Water security, key to equitable development

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A blog by Antoinette Kome, Global Sector Head of WASH in SNV

Watching the rain, on some days, it is hard to imagine that there’s a finite amount of drinking water on this globe. The same amount of water has been circulating since the beginning of times. We tell our children: ‘The very same water you consume today is the same water that a dinosaur may have been drinking 70 million years ago.’ That’s magical and it is true. What’s also true is that less than 1% of the earth’s water is available freshwater, 97% is saline, and the rest of our freshwater resources is locked up in ice-caps.[1] From that relatively small amount of freshwater, all life on earth exists. How are we valuing water? And what does it mean to value water in practice?

Without freshwater, there is no life. Without reliable, accessible water in good quantities and quality, there is no health nor socio-economic development. Our attention has, too often, been focused on water quantity. Important as quantity may be quality, accessibility, and reliability (QQAR) over time are all pertinent to achieve water security. Water security for all is central to equitable development. That means, addressing all three in an integrated manner:

  • bio-physical water scarcity, or absolute scarcity as a result of over-extraction, degradation of water resources, or changing rainfall patterns,

  • economic water scarcity as a result of the lack of investment (considering all life-cycle costs), and

  • social water scarcity, i.e., social exclusion processes that affect an individual or group’s water security.

The 2021 World Water Day is themed Valuing Water. It promotes the five principles of valuing water of the Bellagio principles. These range from the need to  recognise and embrace the value of water for different uses and groups, to reconcile, protect, educate, invest, and innovate. The principles may be viewed as the next re-incarnation of the 1992 Dublin principles.[2] The fourth Dublin principle states: ‘water has an economic value in all its competing uses and should be recognized as an economic good,’ while the Bellagio principles emphasise that multiple values of water must be considered, and that the valuation of water cannot be captured exclusively in monetary values or figures. The Bellagio principles breathe life into concepts that may inspire and mobilise people to consider the impact of their water use. But they may also convey an overly optimistic belief that awareness is all we need to create change. Though the principles may lead to greater emphasis on evidence-based decision making, and increase visibility of existing inequities around water access and use, societies need to be prepared to act on these.

Strengthen governance at sub-national levels

The biggest bottleneck in the water sector is moving from good intentions to practice, preferably at scale, and achieving results that lead to the water security of the planet’s most vulnerable people. There is a huge gap between national plans, policies, enforcement and accountability measures to realise people’s right to water and sanitation, and a clean living environment. Moreover, many countries are undergoing a process of decentralisation. As newly elected local governments come into the fold, constraints are emerging in limited staffing, resources, and access to information; all of which are crucial to implement policies. We can only overcome this bottleneck by investing in good governance, in particular at sub-national levels.

Water mapping capacity strengthening in Mozambique

Water mapping capacity strengthening in Mozambique (SNV/Pronasar)

Capacity training workshop in Dagana district in Bhutan

Capacity training workshop in Dagana district in Bhutan (SNV/Aidan Dockery)

This is why SNV prioritises local governance and capacity at the sub-national level. We work with local governments to realise rights in their areas, be these in districts or cities, taking an area-wide approach. We work through multi-stakeholder processes, strengthening linkages between and accountability across local governments, communities, private sector, civil society, and rights holder groups. We facilitate evidence-based decision making and joint monitoring of progress, which are essential to build trust and move forward together. In our programme in Ethiopia, we've partnered with the WLRC in the Kunzila Integrated Landscape Management and WASH project, to bring together water resources, WASH and land use at the local level. In Mozambique, we work with staff of the provincial governments (e.g., through the CEDES programme), to co-create policies and procedures, effective methods of citizen engagement, and delineate clear roles for private sector.

Promote local leadership in climate change adaptation related to water

Yet investing in local governance and capacity around water alone is not sufficient. Climate change is a (relatively) new challenge, but it makes the effects of current water use and management practices more visible and severe. Increased evapotranspiration is leading to higher crop water requirements, droughts are pushing water sharing agreements to their limit, severe flooding is becoming an annual recurring event in some areas. This means that already fragile environments and governance arrangements could escalate into conflicts over water because our water use and management practices have been weak to begin with. We need to recognise the importance of having the basics in place.

The specific direction of climate change and its effects in a local area are sometimes difficult to define because data and analyses of climate trends are only available at higher levels of aggregation; not for an individual district. Moreover, investments in climate change adaptation, let alone mitigation, do not always result in immediate local benefits. This is not only a challenge for municipalities in least developed countries. We need to find ways to promote greater local leadership on climate change adaptation related to water. We need to make sure that people have the data, knowledge, and resources to do so.

Water quality and sanitation are part of the challenge

Compared to climate change, the challenges of poor water quality are well known but we still have not managed to address these. Agricultural pollution and untreated wastewater pose two of the biggest threats to environmental water quality according to the SDG 6 progress report.[3] In addition to damaging ecosystem functions, high investments are needed to make water usable for irrigation and drinking.

Pathogens from untreated wastewater end up in open drains, marginal lands, and in water ways, affecting the living environment of everybody – more acutely for people living in poverty. The fourth World Water Development Report stated in 2017 that only 20% of globally produced wastewater receives proper treatment.[4] Not much has changed, it appears. Paraphrasing, the SDG 6 progress report of 2021: there is too little data, too much uncollected wastewater, too much untreated, and huge disparities between countries and within countries. The level of pollution can only be discerned from the estimate that over half of the global population of 4.2 billion people lack access to safely managed sanitation.[5]

For this World Water Day, let’s simply not reiterate our commitment to value water. Realising rights around water security demands a clear vision, capacity, and resources on the ground.

[1] USGS, 'How much of the Earth's water is stored in glaciers?, USGS website (accessed 20 March 2021). 
[2] Global Water Partnership, Dublin-Rio Principles, pdf (accessed 20 March 2021). 
[3] UN-Water, Summary Progress Update 2021: SDG 6 - water and sanitation for all, Geneva, UN-Water, March 2021.
[4] WWAP (United Nations World Water Assessment Programme), The United Nations World Water Development Report 2017. Wastewater: The Untapped Resource, Paris, UNESCO, 2017, (accessed 15 March 2021).
[5] UNICEF, Progress on household drinking water, sanitation and hygiene, 2000-2017, Special focus on inequalities, blog (accessed 20 March 2021).

For more information, contact Antoinette Kome by email.