Every 22nd of March, the United Nations celebrates World Water Day, and with them, the rest of the world. After 26 years showcasing the value of water in our lives (it was designated in December 1992 and celebrated for the first time a year later), with themes such as ‘Why waste water?’ or ‘Nature for water’, the time has come to look at the future, leaving no one behind. Because, contrary to what some people may think, water is a finite resource, and the ever more scarce water resources in our planet are getting smaller due to:
- Groundwater overexploitation: by 2025, water withdrawal will have increased by 50%, mainly in low income countries or in countries and regions with absolute water scarcity (Global Water Institute, 2013).
- Population growth: the trends indicate that by 2050 the world population will increase to 10,000,000,000 people (Libro Blanco de la Economía del Agua).
- Climate change: according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), only in 2016, more than 22 million people were forced to leave their homes as a consequence of the natural disasters that took place in 118 countries and territories across the world (iAgua Magazine issue 18).
- Armed and political conflicts: water is a key element in numerous conflicts in different regions of the world, driving us closer to a world war over water.
According to the UN, water use has increased globally by 1% since the 1980s, driven by a combination of population growth, socio-economic development, and changes in consumption patterns.
Knowing the reasons why so many people do not have access to safe water, and raise awareness about them, is this year's priority.
Leaving no one behind
'Leaving no one behind' is the theme chosen this year by the United Nations to recall that water is a human right and that, currently, billions of people still live without access to safe water, that is, without safely managed drinking water services. To do this, it focuses on marginalised groups, such as women, children, refugees or indigenous people, who are usually overlooked and that often face discrimination when trying to access and administer the drinking water they need.
In 2010, the UN recognised 'the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights', and that implies everyone, without discrimination, because both access to drinking water and to sanitation facilities are key drivers of development. In fact, one of the targets of Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG6) is ensuring the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by 2030, and, by definition, that means leaving no one behind.
Images from the promotional materials for the 2019 World Water Day campaign. From left to right: Water for all older people, Water for all refugees, Water for all rural people (Images from UN-Water).
Images from the promotional materials for the 2019 World Water Day campaign. From left to right: Water for all indigenous peoples, Water for all students, Water for all workers (Images from UN-Water).
But there are many people who cannot access safe water and the reasons are many: gender, race, ethnicity, religion, disabilities or socio-economic status are some of the causes that, together with the ones mentioned earlier, affect marginalised groups to a greater extent, through the impacts on water. As a result, close to one third of the world's population does not use safely managed drinking water services, and only two fifths have access to reliable sanitation services. But the figures are even more breath-taking.
- A total of 2.1 billion people do not have drinking water in their homes.
- One out of four primary schools across the world do not have a drinking water supply, and students drink water from unprotected sources or go thirsty.
- More than 700 children under five years old die every day from diarrhoea caused by unhealthy water or faulty sanitation.
- Globally, 80% of the people that have to use unsafe or unprotected water sources live in rural areas.
- Women and girls are responsible for collecting water in eight out of ten households that lack water at home.
- More than 800 women die every day due to complications during pregnancy or childbirth.
- For the 68.5 million people who have been forced to flee their homes, access to drinking water is very problematic.
- Approximately 159 million people collect drinking water from surface water bodies such as ponds and streams.
- About 4 billion people — almost two thirds of the world's population — experience severe water scarcity at least one month every year.
- A total of 700 million people all over the world could be displaced by extreme water hardship from here to 2030.
According to the United Nations World Water Development Report 2019 , better water resource management and access to safe drinking water and sanitation for all are essential for eradicating poverty, building peaceful and prosperous societies, and ensuring that ‘no one is left behind’ on the road towards sustainable development.
The consequences of lacking access to safe water
The relationship between available global water resources and global population density is not evenly distributed across the different regions of the world, becoming a determining factor for the inequality that exists currently.
This inequality leads to about 844 million people still lacking basic drinking water services. Also, the data that relate household wealth with access to water reveal that there are still huge disparities between rich and poor countries when it comes to having easy and effective access to water. This reality is influenced by the fact that, according to the UN, rich countries usually have water, sanitation and hygiene services at a (often very) low cost, whereas poor countries pay a much higher price for the same or lower quality service.
Access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene must be considered an essential element for health, education, nutrition and gender equality. Without them, the consequences can be devastating for those that suffer them.
Why is it important?
The importance of SDG 6, according to UNESCO Director General lies in the fact that 'water and sanitation can significantly contribute to the achievement of the broad set of goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: from food and energy security, to economic development and environmental sustainability'.
Water challenges mean we have to manage and use the resource in a sustainable manner so that future generations do not have to pay for our indolence, not addressing today what is in our hands.
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On March 22nd we have another opportunity to denounce water related problems and take measures to change the situation. Another opportunity to know the reasons why so many people do not have access to safe water and raise awareness about them, this year's priority. And an opportunity to realise that there is no margin for error: we cannot leave anyone behind. Will we learn the lesson?
Sources: UN, UNICEF, WHO, UNISDR, UNESCO.