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“Halfway into the SDG period we are failing the most vulnerable in terms of water security”

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The United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH) recently published the world's first-ever "Global Water Security Assessment", highlighting significant development challenges.

The global water security assessment led by the United Nations found that 78% of the global population lives in water-insecure countries, identifying target areas for policy, funding and action to accelerate progress towards the 2030 agenda. The report considers different dimensions of water security beyond water scarcity to provide a realistic understanding of water security around the world. Dr Charlotte MacAlister, the report's lead author and senior water security researcher at the UNU-INWEH, shares in this interview the findings of the water security assessment and her expectations for the progress that can be achieved from here to 2030.

Published in SWM Bimonthly 18 - June 2023
SWM Bimonthly 18

Can you tell us briefly about your career path and your current research at the UNU Institute for Water, Environment and Health?

My academic training focussed on water from the very beginning, with a BSc in Environmental Studies, an MSc in Irrigation and tropical soils and a PhD in Hydrology and Hydrological Modelling. After graduating from Newcastle University in the UK, I spent almost 15 years in Asia and Africa in the development and water sector, working for and with organizations including the Mekong River Commission, IUCN, UNDP, IWMI, Nile Basin Initiative, national governments, NGOs and local communities. I moved to Canada in 2013 to work for the International Development Research Centre (Government of Canada) and gained experience of the donor side. In 2022 I joined UNU-INWEH to lead the institute’s Water Security research programme.

I’m always looking for new and interesting opportunities to expand my experience and join new projects. I am motivated by a love of learning and building connections with people and communities, based on a common interest to manage our water and land in a more equitable and sustainable manner. Outside of my professional career, I am a mother, a small farmer, and a director of an educational foundation that supports literacy and lifelong learning in rural areas, and I established a climate-smart-communities not-for-profit. I believe that talk is great, but action is better.

  • More people die globally from a lack of safe WASH services than those killed in water-related disasters, and this is not improving

UNU-INWEH published the world's first-ever "Global Water Security Assessment" at the UN-Water Conference. What are the most significant challenges it highlights for the years ahead?

A primary goal of the 2023 Global Water Security Assessment was to compare all countries globally using standardised metrics, clearly highlighting regional inequalities, particularly between the North and the South. This is challenging not least given the wide range of monitoring and reporting capacity globally, clearly linked to the level of socio-economic development. We used nationally reported data, where available, to assess water security by the UN Sustainable Development Goal 6, “Clean Water and Sanitation” targets, halfway into the SDG period (2015-2030). This enabled us to include 186 countries, home to more than 7.8 billion people. This also meant that we utilised targets, metrics and data sets, already agreed upon by all UN member states.

Comprehensive and accurate water quality assessment at the national level remains a challenge despite a dedicated SDG 6 target

The assessment highlighted that while all regions have countries with low levels of water security, Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS), face critical levels of water security due to a range of compounding factors. A total of 23 countries – 16 LDCs and 7 SIDS – are critically water-insecure including the Solomon Islands, Eritrea, Sudan, Ethiopia, Vanuatu, Afghanistan, Djibouti, Haiti, Papua New Guinea, Somalia, Liberia, St Kitts & Nevis, Libya, Madagascar, Pakistan, South Sudan, Micronesia, Niger, Sierra Leone, Yemen, Chad, Comoros and Sri Lanka.

WASH, water quality and governance represent more intractable, long term development challenges, linked to other socio-economic issues

Access to safely managed drinking water and sanitation remains a pipe dream for more than half the global population. More than 70% (close to 5.5 billion) do not have safe water access. Regionally, Africa has the lowest levels of safe WASH services worldwide. Almost 31% (over 411 million) of people in the 54 African countries, including 33 LDCs and 6 SIDS, still do not have access to a basic drinking water service and only 201 million people (15%) do have access to safely managed drinking water. In the case of toilets, 1.1 billion (82%) live without access to a safely managed sanitation service. Consequently, more people die globally from a lack of safe WASH services than those killed in water-related disasters. And, alarmingly, this situation is not improving: 2019 saw increased rates of WASH-attributed mortality in 164 countries compared to previous 2016 World Health Organization estimates.

Comprehensive and accurate water quality assessment at the national level remains a challenge despite a dedicated SDG 6 target. The level of domestic wastewater treatment, assessed by WHO using household sanitation statistics, remains very poor (below 30%) in Africa and large parts of the Asia-Pacific, and poor (below 50%) in most South American countries, though there are exceptions in all regions.

Countries at risk of floods and droughts have compounded challenges that threaten their economic safety. By region, Africa has the highest number of countries at high risk of floods and droughts, while also experiencing accelerated population growth, urbanization and industrialization. Coupled with poor infrastructure and capacity to manage the impact of water-related disasters, this further increases water insecurity.

Why do you think there is more of a focus on water scarcity, and less so on other dimensions of water security, such as sanitation, water quality, or governance?

