Often when we think about a lack of access to water, we get mental images of women and children spending half their day walking for miles through rural countryside to some distant water source. And that certainly is the case for many people throughout the world.
But with half of the world’s population living in rapidly expanding urban areas, the world’s cities are facing their own water crisis. The two main water concerns for urban areas are a lack of access to clean water and sanitation and increasing water disasters.
Access to Water
Even though great strides have been made in access to water, population growth and urbanization is outpacing efforts to bring clean water to everyone. Inadequate infrastructure and increased pollution (from both industrial and human waste) are just two factors that make urban areas vulnerable to water problems. With just 5 years to go until the MDG deadline of 2015, 884 million people still do not use an improved source of drinking water, and 2.6 million lack access to basic sanitation!
The recent floods in Pakistan represent another major issue for urban areas. Water related disasters such as floods, tsunamis, droughts, and water born diseases and epidemics have escalated since the turn of the century. In fact, in just 40 years, the economic costs from such disasters has risen ten times!
Unplanned urbanization is outpacing city leaders’ ability to provide the needed infrastructure, and playing catch up is difficult and expensive. Despite water being a “gift of nature,” it takes money (and lots of it) to manage water resources (like watershed and river basin development, storage, risk management, etc), to create and maintain water services and utilities, and to develop, research and administer policies.
Funding for these expenses can come from either taxes, sales, or aid. But most funding only supports the creation of new assets and facilities, and ignores the management and maintenance of existing resources. The estimated yearly investments for water and sanitation are $15 billion – half of what is needed to meet the MDG targets.
To highlight this issue, “Urban Water Management” will be the theme of the next World Water Day, coming up on March 22, 2011. The UN World Water Assessment Program has released a briefing document, Water for Sustainable Human Settlements, which details many of these issues and the impact that urbanization is having on the world’s water.