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Safe drinking water - an unfinished agenda

Safe drinking water - an unfinished agenda

by Dr. Noeleen Heyzer
May 21, 2013

Without water there is no life. Clean drinking water and sanitation are basic human rights – essential to life and to all other rights. Lack of access to clean water and sanitation is a silent crisis that destroys livelihoods and claims more lives through illness than any war claims through guns.

The good news is that our combined efforts have made a difference. Between 1990 and 2010, more than 2 billion people around the world gained access to safe drinking water, which meant that we achieved that Millennium Development Goal (MDG) five years ahead of schedule.

But we have an unfinished agenda. By 2015, more than 600 million people will still lack safe drinking water, with people in disadvantaged communities three to four times less likely to have access. More than 1.7 billion people in Asia and the Pacific are also without modern sanitation, which means we are totally off track on the MDG target of halving the proportion of people living in these conditions. One hundred million people in South East Asia alone continue to practice open defecation.

Behind these numbers are human lives denied the opportunity to realize their potential and their human dignity. It is time to provide access to safe water and sanitation in all homes, all schools, all healthcare centers and in our public spaces.

Water security, better water management and sound water governance is needed to ensure there will be enough supply to meet the competing demands of industry, energy, agriculture and households. We must ensure the quality of drinking water, and reduce the time it takes for families, especially women, to collect the water needed for daily life.

Water security is about ensuring that every person has reliable access to enough safe water, at an affordable price, to lead a healthy, dignified and productive life.

Water security is also about sustaining, intergenerationally, the ecological systems that provide water, and protecting people against water-related disasters, especially in the context of climate change.

This is magnified by the fact that more than 90 per cent of the impacts of climate change are water-related, and that more than 50 per cent of our regional urban populations live in vulnerable coastal zones and flood plains.

The ESCAP study, “Building Resilience to Natural Disasters and Major Economic Crises”, called for better governance, combined with more sustainable solutions, which are better integrated with wider development strategies.

The outcome document of the Rio+20 summit recognized the importance of integrating water into all three pillars of sustainable development – economic, social, and environmental.

Sustainable solutions for water security must therefore address several issues simultaneously. I would like to briefly highlight five:

First, persistent inequalities and growing competition for water resources must be addressed through better public policies, greater investment in critical water infrastructure, and active participation by all stakeholders, especially women and youth, in water planning and decision-making. We cannot have high income households receiving hundreds of litres of water per day at low prices, when poor families in the same country have less access to water than is needed for even the most basic human needs.

Second, we must distinguish between green, blue & grey water resources, and do more to manage the wastewater of increasingly urban populations. Grey water reuse, along with simple water conservation technologies, and river rehabilitation makes water efficient practices affordable, and contributes towards a more sustainable economy.

Third, polluters must pay. Our public and private sectors must commit to treating municipal and industrial wastewater prior to discharge, and we must raise the cost to offenders of polluting rivers and water sources. Lack of regulation and poor enforcement has for too long allowed irresponsible companies to shift pollution from the developed to the developing world.

Fourth, governments at different levels have important roles to play in the formulation of integrated river basin management plans; to identify solutions in strengthening the management of transboundary water resources, and cross-border river basin ecosystems.

Fifth, we must recognize the important positive role that can be played by the private sector, which is responsible for up to 85% of global investment in new buildings, industry and critical infrastructure.

A few weeks ago, at the 69th Session of ESCAP Commission, the Royal Government of Thailand sponsored two water-related resolutions which were unanimously adopted by all member States.

These resolutions focused on enhancing knowledge-sharing and regional cooperation in integrated water resources management, emphasizing the vital role of water in sustainable development. They also addressed the challenges of building resilience to water-related disasters through regional cooperation.

ESCAP has therefore been mandated to coordinate with the other United Nations agencies to ensure effective use of technology and innovation in water management; to facilitate the sharing of regional and subregional best practices; to promote the wider integration of water management into the regional sustainable development agenda; and to provide and support a capacity development programme to build resilience in Asia and the Pacific to water-related risks and disasters.

Moving forward, safe and affordable water and sanitation must be at the heart of our regional, sub-regional and national efforts if we are to build a more inclusive, sustainable and resilient future for our people and our planet.


Dr. Noeleen Heyzer is Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).

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