As the global population increases, ensuring a supply of water and sanitation for all becomes ever-more important

Can access to water and sanitation be secured now for future generations? We don’t have a choice; sustainability must be at the heart of all efforts to deliver these services.

This was the central message of a panel discussion hosted by the Guardian at the annual World Water Week conference in Stockholm, Sweden. The panel was organised in association with the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) and supported by Fundación Femsa, which works to create programmes around conservation and the sustainable use of water.

The sustainable development goals (SDGs) – an ambitious agenda for social, environmental and economic change – were adopted by world leaders at the United Nations general assembly in September 2015. The agenda sets a target of “ensuring the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all” by 2030.

Around the world, 650 million people lack access to safe water and 2.3 billion people live without adequate sanitation. Without action, these numbers will grow as the global population increases. Another 1.5 billion people will live on this planet by 2030, according to the UN.

Better and faster

The question, therefore, of providing water and sanitation services sustainably is non-negotiable. The real challenge, the panel agreed, is how to deliver them more efficiently.

“We have to do things better and faster,” said Alejandro Jiménez, water, sanitation and hygiene (Wash) specialist at SIWI. “Faster, because we will not achieve access for all at this rate of implementation. And better, because at present we cannot keep services functional once they are constructed.”

Sergio Campos, chief of the water and sanitation division at the Inter-American Development Bank, agreed. In Latin America and the Caribbean, he said, the challenge is not reaching the 30 million people who lack access to safe water and the 100 million people who don’t have adequate sanitation, but ensuring a sustainable and continuous service.

“Around 90% of people in our region live in urban areas and we haven’t been able to cope with population growth and rapid urbanisation,” he said. “Maintenance of the existing infrastructure has been systematically deferred and 35 to 60% of potable water is lost through leakages.”

Investing in the social, as well as the physical, infrastructure is one way of securing water and sanitation over the long term, said Mariano Montero, director of Fundación Femsa. “By social infrastructure we mean empowering people to own the project,” he explained. “We can’t just give a community a solution that we think is best. They have to participate and invest in that solution. Even if they don’t have money, they can invest by putting labour into the process.”

New ways of thinking

Innovation will be key to the sustainable development of water and sanitation access, said Jayanthi Iyengar, senior vice-president and chief innovation and technology officer at Xylem, an American water technology provider. “I don’t think we need to invent new technologies … but we do need innovation around how to accelerate their deployment.” Iyengar added that technology would be particularly useful in detecting water losses and recycling water, but that consumers needed to be educated in innovative ways.

“One of our surveys in California shows that where people understand what’s involved in water recycling, they are much more willing to accept it. We went from a 42% to 89% acceptance rate, as soon as people had information on the treatment processes,” said Iyengar. The same survey also found that more people are supportive of the term “purified water” than “recycled” or “reclaimed water”.

But any programme of change needs funding. The millennium development goal (MDG) on water sought to halve the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation between 2000 and 2015. Annual expenditure to meet this goal was $35bn (£26.5bn). By contrast, $115bn (£87bn) will be needed per year to meet the SDG – sustainable and equitable access for all.

Where will this money come from? “The starting point is a complete change in mindset,” said Bill Kingdom, global lead for water supply and sanitation at the World Bank’s Water Global Practice. “Many of our clients are dependent on money coming from above. They spend it and then they stop [programmes] because there’s no more money.”

Instead, said Kingdom, budget holders must find ways to allocate money more efficiently.

Making water affordable

Both Montero and Kingdom agreed that financial sustainability is critical for water and sanitation access to be secured indefinitely. “I feel that we’re not doing our jobs unless clients can move to self-financing over the long-term,” said Kingdom. In the US, for example, the water service is publicly managed and provided but 100% privately financed. “It is decades down the road, but that’s where I feel we should be moving.”

Tariffs are one way a water utility could become self-financing and afford service improvements, but many people don’t pay water bills because their service is bad. In this instance, said Kingdom, utilities have to invest in delivering a better service before they enforce tariffs. “In Karnataka [India], we converted a highly intermittent supply – there was water for just a couple of hours every few days – into a continuous supply. Now everyone pays their water bill,” he said.

But wherever the money comes from, it must be found quickly. “We’re already one year into the SDGs. If we carry on with business as usual for the next year, that’s two years gone and the $115bn needed a year becomes $127bn [£96bn] for the remaining 13 years – so our problem just gets bigger and bigger,” said Kingdom.

The panel agreed that strong governance is critical for countries to ensure sustainable access to water and sanitation for all. The success of countries like Singapore, South Korea and Malaysia in achieving the MDGs on water and sanitation has been attributed to the fact that their heads of state were fully supportive of the notion of universal access. Effective leadership can also attract the investment needed to provide sustainable access. “In terms of a financial borrowing entity, water companies look pretty impressive,” said Kingdom. “They have a natural monopoly on a product that is essential for life. That’s a pretty good business case for lending money, as long as the governance is improved.”

But ensuring access to water and sanitation does not need to be done in traditional ways. In cities around the world, millions of people rely on an intermittent piped supply or are not connected to a water or sewerage network at all. Instead, they will often buy water from informal vendors and pay to have their sewerage removed from pit latrines.

“How can the water sector integrate these informal vendors into the formal system, to make sure that the service provided is up to the standard people deserve?” asked one audience member.

“It’s important to understand what all parts of the sector are doing and map out who is doing what,” said Jiménez. “We don’t need to provide a whole sewerage network for the city, for example, when 10% of it is covered by informal providers … We should see what existing providers can do and try to make a mix of services that can be progressively improved and help deliver solutions to all,” he said.

Hardest to reach

The panel also addressed the different levels of water and sanitation coverage between urban and rural areas. Data published by the WHO/Unicef joint monitoring programme at the end of the MDG period revealed that eight out of 10 people without access to an improved drinking water source live in rural areas, and only 51% of the global rural population have access to an improved sanitation facility (one that hygienically separates human waste from human contact), compared to 82% of the world’s city-dwellers.

“When you look at rural areas of Latin America, people have the same level of coverage today that urban areas had 25 years ago,” said Campos.

“Investment in basic infrastructure has been concentrated in major capitals. Now we need to invest in small towns and medium-to-large cities so that people there have access.”

The panel also agreed that the hardest to reach – including people living in rural areas, the poorest and most vulnerable, ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples – should be prioritised in this new era of ensuring sustainable access to water and sanitation.

“There is a huge problem with discrimination and cultural understanding of different values,” said Jiménez. Providing water and sanitation access to these people is more than just having a few more people to serve, it’s part of a mind-shift to accommodate services to the aspirations of the people.”

This article first appeared on the Guardian on 14 September 2016.

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