World Water Day 2023: the change we want to see in the world
In December 1992, the United Nations General Assembly declared that World Water Day should be celebrated every March 22, to raise awareness of the importance of water resources in our lives. Thirty years have passed since then and, although there has been some progress, it is still not enough. It is now time to accelerate change.
In recent years World Water Day has highlighted the global water and sanitation crisis we face. Showing striking facts and figures related to issues such as inadequate wastewater management, the consequences of groundwater overexploitation or the impacts of climate change in previous years, WWD has helped to give visibility to a series of problems that remain unsolved today. On another occasion it also highlighted that, in light of this, no one can be left behind – “Leaving no one behind” is the mainstay of the 2030 Agenda – however, it is sometimes difficult to realise that a problem exists when we do not experience it first-hand.
World Water Day 2023 encourages people to be the change they want to see in the world. It has always been easy to criticise from the sidelines without realising that the current water and sanitation crisis is global in scope with local impacts, but every drop counts.
The global water crisis: facts and figures
Water resources problems are urgent, and will become increasingly so in the coming years if we do not accelerate action to address them. The current water crisis encompasses many aspects such as urbanisation, sanitation, climate change, natural disasters and the environment, which, although they must be addressed one by one, are all interrelated.
We have a very serious problem regarding the state of water resources and a huge challenge in terms of their management
Despite progress, according to the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program for Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene (JMP) - Progress on household drinking water, sanitation and hygiene 2000 - 2020 report, one in four people (2 billion people) worldwide do not have access to safely managed drinking water. This means that in a family of four, which could be yours or mine, someone would be drinking unsafe water, running a serious risk. In addition, almost half of the world's population (3.6 billion people) lack safely managed sanitation – which would be almost half of your family or mine if we continue to use our home example – and 494 million people still practice open defecation.
Both the lack of facilities and knowing how to use them are critical for people's health, as we saw during the COVID-19 health emergency with the main preventive measure: hand washing. 1 in 3 people (2.3 billion) lack a handwashing facility with soap and water at home, including 670 million who have no access to any handwashing facility. If we narrow the focus back to our home environment and the global water crisis were to occur, for example, among the neighbours that live in the same high-rise, at least one person on every floor would not be able to wash their hands. The World Health Organization and UNICEF warn that diseases transmitted by poor or non-existent hand hygiene have a huge impact on health, causing high rates of diarrheal diseases and acute respiratory, skin and eye infections; and if we consider that 1 in 3 healthcare facilities does not have access to hand hygiene at points of care, it is quite likely that the one assigned to your high-rise is one that does not.
Safe access to both safe water and sanitation are recognised as a human right and, as such, in addition to valuing what we have, governments must take an integrated approach based on expanding access to these services, whether in cities or in rural settings. The latest Summary Progress Update on SDG 6: water and sanitation for all from UN Water says that the number of urban dwellers lacking safely managed drinking water has increased by more than 50% since 2000; yet people living in urban areas enjoy better safely managed drinking water and sanitation services than those in rural areas: 86% vs. 60% for the former and 62% vs. 44% for the latter. If you can't imagine what it would be like to live in these conditions, ask your grandparents what it was like not to have drinking water at home; they surely remember.
As populations grow and pressure on water resources increases, ensuring sufficient quantity and quality of water and sanitation services for the entire population is becoming increasingly difficult. Globally, 44% of domestic wastewater is not safely treated and more than 3 billion people are at risk because the health of their freshwater ecosystems is unknown, as water quality data are not routinely collected in most countries, according to the mentioned summary.
Safely managed water and sanitation services, as well as adequate and equitable hygiene will drive progress on the 2030 Agenda, particularly with regard to health, gender equality and livelihoods. However, we must not forget that the global water crisis, water being a natural resource, is also an environmental crisis driven not only by poor water management, but also by climate change. According to UN-Water, one fifth of the world's river basins are experiencing rapid changes in the area covered by surface water, resulting in increased flooding, but also in the drying up of water bodies.
For the United Nations, this day is a unique opportunity for the world to unite for water and accelerate progress together
Climate change is the challenge of our time and we feel its impacts through water: floods, rising sea levels, melting glaciers, droughts or increasingly extreme weather events. The 2021 Atlas of mortality and economic losses from weather, climate and water extremes by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) says that the number of disasters has increased by a factor of five over the last fifty years, claiming, on average, the lives of 115 people and causing $202 million in economic losses every day. More recently, between 2001 and 2018, about 74% of all natural disasters were water-related, with floods and droughts affecting more than 3 billion people in the last twenty years, according to the United Nations World Water Development Report 2020. If we talk about water scarcity, which can be exacerbated by human action, 2.3 billion people live in water-stressed countries, of which 733 million live in countries with high and critical water stress (UN-Water, 2021). Spain, for example, is one of the countries in Europe facing the highest water stress, according to data from the latest study by the World Resources Institute (WRI).
