As an undisputed global policy leader in water resource management, Korea has always been at the vanguard of innovative thinking affecting our sector. In that context, I am impressed by how Korean policymakers attach importance to water access for all. Timely, then, that the theme of this year’s World Water Day on March 22 is “Leave No One Behind.”
As a ubiquitous and near universal resource, all too often access to water is assumed to be a given. Indeed access to water is deemed a human right by the United Nations. Yet surprisingly, even in the most water-rich environments, the availability of safe drinking water or access to properly managed sanitation is anything but secured.
The provision of water is already highly complex, dependent on a range of factors that include access to sufficient water resources such as aquifers or river basins, investment, infrastructure, good governance, population density and environment. This is layered further by a surprisingly large cohort of people who -- for a range of reasons -- are either overlooked, marginalized or deemed a lesser priority.
Despite the UN’s sustainable development goal No. 6 -- “Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all” -- the current reality of access to water as a human right falls surprisingly short. It is estimated that nearly 700 million people do not have access to safe drinking water, while 2.4 billion people lack access to reliable sanitation. Amid those numbers, there are some notable groups.
Women and children are the most likely to lack safe drinking water and access to sanitation. The impact is profound. Women, for example, provide most of Africa’s labor and some 70 percent of all agriculture labor, which amounts to 30 percent of the continent’s aggregate gross domestic product.
Moreover, women are most often responsible for water-related tasks in the home. Disposal of waste water -- often in precarious circumstances -- is the responsibility of women. Consequently, that exposure and the impact on their children to lack of access to clean water is grave. It is estimated that over 800,000 children under the age of 5 die from diarrhea each year.
Unsafe drinking water and lack of water for hygiene and sanitation contributes to approximately 88 percent of deaths from diarrheal diseases. While the problem is significant in cities, especially in informal settlements, two-thirds of women and children without access to decent sanitation are in rural communities.
Indigenous and marginalized communities are also left wanting in access to water and sanitation.
Groups who are not seen in the mainstream of society tend to be poorly served by adequate provision and sanitation. Indigenous communities who are politically underrepresented, or reside in remote locations, are often those who lack access to water -- even in the most developed countries.
First Nations communities have long lived on the margins of mainstream Canadian society. This includes limited access to clean water, which is curious in such a water-rich nation. A United Nations report described the water situation in First Nations reserves as “troubling,” highlighting that in more than half of all settlements the water systems pose a medium or high health risk to their users. Coupled with poor sanitation, the consequences are profound, affecting housing, health, educational opportunities and economic activity. Water, then, is fundamental to wider challenges about integration of indigenous communities into the fabric of a society and it economy.
Another particular group underserved and overlooked by adequate water provision is the disabled. A recent World Bank report highlighted the scale of the problem. It is estimated that 15 percent of the world’s population is disabled, of which 80 percent live in developing countries. This number will grow as the prevalence of disability is impacted by disease, war and conflict, natural disasters and other factors. In addition, there is a strong correlation between aging and the onset of disability. Persons with disabilities then make up a sizable portion of those who do not have access to safe drinking water, and water for sanitation which compounds their health and ability to function optimally.
Cutting across all these different groups of people is poverty. Slum and informal settlement dwellers frequently lack access to safe drinking water and have to rely on unsewered communal public toilets or use open space.
Access to water, its security and resilience is notoriously challenging. In addressing the sustainable provision of water for all -- one of the most complex issues of our time given climate change and population growth -- three elements are key: knowledge, technology and sound policy. These themes sit at the heart of next year’s World Water Congress, which will be held in Daegu in May 2020.
Korea has a fine tradition of global leadership in water policy. That leadership is needed now more than ever to help deliver the 2030 Sustainable Development Goal of ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.
Callum Clench is the executive director for the International Water Resources Association, based in Paris. -- Ed.