Water and the development challenge

The year 2015 is the target year for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). This article will, however, focus on the third goal of MDG 7, which is to reduce by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.

As at the end of the year 2014, over 2.3 billion more people globally, have gained access to an improved source of drinking water since 1990, but 748 million people still draw their water from unimproved source. Although, between 1990 and 2012, almost two billion people worldwide, obtained access to improved sanitation, yet one billion people still resort to open defecation.

The challenge for the world community, led by the United Nations, is to come up with a new set of goals, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to address the shortfalls in the MDGs, as well as rope in those areas that were overlooked under the MDGs.

Water is central to this challenge because human lives, livelihoods and that of all other creatures depend on water, without which basic necessities and commodities such as productive economies, healthy lives, food and energy production can be sustained. This is what informed the theme “Water and Sustainable Development” for the celebration of this year’s World Water Day.

Irrespective of how water is captured in the SDGs, without improved development and management of this finite and vulnerable resource, humans cannot achieve better livelihoods for all, and particularly for the poor and vulnerable. Moreover, in debating the water dimension of the SDGs, a dedicated water goal has been advocated.

This is a broad approach that takes cognizance of such key aspects as drinking water, sanitation and hygiene, water resources, improved resilience, healthy ecosystems, mitigating water-related disasters, managing waste water, water productivity, water governance, water quality, and reducing pollution.

Not only that, the role of water in other SDGs, particularly those pertaining to food, energy, and health with specific targets has also been highlighted. These and other post 2015 development agenda on the SDGs will be finalized at the August World Water Week in Stockholm, with the way forward on how the water-related goals and targets can be most effectively implemented, measured and monitored.

This development agenda will invariably be informed by key drivers like continuous population growth, increased urbanisation, increased income levels in many countries, growth in emerging economies with fast growing middle class, conflict and post-conflict challenges, rapid move from agriculture-based economies to industrial and service-based economies, as well as accelerating impacts of climate change.

Consequently, these drivers will pose serious threats to water availability and its quality, food and energy security. In addition, it will also pose a challenge to building resilience to climate change and its related water-related disasters such as severe floods or droughts. Though these issues are universal, yet they manifest differently in different countries.

This growing disparity in access to water, food and energy and an increasing demand from a rapidly growing middle class calls for innovative ways to manage water and improve service delivery. This can be fuelled by intensified awareness about losses and waste in the value chain, as well as recognition of the value of, and the energy consumed by humans, which need to translate into behavioural change and lifestyles.

Meanwhile, the allocation of land and water resources, and its attendant social distribution and services produced from water, needs more attention. More focus is also required of riparian water equity in the access to the resource, whether among people in the local setting or between countries and regions.

Furthermore, any discussions aimed at the role of ‘Water for Development’ will need to focus on going beyond global goals and targets to addressing actual implementation of the new development agenda in the local context. This way, those goals will be better delivered adopting than the “business-as-usual” approach which did not fully deliver on the MDGs.

Various communities will also need to form new alliances, explore innovative public-private partnerships and social entrepreneurship for effective and socially acceptable development agenda. This involves building bridges between public sectors in water, food, energy, health and environment and traditional communities, as well as across private and civil society stakeholder groups.

The sustainable development agenda is, thus, one that adopts a holistic perspective of relating human development to the ecosystem and planetary boundaries. Decisions on development must also reflect accurately on the full value of ecosystems services to enhance livelihoods, reduce poverty and maintain critical resource stocks and flows ( from land and fish to water and climate regulation and biodiversity conservation.

The environmental dimension of the water, energy and food nexus need to be explicit, in a changing and uncertain world, humans need to learn to build resilience by living with nature, and make optimum use of natural storage and infrastructural development.

There is therefore the need for a paradigm shift from ‘business-as-usual’ to a much more ecosystem conscious development path that recognizes the building of public awareness and the canvassing of the requisite political will.

By Adwoa Van-Ess

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