The Issue Is Water
Ian Johnson is the World Bank's vice president for
Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development.
is literally a matter of life and death. Some 12 million people die each
year from a lack of water, including 3 million children who die tragically
from waterborne diseases. Today, some 1.1 billion people in the world
lack access to clean water, while 2.4 billion people live without decent
sanitation and 4 billion without sound wastewater disposal.
Access to clean water can be the key to climbing out of grinding poverty.
Go into the favelas of Brazil, the slums of India or the barrios populares
of Mozambique -everywhere you see the same thing. It is the poor who do
not have access to water. It is the poor who are at the end of every empty
pipe. It is the poor who must buy water from vendors at many times the
price paid by better-off people who have service.
Demand for water in our growing world is rising rapidly. While world population
tripled in the last century, the use of water grew sixfold. The increased
use has come at a high cost. Some rivers no longer reach the sea. Half
of the world's wetlands disappeared in the last century, and 20 percent
of freshwater fih are now endangered or extinct.
Improving the way we manage water used in agriculture is especially key
because more than 70 percent of the water used in the world today goes
to irrigating crops and other agro-industrial uses. Better management
of that water would free up the flows to be used for other purposes, such
as drinking water.
Thankfully, there are signs of hope. In India, an innovative project that
channels water to poor areas has improved agricultural output by giving
seasonal workers the opportunity to work in off-peak seasons. The progress
is astonishing. In the newly irrigated areas, some 26 percent of the population
now rank as poor, compared to 69 percent in areas that did not receive
new water flows.
In Central America, a hand-washing initiative overcame the region's lack
of clean water by aggressively promoting effective hand-washing with cheap
soap. The partnership among four soap companies, NGOs (non-governmental
organizations), development agencies and the ministries of health of several
Central American countries dramatically reduced diarrheal disease among
children under 5, which had been a leading cause of death for the age
Lastly, if conflict over water is possible, water can also be the focus
for cooperation and peace. In Africa, the 10 countries that line the Nile
river have risen above their national differences and improved the security
of the region by mobilizing behind the Nile Basin Initiative. Launched
in 1999, the initiative aims to improve the management of the Nile's waters
for the benefit of the people living along the river basin, whose number
is expected to double from 300 million today to 600 million in 30 years.
We know then that action on water at the international and local levels
can help in the fight against global poverty. But success does not come
free. It will require fundamental changes in water sector policies and
institutions in many countries along with big increases in investment.
The World Bank estimates that $380 billion will be needed in water investment
during the next 13 years in order to meet the 2015 Millennium Development
Goals of halving the number who now don't have access to clean water.
That would mean a 70 percent increase over recent spending on water supply
Meeting the world's water needs by 2015 will require us all to improve
our management of water resources and services. Governments must give
the different user groups in society incentives to use water more wisely,
to avoid waste and pollution. They also need to work for development and
sharing of water resources in such a way that they will be available for
productive uses in all segments of society. They must ensure that the
poor have access to safe, affordable water supply and sanitation services
by reducing costs and allowing alternative service providers to compete.
In urban areas, subsidies should be targeted to the poorest, and contracts
should be written so that poor communities are better served. In small
towns and rural areas, this means empowering communities by giving them
the ownership rights and authority they need to choose service providers.
The rise in worldwide demand for water is not leveling off. During the
next 30 years, water use will grow by 50 percent, putting half of the
world's population in countries where water is scarce, especially Africa,
the Middle East and South Asia. And you can be sure that it will not be
the well-to-do that will be short on water. Without action now, it will
surely be the poorest countries and poorest people who will continue to
back to index