At this point, we cannot deny that we have a very serious problem regarding the state of water resources and a huge challenge in terms of their management. We must change the way we view, manage and use water to preserve it, not for future generations, but for our own. Every March 22, the World Water Day campaign once again reminds us of the importance of addressing this global water crisis and, this year, urges us to accelerate this much-needed change.
Based on an ancient story from the Quechua people of Peru in which a hummingbird carries drops of water to put out a large fire while the rest of the animals flee in terror, the World Water Day 2023 "Be the Change" campaign encourages people to do their bit and take action in their own lives to change the way they use, consume and manage water.
These pledges will contribute to a Water Action Agenda that will also feature the larger-scale commitments of governments, businesses, institutions, etc., in order to accelerate the actions needed to meet goals of the 2030 Agenda.
According to the UN, the latest data shows that governments need to work on average four times faster to meet SDG 6 on time. Water and sanitation are connected to all other aspects that contribute to sustainable development, so SDG 6 is inextricably linked to the other goals of the 2030 Agenda, especially those on hunger, gender equity, health, education, livelihoods, sustainability and ecosystems. In addition to those, there is climate change, for which water is also at the centre of adaptation.
Governments must make firm commitments to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of water governance
Thus, at the nexus between water, energy, food and the environment, the challenges are many and the impacts on one have repercussions on the others: 72% of all water withdrawals are used by agriculture, 16% by municipalities for households and services, and 12% by industry, according to UN-Water. An unpredictable water supply could hinder socio-economic progress in the future, so governments must make firm commitments to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of water governance: safeguarding safe and equitable access to water as a human right; restoring and protecting freshwater ecosystems; and bringing together all stakeholders involved in water management and uses.
This requires increased investment in water planning and sustainable water and sanitation management. However, according to the UN-Water Report, GLAAS 2019: National Systems to support drinking water, sanitation and hygiene - Global status report, less than 15% of countries report having sufficient financial resources to implement national Water, Sanitation and Hygiene plans. Much work remains to be done, and time is of the essence.
A step forward by companies
The industrial sector, made up of both private and state-owned companies, must take a step forward to commit to efficient water resource management. This includes harnessing the value of wastewater through a circular economy approach, incorporating digital solutions in all processes of integrated water management and opening the door to opportunities for the use of renewable energies.
From water withdrawal until it is returned to the environment in optimal conditions or it is reused, the water sector must accelerate the implementation of technology that allows it to provide drinking water and sanitation services in the best possible conditions so that these public services continue to support a prosperous economy.
Faced with current and future challenges, water infrastructure adaptation is vital for the resilience of societies as well as natural environments.
Action by individuals
We often think that a small action in our daily lives means little when it comes to a challenge as big as the one we face, but if everyone did it, we could together make a big change.
Water and sanitation contribute to progress on sustainable development and the other goals of the 2030 Agenda
Taking a shower instead of a bath; turning off taps when not in use; implementing water-saving systems at home; not using the toilet as a rubbish bin; using environmentally friendly appliances; reusing left over water from jugs, showering or washing food; repairing taps as soon as possible in the case of drips or leaks, respecting natural environments... there are many and varied actions that we can carry out almost without realising it. On a day-to-day basis, our lives will not change much, but together we can change our future.
The story of the hummingbird that represents this year's campaign illustrates our way of reacting to a crisis. Ours is the water and sanitation crisis and we must decide whether to be mere spectators of the disaster or take action and contribute our drop of water to accelerate the change that the planet needs.
We must decide whether to be mere spectators of the disaster or take action and contribute our drop of water to accelerate change
UN 2023 Water Conference, the year of commitments
2023 is a very special year, with the United Nations Water Conference taking place. It is the first event of its kind since 1977 and will bring together a wide range of stakeholders to forge new partnerships and take action to accelerate change, through a Water Action Agenda that will drive progress. This is a unique opportunity for the world to unite for water and accelerate change to achieve SDG 6: Water and sanitation for all by 2030.
In addition, on March 22, UN-Water is releasing a new World Water Development Report: Partnerships and Cooperation for Water, which will provide policy recommendations based on best practices and in-depth analysis for the coming years.
The focus is on the goals of the International Decade for Action "Water for Sustainable Development", which ends in just five years, and on the 2030 Agenda, for which there is not much time left. The challenges are many, and our resolve in the face of their urgency should be infinite. As Mahatma Gandhi said: "We must be the change we wish to see in the world”. Let’s do it.