A recent discussion in the third week of March this year within the United Nations framework exchanged views at length about the factors related to water governance, the role that available data play in this regard and also about how the lack of safe drinking water - for tens of millions all over the world -- has further complicated the coronavirus pandemic paradigm. This was undertaken within the framework of why water and sanitation systems are vital within the matrix of socio-economic development.
In this context there was emphasis on the fact that delivering on Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG6) and guaranteeing water and sanitation for all would be a win across the board. Water, we need to remember, is both an economic good and an SDG accelerator, facilitating progress on each of the other SDGs.
From this perspective attention was also drawn to some critical statistical data associated with water being integral to sustainable development. The current estimates suggest that nearly 2.2 billion people, almost a third of the global population, continue to lack access to safely managed drinking water; that about 4.2 billion people, more than half of the planet's population live without safely managed sanitation; that approximately 2 billion people do not have a decent toilet of their own; and that at least 3 billion of the world's population lack basic hand washing facilities even in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic. These statistics have also been acknowledged by Netherland's Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
He also noted that the global acceleration framework on the Sustainable Development Goals 6 -- Water and Sanitation -- would be an important step in the right direction because "we need to develop and strengthen capacity. We need to optimise and scale our finances, to improve mainstream data and to foster and replicate innovation."
Several hydrologists also participated in the meetings convened in this regard. They quite correctly focused on different dimensions.
Dr. David Kramer, a Professor of Hydrology in the Department of Geoscience at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas detailed the various negative effects of lack of data investments in the studying of ground water. He underlined that "groundwater, a hidden vulnerable resource and not physically visible, can make it difficult for the general population and decision makers to connect up with this challenging resource." He also reiterated the need for acknowledging "sustainable groundwater as a key element - in global resilience to climate change and also as a shield against ecosystem loss and a defence against human deprivation and poverty."
He and other geologists also did not hesitate to remind the international institutions and representatives of the civil society that nearly 2.5 billion people around the world depend solely on ground water for their basic water needs. The connotation of such a comment was that lack of systemic communication on data information on groundwater can become one of the significant impediments to its sound management and governance. This equation has gained greater cognizance because 153 countries apparently have transboundary groundwater systems and expected lack of progress related to solution of this important equation might affect support of future international stability.
Professor Kramer also correctly pointed out the many ways how surface water can be affected by changes in the groundwater paradigm. This may be caused in relatively dry lands due to over-pumping or climate change. This situation can then diminish or eradicate springs and wells that have been used by both people and groundwater dependent ecosystems. This lack of knowledge about groundwater, especially of poor quality groundwater, could consequently translate to serious effects on the health of those using it.
At this point we need to remember that in this age of climate variability and the continuing pandemic, water is the basis of all life. Without water we have no health, wealth, equality, or education.
Consequently, in developed as well as in comparatively poorer countries and in developing countries prioritising water governance and ensuring data collection and investment in groundwater use are some of the key issues that need to be addressed with regard to achieving development goals. If this is not done on a non-political basis, it most certainly might affect the "Implementation of the Water-related Goals and Targets of the 2030 Agenda".
Very correctly, Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of the UN International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and Malik of ANEW, an organisation looking after African women and girls have also supported the importance of women and the youth population associated with the monitoring of the management of ground water and also the available use of surface water. This was well received because recent reports have indicated that African women and girls spend 200 million hours or more in collecting water. This takes place because in most of the countries in Africa, as in South Asia, women lack equality in terms of human rights and are locked in a life of ill-health and poverty. There have been continuing reports in the media of girls and women being forced to continue the time-consuming, back-breaking work of fetching water, and also being left exposed to the indignity and dangers of going to the toilet in fields and streets.
We need to understand that access to water and sanitation can free up time that would otherwise be spent in collecting water. UN-Water estimates that improved sanitation gives every household an additional one thousand hours a year to work, study, and care for children, and so on. Women's productivity is particularly affected, as they are the main caretakers and manager and users of water. Both India and Bangladesh are now taking necessary measures in this regard- particularly in the rural areas.
In this regard one should remember that safe water and sanitation services in schools and workplaces will also create the facility that would ensure that girls and women can manage their personal hygiene while not missing out on obtaining an education or earning an income.
After careful analysis, the World Bank has observed that governments in general -- be it in Latin America or Central America or Africa or South Asia -- do not adequately prioritise and invest in clean water. There is absence of commitment.
This year, as we remember the commemoration of the World Water Day by the United Nations on March 22, we also must not forget that the crisis we are facing is a wake-up call. If we do not take necessary measures -- sooner the better -- then, the current global water and sanitation emergency will be a story of colossal, rapidly increasing, unmet demand leading to massive, rapidly increasing costs.
One has to also carefully monitor how achieving the required levels of availability of drinking water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) related targets are being implemented across the world, particularly in poorer and low-income countries. The attention of the finance ministers of these countries should also be drawn to the potential that exists pertaining to economic growth and sustainable development through the expansion of water and sanitation services. Strategic economists have, in this regard, outlined that with the right level of investment, benefits could include an estimated 1.5 per cent growth in gross domestic product and a possible US Dollar 4.30 return for every US Dollar invested. This is likely to take place because of subsequent reduced health care costs and the creation of potential for increased productivity.
One can see how such strategic investment has brought benefits to South Korea. It may be recalled that in 1961, only 1 per cent of South Korea had access to basic drinking water but by 2012, water coverage stood at 98 per cent - a remarkable turnaround. Today, it is almost 100 per cent. This is also true of Japan. Both now belong to the Group of Developed countries.
This is so because affordable, reliable, easily accessible water and sanitation services prevent children from preventable diseases, such as diarrhea and cholera. Healthier children absorb nutrients properly, develop stronger brains and bodies, get better school results, and end up making a fuller contribution to society.
We all have to understand that required investment in such vulnerable areas will reduce disease burden and epidemic risks, and slow down fast-moving killers such as cholera. Improved hygiene - through water and soap - will also play the required critical role in the fight against COVID-19. Necessary investments will also add to the level of workforce productivity as millions of jobs that make up the global workforce are either heavily or moderately dependent on water.
Yes, critics point out that all these suggestions, if they are to be implemented, will require considerable funds. However, one needs to point out that economic growth rests on improving educational achievement and public health - two things that are impossible without access to water. In this context one also needs to understand that this transformative scenario can be achieved through good governance that is accountable and transparent.
If governments fail to help prioritise water and sanitation, the consequences could affect societies for generations. As such, financial decision-makers need to create an enabling environment by investing in institutions and people, and mobilising new sources of finance, such as taxes, tariffs, transfers, or repayable finance. We must all realise that a well-resourced, well-run water system can definitely be a catalyst for progress in every sector from gender, food, and education, to health, industry, and environment.
We have to remember that our struggle for better water governance is about dignity. It is also about the creation of equal opportunity. In addition, it is about our health and our ability to survive. Neglecting the provision of these services, according to Volkan Bozkir, will be a kind of moral failure that will most certainly stunt the growth of our economies, populations, and societies.
Impact of climate variability will also affect not only the creation of job opportunities but also definitely result in internal migration from rural areas to urban areas. This dynamics will in turn have an osmotic effect on the surrounding regions.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.