Water scarcity is easy to see and measure, most obviously taking the form of drought or water shortage. It is also easy to blame “others”, like upstream users, other land users and managers, and developments that can reduce or change downstream flow such as large hydro. As such it is often linked to conflict – either as a cause or effect. More recently the impacts of climate change on water availability are increasingly obvious, in terms of both overall availability and timing. Many of the same drivers also influence management and perception of flooding. Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH), water quality and governance represent more intractable, long-term development challenges, intrinsically linked to other socioeconomic and development issues, typically at a national level. It’s something of a “chicken and egg” situation: strong governance and capacity in the public and private sectors are essential to drive investment and development in public health and WASH services, but without good governance these critical building blocks of development are missing. Moreover, those most impacted by the lack of WASH are typically the poor and most vulnerable, often female-headed households and indigenous or marginalised sections of the population. They don’t have a voice or a seat at the table and are rarely represented in decision-making, even when the decisions are made on their behalf. Likewise poor water quality often results from industrial, agricultural and urban development without adequate planning and policy implementation to deal with the unavoidable outflow from development. Technical and system management solutions exist for these challenges but they require the will and capacity to implement and are rarely the priority in the early stages of economic development. While poor water quality usually impacts downstream users and the environment, they are rarely represented in development planning. So that governance underlies all of these challenges, and when this is lacking water becomes an issue of social and environmental justice.

National water security in 186 countries. Scored 1 to 100, based on 10 components. >=75: secure; 65-74: moderately secure; 41-64: insecure; <=40: critically insecure.

According to the report, more people die from a lack of safe WASH services globally than those killed in water-related disasters. Do you think there’s a need to increase the visibility of WASH-attributed mortality? Is this a problem only in low-income countries?

Deaths due to inadequate WASH provision are entirely preventable and should no longer occur anywhere in the world in the 21st century. Life expectancy in Western Europe, North America, and many other economically developed countries, doubled in the last century largely due to the public health revolution driven by access to safe drinking water, improved sanitation in rural and urban areas, and the introduction of hygienic practices in all sectors – basically a WASH revolution. This is primarily a development issue and rates of access are still lowest in LDCs. Our assessment, based on WHO data, found that 72 countries still have estimated WASH-attributed mortality rates of over 10 people per 100,000 population in one year and 25 countries have rates of over 40 people per 100,000 population in one year. The highest numbers of deaths occur in Africa, followed by South and Southeast Asia and the Pacific, with elevated rates in Latin America, especially in Argentina and Bolivia.

Deaths due to inadequate WASH provision are entirely preventable and should no longer occur anywhere in the world in the 21st century

The visibility of WASH-attributed mortality should increase, but more importantly, investment, governance and long-term support for improved WASH services must be a priority of development funding in Africa, South Asia and SIDS. This is not an impossible situation. The tools, technologies and systems exist to solve this problem, and many have been available for over a century. There are many examples of both government, private sector and community/NGO/civil society-led programmes resulting in significant improvements at different levels. Eighteen African countries did show reduced estimated mortality rates between 2016 and 2019. However, the rate of improvement in access to safe drinking water for example, has actually slowed in 66 countries (representing 44% of the global population), in the first 5 years of the SDG era compared to the last 5 years of the MDG era.

An abundance of freshwater without adequate infrastructure, support services, and strong governance does not translate into water security

Investment in infrastructure and capacity must focus on the poor and vulnerable populations still living without safe WASH and to do this successfully, inclusive and equitable governance structures need to be built so that the owners and users of the services all play a role in maintaining systems long-term for the benefit of all.

The report found abundant natural freshwater availability does not necessarily mean water security; what are the issues at stake in the countries that are experiencing this situation?

In SDG terms, freshwater abundance is assessed as the proportion of water withdrawn by agriculture (irrigation/livestock/aquaculture), services (including municipal & domestic), and industry (mining, manufacturing, energy, and construction), compared to available renewable freshwater, after accounting for environmental flows. Assessing freshwater availability in this way at a national level may obscure differences in local water availability, particularly in large countries, and it does not account for water used in rainfed agriculture. Despite these caveats, the report illustrates that 42 of the 54 African countries, and 29 of 34 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) assessed, score highly (8 out of 10 or higher) for freshwater availability. However, with the exception of some LAC countries, most countries in this group score very low on WASH, health, water treatment and water governance targets. Notably, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Grenada, Guatemala, Paraguay, Peru, and Suriname scored 8 or above for drinking water, Chile scored 10 for water treatment while Brazil scored 7 for Governance. Not surprisingly, an abundance of freshwater without adequate infrastructure, support services, and a foundation of strong water governance does not translate into water security.

Another finding of the assessment is that high water values (water use efficiency) do not always translate into water security. In which world regions does this happen? Does this reflect low levels of equity in terms of access to water?

