20 March 2010

More than just one day...

This upcoming Monday, 22 March 2010, is once again World Water Day. The focus this year is on water quality, with the theme ''Clean Water for a Healthy World.'' Numerous sites have grown up across the web to emphasize the need for adequate water quality worldwide and its links to adequate sanitation facilities in developing countries. The official UN Water site for World Water Day (WWD) has tons of information, banners, posters, recent reports by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), and WWD FAQs in several languages. A comprehensive companion site co-sponsored by Water Advocates has emerged as a collaboration of numerous groups working on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) initiatives in low-income countries, where you'll see just how widely this issue is regarded among NGOs in the global community.

Ahead of WWD, the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF cooperate on a Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) that has just released a report titled ''Progress on Sanitation and Drinking-Water: 2010 Update Report.'' The good news is that an estimated 87% of the global population has access to safe drinking-water sources, and that ''the world is on track to meet or even exceed the drinking-water target of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG).'' The bad news is that 39% of the world's population still lives without improved sanitation facilities: ''If the current trend continues unchanged, the international community will miss the 2015 sanitation MDG by almost one billion people.'' That would be Paul Collier's Bottom Billion by that time, consisting almost entirely of African and South Asian populations if we extrapolate from present circumstances.

What else do I see in those statistics? Consider that the availability of improved sanitation in a region is closely linked with the availability of clean water supplies, especially where both depend on surface water resources. Where treatment of wastewater is lacking, treatment of drinking water must take up that slack. If ''improved sanitation'' only means ''take it away'' in one village or city, the next downstream neighbor's drinking-water supply is compromised: a zero-sum solution, unless treatment is introduced. Ad infinitum, if we treat only the drinking-water supply at the point of capture and/or use, the oceans collect all the waste; that's the ''no-action'' (that is, ignorant) alternative. Treatment for potable water and the treatment of wastewater cannot proceed independent of each other and without concomitant development, or the environment suffers as well. Taking responsibility for our ecological footprint, as individuals or corporations or cities or countries, in community with our neighbors, is the SMART alternative. My guess is that the aggregate liability cost of no-action far exceeds that of active improvement in treatment capacity, over both the short and long terms. That's a topic for another post on this WWD, or at least sometime before Earth Day in April.

At the highest levels, on WWD a UN Water event in Nairobi, Kenya, will culminate the gathering together of policy makers, scientists and eminent personalities to discuss how to address the challenges of degrading water quality around the world. The event is hosted jointly by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), UN-Habitat, and the UN Secretary-General's Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation (UNSGAB), on behalf of UN Water and the Government of Kenya. One group, the Pan Africa Chemistry Network, has already released their report titled ''Africa's Water Quality,'' based on the outcomes of an earlier international conference of the same name, at this gathering to stress that ''African governments must act upon their scientists' expert advice,'' according to a weekend press release. It will be interesting to see what other statements and activities of a wider scope than Africa's current issues, including water quantity and quality issues as well as the proliferation of hydropower projects funded by international investment, will appear from that meeting. I would expect activities of significant substance to emerge from coordinated efforts by organizations with strong connections to the grass-roots-level issues. Water quality restoration seems to me, at least in developing countries, to emerge as a bottom-up process rather than by government fiat in a top-down, regulatory manner. In Africa, a focus of many groups' concerns and efforts, the African Development Bank (AfDB) has compiled a list of notable achievements for release in commemoration of WWD and to emphasize "a strategy of significantly increasing its interventions in rural water supply and sanitation while continuing to support urban and peri-urban water supply and sanitation and promoting integrated management of water resources." Different from the developed countries, where agriculture may account for 50-90% of total water use, in Africa only 5% of agriculture is irrigated. In the richest countries, water resources tend toward complete development and over-allocation of available supplies, while only 20% of the irrigation potential and about 6% of the hydropower potential across Africa has been developed. These statistics on African development will also be the subjects of later posts...

While the official UN Water site has numerous events listed from worldwide sources for commemorations of WWD, the WASH companion site has more extensive information on the many activities in the U.S. that are sponsored by the numerous site partners and stretching over more than just Monday. That is just the kind of collaborative, global-scope effort with connections to (and support from) the grass-roots-level that I mean. In fact, some of these organizations are stretching the focus on water quality all the way to Earth Day in April, turning the next several weeks into a continuous observance and celebration of the global population's second-most-fundamental need (just after air) that is still not yet a basic human right. But that's a debate for another time; for now, let's acknowledge that where people are in need of any water at all, it needs to be clean in order to be useful and safe.

In Europe, the Dutch IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre has developed a WWD site that also covers the globe, with a basis in the European Community (EC) and World Health Organization initiatives and continuing efforts throughout the developing world. The International Water Association (IWA) and the Water Environment Federation (WEF), in their coordination of World Water Monitoring Day (WWMD) targeted for celebration annually on 18 September, will honor their WWMD 2009 Water Champions on WWD. In a high-profile and media-friendly stunt, End Water Poverty, the Geneva-based Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), and the UK-based Freshwater Action Network are co-sponsoring the World's Longest Toilet Queue in more than 70 countries around the world. End Water Poverty is an extensive coalition of more local action-oriented groups with activities spread throughout the developing world and totaling more than 1M supporters globally, and the WSSCC lists individual members in academia and as country and regional representatives in the thousands.

If you're a Facebook or Twitter user, Water.org would like to borrow your status stream over the week beginning on WWD for their "One Week for Water" campaign. The charity:water organization will kick off a special campaign on WWD to support long-term recovery solutions for clean water supplies in Haiti. Shortly after WWD commemorations, the Annenberg Foundation (Sesame Street, anyone?) and National Geographic Magazine will open a photography exhibit in California with the overall theme ''WATER: OUR THIRSTY WORLD'' to coincide with the release of National Geographic's April 2010 issue of the same title, definitely some visuals and reading to look forward to!

Four-star global charity Water for People has built a strong network of support over nearly twenty years to aid the development of clean, renewable fresh water resources in eleven developing countries, and their effort continues on a daily basis. ONE focuses on poverty relief, Water Advocates espouses the global WASH effort, and Water.org has adopted those fundamental efforts as well as the emerging microlending movement with the impressively effective WaterCredit organization. All of these great groups recognize that ''Clean Water for a Healthy World'' is not just a slogan, and they celebrate the principles of World Water Day every day.

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