Expert urges unity in dialogue over water security
Disconnected approaches to water security are hindering efforts to launch more effective talks on providing universal access to fresh water and sanitation, an expert said at an international conference this week.
The division between discussions on boosting access to water for the poor and those on the challenges of managing water as a resource was plain to see at the water security conference at Oxford University, according to Tom Slaymaker, a senior policy analyst at WaterAid.
“The dominant narrative on water security reflects rich-country concerns and we mustn’t forget that in developing countries huge amounts of people still lack basic facilities,” Slaymaker said.
Unless the two camps link up, solutions to complex challenges across the water sector are unlikely to be found soon, he said.
“On the one hand, we have climate scientists and water-resource modellers debating the risks attached to periodic extreme events such as floods and droughts,” Slaymaker told AlertNet. “On the other, we have development agencies concerned that over 2 million people continue to die every year due to a lack of access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation facilities.”
To bridge the gap, there is a need for more holistic ways of thinking about how to tackle water-related risks, Slaymaker said, citing David Grey, an Oxford University water policy professor.
Poor cooperation is mirrored in global policy debates at the United Nations (U.N.), he added.
For example, in the run-up to the Rio+20 summit in June, discussions on a new set of Sustainable Development Goals are running separately from talks on what will replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), when the deadline for the anti-poverty targets is reached in 2015.
Slaymaker heads up a working group established by the World Health Organisation and the U.N. children’s agency (UNICEF) to help plan new benchmarks for monitoring drinking water access.
The MDG on water – to reduce by half the proportion of people living without safe water – was met earlier this year, although many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, southern Asia and Oceania are lagging behind.
But the MDG sanitation target – to reduce by half the proportion of people living without access to an improved toilet by 2015 – will be missed by a huge margin, WaterAid says.
Within debates about how to provide universal access to water and sanitation, which has been recognised as a human right under international law since 2010, hot topics include the basic minimum everyone should have, and how to keep access once it is gained, according to Slaymaker.
“WaterAid and other NGOs are very concerned to ensure that… we don’t end up with a system that just incentivises making new investments, but rather emphasises ensuring that those investments are targeted where they’re needed most and that there’s provision to make sure that these services continue to deliver benefits into the future,” he said.
Efforts should be made to improve service levels in all countries, Slaymaker said. “Just because countries have high levels of access or even universal access, it doesn’t mean they won’t face very significant challenges in maintaining that in future,” he added.
Picture Credit: A woman carries water with her daughter from a water hole near Jamam refugee camp in South Sudan’s Upper Nile State on March 10, 2012. REUTERS/Hereward Holland