aligned with the UN’s focus on “no-one left behind”. Despite the many innovative technical solutions available, it is essential that we dig deeper into understand what we face as a planet: a growing global water crisis.

At the event this week, governments have announced large and new investments in essential services including WASH, menstrual hygiene management and access to clean water, marking an important recognition of the crisis and efforts to address it.

However, the majority of these funds will be funnelled through development finance instruments, which will be managed by governments, banks and large business. While these investments have an important role to play in industry development, there has been a notable absence of the recognition and the role of civil society in creating sustainable demand, supporting hard-to-reach groups, and service provision.

Up to 70 per cent of hand pumps installed in Sub-Saharan Africa are no longer working. In rural and remote areas, where excluded groups have almost no voice, DFIs and blended finance alone will not bring about the paradigm shift necessary to change this reality.

The way we use and interact with water is intimately linked to our cultural beliefs and worldview. During our time this week sharing our experiences on community-led approaches to WASH and water management, one of the main questions people have asked has been how to encourage ownership and make sure people use products and services in the long term. The answer lies with local CSOs and indigenous actors who know their own needs and are able to formulate their own solutions.

In rural and remote areas, where excluded groups have almost no voice, DFIs and blended finance alone will not bring about the paradigm shift necessary to change this reality.

National charity, Development Aid People to People (DAPP) Zimbabwe, implemented a two-year community-led Water supply, Sanitation and Hygiene programme (C-WASH) across 4 districts in Zimbabwe. The aim was to improve sanitation practices, increase capacity and mobilise support to construct new infrastructure.

 C-WASH is based on the principle that infrastructure alone is insufficient to improve health and hygiene. Gender, culture and social relations are all issues that must be addressed to achieve behaviour change and long-term success.

The initiative also engaged community members in health clubs, encouraging collective change, innovative and local solutions, thus leading to greater long-term sustainability. The C-WASH programme reached more than from 8,000 households and 20 schools, impacting more than 53,000 people in total, including 23,000 children.

Creating sustainable, community-owned water-related services can have a vastly positive impact on living conditions for vulnerable groups. We believe that it is essential to mobilise and build the capacity of these groups to ensure that they take ownership of their solutions from the outset.

To achieve “Water for society—Including all” requires global cooperation involving all stakeholders: private businesses, corporations, governments, international and regional agencies, philanthropists, NGOs, scientists.

But most importantly, it requires the inclusive involvement of local civil society organisations and communities, in order for their voices, unique perspectives and problems to be heard and acted on. Frank discussion and bold, radical action will be required to address the water security crisis.

David Kerkhofs is programme coordinator for Climate Change Adaptation at Humana People to People. This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit

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