World Water Day: Big problems but there are solutions

Click to find out more about International year of Water Cooperation
Click to find out more about International year of Water Cooperation

This week, around 30,000 children under the age of five will die from water-related diseases, one every 20 seconds. In fact unsafe water now kills more people than all forms of violence, including war, with diarrheal diseases claiming 1.8 million victims a year and causing more deaths in children under 15 than the combined impact of HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis. Uleftae Mundeo from Manzo in Ethiopia told NGO WaterAid what that means. “Children often die here from the water. Often all of the money we earn from farming is spent on medicine.”

Uleftae uses a local pond, but often collecting water means walking a dozen or more kilometres a day carrying a heavy load, leading to chronic back pain and sometimes spinal deformities. China’s Global Times interviewed 12 year-old Mi Guie who spent her weekends helping her parents fetch water after a drought hit Yunnan Province in 2009-10. They walked for hours getting to and from the nearest river, climbing a 600 metre high cliff on the way there and back, for a few litres of muddy water each time.

In areas where supply is worst, women and girls (always them) get up in the middle of the night and queue for hours for their turn then a couple of hours more as water trickles into buckets. In urban areas, the problems are different but no less serious. Infrastructure hasn’t expanded as much as population, leaving millions of citizens with no access to piped water and modern sanitation, or forced to live near open sewers carrying household and industrial waste. One of these sewers caught fire in a shantytown in Nairobi in September 2011 after petrol spilled into it, burning to death over 100 people.

Fortunately for us, stories like these don’t take place in OECD countries, but the number of water-related disasters has increased worldwide over the last three decades, particularly floods, droughts and storms, with almost 40% in OECD countries, 30% in the BRIICS and 30% elsewhere. Only about 5% of the victims were in OECD countries, although OECD countries suffered almost two-thirds of the economic losses.

Floods accounted for well over 40% of the disasters over 1980-2009, storms nearly 45% and droughts 15%. The number of victims ranges between about 100 million and 200 million per year with peaks of 300 million or more. Almost two-thirds of the victims are due to floods, with droughts and other temperature extremes accounting for 25% and storms the remaining 10%.

Economic losses were $50-100 billion a year between 1980 and 2009, although that jumped to $220 billion following Hurricane Katrina in the US in 2005. Storms account for half of all losses, floods one third and droughts almost 15%.

With so many different factors influencing and being influenced by each other, it’s hard to define an overarching framework to think about water-related issues. Even the basic geographical categories I used above aren’t that useful in many cases. Within a single “OECD country” like France, the main concern can vary from place to place – pesticides and fertilizers polluting rivers, financing the replacement of ageing infrastructure, limiting the impact of drought on economic activity…

However, “water security” provides a useful lens through which to examine the issues, as we celebrate World Water Day, especially as this year, World Water Day is part of the UN’s International Year of Water Cooperation. Water security is emerging as one the major global challenges of the 21st century. World water use is projected to be 55% higher in 2050 than it was in 2000, and the OECD Environmental Outlook says that by mid-century, nearly half the world population will live in river basins under severe water stress. That means an additional 1 billion people compared with today. These figures are only talking about the quantity of water available. Degradation of water quality adds to the uncertainty about future water availability.

In forthcoming work, the OECD will argue that when you talk about security, you’re implicitly or explicitly talking about risk, so a risk approach may be the best way to tackle water security. Water security would be defined as maintaining an acceptable level of risks in terms of water shortage or excess, pollution, and freshwater system resilience for society and the environment, today and in the future. The main thrust of a risk approach to water security would be to secure benefits for society and the environment in a way that maximises expected social welfare.

Issues ranging from infrastructure financing to climate change influence water resources, as well as economic activities have to be considered. Some of these activities are obvious, while others may come as a surprise, energy for example. Thermoelectric power generation accounted for 39% of all freshwater withdrawals in the US in 2000, roughly equivalent to water withdrawals for irrigated agriculture. You may also be surprised to learn how much water goes into making the products you use every day, over 15,000 litres for a kilo of beef for instance, or 1500 litres for a litre of apple juice. (You can calculate your own “water footprint” here)

From a risk perspective, water governance poses three main challenges: know the risk by obtaining the information needed to make effective and informed decisions; cap the risk by setting and enforcing acceptable limits on use and standards for water quality and flood protection; and managing the risk through policies and regulations that allow equitable and efficient allocation of water resources, equitable and efficient land-use planning for flood prevention, and implementing the polluter-pays-principle.

From a water cooperation perspective, that means for example ending the institutional fragmentation and promoting a multi-level approach so that all the different needs, options, and consequences can be looked at as a whole.

The problems are undeniable, but there is room for optimism. Next week sees the first meeting of the OECD Water Governance Initiative that argues that “Managed correctly, there is sufficient water on Earth for the world’s population”.  I’ll drink to that.

Useful links

The Water Challenge: OECD’s Response

Water Chapter of the OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050: The Consequences of Inaction

Water Governance in OECD Countries: A Multi-level Approach

OECD expert meeting on water economics and financing


Patrick Love

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