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Why No One Can Be Left Behind in the Pursuit of Water Stability

Photo: Courtesy of Bennett Tobias

“Leaving no one behind,” the central promise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, gives all of us a crystal clear message: everyone must participate in, and benefit from, the progress of development.

In the realm of water, this means achieving SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation), which aims for universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all by 2030.

“Water for all,” of course, means leaving no one behind. An obvious statement perhaps, but one that needs to be made because, however much progress we have seen in recent decades, roughly 2.1 billion people still don’t have access to safe water.

What’s more, “The Sustainable Development Goal 6 Synthesis Report 2018 on Water and Sanitation” shows we are already off-pace to meet SDG 6. Demand for water is rising, pollution is worsening, funding is lacking, and governance is often too weak to manage this precious resource efficiently and effectively.

Business as usual, then, is not an option. As the 2030 Agenda commits us “to reach the furthest behind first,” we must ask ourselves who, among the 2.1 billion people currently unserved with safe water, are the most marginalized groups and how can we reach them?

Helping those who need it most

This is the focus of World Water Day, March 22, and the UN World Water Development Report, which together shine a light on those who currently do not enjoy the basic human rights to safe water and sanitation.

They are often overlooked in policies and programmes, and many of the barriers they face are rooted in deeply entrenched discrimination and marginalization.

People can be denied their rights on “grounds,” such as gender, ethnicity, religion, disability, age, and economic and social status.

Women and girls, for example, are responsible for domestic water collection in 8 out of 10 households without a water supply on the premises. The time spent walking or queuing, often more than once a day, leaves little or no time for education or income generation.

During pregnancy and childbirth, more than 800 women die each day from complications, many of which are caused by unsanitary conditions because of a lack of safe water supply.

Children are also vulnerable. One in 4 primary schools worldwide have no drinking water service, leaving pupils to use unprotected sources or go thirsty. Tragically, more than 700 children under the age of five die each day from diarrhea linked to unsafe water and poor sanitation.

Other already-marginalized groups are also being profoundly affected. People with disabilities often have difficulty accessing water points not designed for their needs. Indigenous groups consistently lag behind on well-being indicators like access to water supply. The social prejudice experienced by people from the LGBTQI+ community can prevent them from accessing safe water as well.

Water for refugees

For refugees and displaced people, a lack of a safe, reliable water supply can force them from their homes. And then, in transit or in host situations, they may be denied access to water and sanitation services on the basis of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinions. Severe tension can result from refugees and a hosting community having unequal access to water and sanitation.

According to The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Monitoring System, only 35 percent of refugees had access to safely managed drinking water supply located on premise in 2018, compared to an average of 71 percent among the global population. When it comes to sanitation, the situation for refugees is even worse, with only 17 percent having access to a household toilet with safely managed sanitation services, compared to an average of 39 percent among the global population.

Clearly, refugees are being left behind.

A changing planet

Climate change, in combination with political turmoil, is only likely to make this situation worse. It is estimated intense water scarcity could displace 700 million people worldwide by 2030. Failing to ensure such large numbers of people enjoy their human right to water can only make the world more unstable.

Just as the water crisis negatively affects so many aspects of global society, turning the tide will have far reaching benefits. Indeed, SDG 6 is one of the “central” SDGs because of its vital role in ensuring human health, dignity, equality, and productivity, and the survival of the ecosystem.

Furthermore, investing in water supply and sanitation makes good economic sense. The return on investment is high in general, and for the vulnerable and disadvantaged in particular, especially when broader macroeconomic benefits are taken into account. The multiplier for the return on every dollar invested has been globally estimated to 2 for water supply and 5.5 for sanitation.

No one left behind

As the World Water Development Report makes clear, leaving no one behind requires a more holistic, integrated and people-centric approach to managing water resources for the good of people and the planet.

In the World Water Day 2019 campaign, we call on policy makers to focus efforts on people who have been marginalized or ignored. Water services must meet the needs of these groups, and their voices must be heard in decision-making processes.

Regulatory and legal frameworks have to recognize the human rights to water and sanitation for all people, and sufficient funding must be fairly and effectively targeted at those who need it most.

The success we have seen in expanding water services in recent decades shows this is possible. Solutions are being found for the technical challenges we face. What we need is greater political will and resources to make this happen.

No matter who you are or where you are, water is your human right. We urgently need to take action to make universal access to safe water a reality. This is not only the right thing to do, it is essential to achieving the 2030 Agenda. Let us move forward, leaving no one behind.

Murray Burt, Global WASH Manager, UNHCR; Rio Hada, Team Leader, Human Rights and Economic and Social Issues Section, OHCHR; and Stefan Uhlenbrook, Coordinator, UNESCO World Water Assessment Programme, [email protected]

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