Many economies dominated by petroleum and mining have a high economic value per unit water, but not necessarily increased water security

The top-20 performing countries for ‘Water Use Efficiency’ (WUE) globally, are dominated by 15 high-scoring European countries with strong service and industrial sectors, plus Israel, Kuwait, Qatar (Asia), Antigua and Barbuda (Caribbean) and Angola. Also in Africa, Gabon, the Republic of Congo, Botswana, and the Democratic Republic of Congo have high WUE values primarily due to income attributed to ‘thirsty’ mining and petroleum industries. On the flip side, those five African countries are in the lowest scoring group for WASH-attributed mortality (more than 30 deaths per 100,000 population annually). Globally many national economies dominated by petroleum and mining activities have a high economic value per unit of water used (100 USD/m3 or higher), but this does not necessarily result in increased water security from investment in critical WASH infrastructure necessary for equitable access, in human safety, or in water governance. There is also no correlation between WUE and freshwater availability, with countries scoring the highest for WUE scoring both minimum and maximum for availability.

National scores for Component 3. WASH-attributed mortality. A high score of 10 represents the lowest mortality rate due to inadequate WASH.

The report calls for more effort to capture the water security needs of vulnerable communities in all countries and truly “leave no one behind”. To what extent do you think the recent UN Water Conference captured this issue?

There was a wide range of communities represented at the meeting in New York in March 2023. That is to say, they were visibly present, including youth and indigenous communities. However, it is not clear if the concerns they raised will be prioritized or even addressed effectively in development spending, whether this is nationally or internationally funded. Many countries and organizations expressed support and announced plans to achieve the SDG water targets at the UN water conference, but as the Global assessment clearly illustrated, the least water-secure countries and their populations remain the poorest and most vulnerable, predominately in the Global South.

The least water secure countries and their populations remain the poorest and most vulnerable, predominately in the Global South

Of 7.78 billion people living in 186 countries, over 0.61 billion people (8%) were assessed as critically water-insecure and 5.52 billion (72%) as water-insecure, including 4.31 billion people in the Asia-Pacific region, 1.34 billion in Africa, 415 million in the Americas, also inducing almost 66 million in Europe. Of the 0.65 billion people (8%) living in moderately water-secure countries and over 1 billion (12%) in water-secure countries, over half live in Europe (0.7 billion) and the remainder in the Americas (0.6 billion). Clearly, when mapped globally, there is a sharp disparity in water security across global regions and sub-regions. The least water-secure regions are Africa, including the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and parts of West Africa, in addition to South Asia, and Small Island Developing States (SIDS) across the world. Europe and the Americas are significantly more water-secure than other global regions. At the sub-region level, Eastern Europe is markedly less secure than Northern Europe, and South and Central America is less secure than North America. The 23 countries assessed as critically insecure includes 16 Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and 23 SIDS.

The rate of increase in access to safe drinking water for example has slowed since the Millenium Development Goal era (2000-2015)

Some progress has been made but the rate of increase in access to safe drinking water for example has actually slowed since the Millennium Development Goal era (MDGs 2000-2015). In some cases, this can be due to the initial success of achieving the “easy wins” but it can also be due to a reduced focus on WASH. In this regard there were some positive outcomes for increased WASH services in Africa including the spotlight shone on the poor progress. This may not seem positive initially, but it is necessary to force progress and investment. And 5 African governments did make commitments in the form of Presidential Compacts during the meeting including:

  • Ethiopia will revise the loan policy and directives to accommodate loan access for water and sanitation for businesses and consumers. It will also strengthen accountability among water and sanitation stakeholders (policymakers, service providers and the community) and development partners by establishing a strong accountability framework which aligns with the ONEWASH National Programme.
  • Ghana will establish a National Sanitation Authority, reduce inequalities in water and sanitation services, particularly in poor and rural communities, and make Ghana’s cities some of the cleanest in Africa.
  • Liberia committed to increasing access to basic sanitation by ending open defecation and will create a unifying monitoring mechanism at all governance levels (national, county, district, and community) to improve institutional coordination.
  • Uganda committed to increasing public financing for water, sanitation and hygiene.
  • Zimbabwe will create a State of Emergency on Water and Sanitation which will trigger budget and coordination prioritization.
  • We need to look at success stories in countries and communities that have achieved water security through a range of strategies
    We need to look at success stories in countries and communities that have achieved water security through a range of strategies

Finally, as the report notes, it is essential to track our progress towards a more water-secure world to better target our efforts. What are your expectations for what can be achieved from here to 2030?

Halfway into the SDG period we are failing the most vulnerable in terms of water security. Radical action is needed to “leave no one behind”. If we only consider the global data sets, it can seem hard to find positive outcomes to build upon so we need to look at success stories in countries and communities that have achieved water security through a range of strategies and approaches, both bottom-up and top-down. Capturing progress more accurately can help to target the action that must be taken by all national governments. International and UN agencies have a duty and responsibility to ensure this occurs, but ultimately countries must live up to the commitments they made to meet the Sustainable Development Goals, including monitoring and reporting progress.

The impacts of climate change are not accounted for in water-related SDGs. However, globally there seems to be the widespread public acceptance that the water insecurity experienced directly in many communities as floods, landslides, water shortages, extreme temperatures and wildfires are the result of our changing climate. This recognition can fuel action to better manage our water resources, forcing more equitable water governance which can only lead to a more water-secure world.