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World Water Day

March 22, 2011

Securing a safe water supply in urban areas is an increasing problem in 2011. The UN recognizes access to clean drinking water as a human right, but it remains out of reach for millions of people around the world.

A girl in the village of Mendefera transports drinking water in a yellow canister
Can city water infrastructure keep up with growing urban populations?Image: picture-alliance/ dpa

Some 400 million people in Africa live in urban areas, according to United Nations statistics - but as of 2008, 55 million of them lacked access to clean drinking water.

A study by two UN agencies, released Monday to coincide with World Water Day on March 22, highlighted a troubling trend: As Africa's cities grow more populous, an increasing number of residents there must do without clean water and sanitation facilities.

All over the globe, more people are moving to urban areas. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, IUCN, says 50 percent of the world's population lives in cities - and that number is estimated to grow over the next 20 years to some 5 billion people.

"The problem is that with everybody moving to these concentrated areas, it puts a big strain on water resources," James Dalton, water management advisor for the IUCN Water Programme told Deutsche Welle.

Rapid urbanization is taking place the world over, as people move to the city and away from rural areas to find work. Often, urban spaces lack adequate water infrastructure to support a growing population, and expanding the grid isn't an easy proposition.

"That's costly to countries that have a number of competing priorities for funding," Dalton said. Recovering those costs often means tariffs for users – many of whom are used to getting water for free.

A boy in a refugee camp in Bunia drinks from a water spout
Providing clean drinking water can help promote healthy populationsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Health hazard

Ensuring that water is safe to drink and that sewage stays out of the water supply may entail extra expenses, but the consequences of consuming untreated water are even more costly.

Pablo Solon, Bolivia's ambassador to the United Nations, said diseases caused by lack of access to drinking water and sanitation "cause more deaths than any war."

"The lack of access to clean water kills more children than does AIDS, malaria and measles combined," he said.

With these issues in mind, the UN's independent expert on the human right to water, Catarina de Albuquerque, started a dialogue with the global body's Human Rights Council to address the fundamental need to ensure clean water to people around the world.

"If you're sick, you can't go to school and you also can't go to work," de Albuquerque told Deutsche Welle.

But clean drinking water isn't the only problem. The UN Environment Programme says some 884 million people have no access to clean drinking water, yet three times that number have no toilets or sanitary facilities of any kind.

"We have to guarantee that people around the world are able to use a toilet – not just at home, but also at work or in school," de Albuquerque said. "In their everyday surroundings, people must have access to water and sanitary provisions."

The UN water expert has made sanitation a priority. Poverty is a significant problem in Bangladesh, but an initiative there resulted in a toilet that costs just $5. De Albuquerque said a third of the population had no access to a toilet just a few years ago, but that number has dropped to just seven percent.

"These are huge strides, because the government made it a priority," she added.

Catarina de Albuquerque, UN independent expert on the human right to water
Catarina de Albuquerque, UN independent expert on the human right to waterImage: Inga Winkler

Getting the government involved

Ensuring that access to clean water and sanitation facilities receives enough political attention is an important step in the right direction. De Albuquerque said even countries largely made up of desert can guarantee local populations the right to water.

In Egypt, de Albuquerque said most available water is used for agriculture, with just 10 percent dedicated to personal use. Yet of this 10 percent, only three percent is necessary to ensure water access for everyone.

"There might not be enough water for a country's population because agriculture consumes a lot of water to produce tomatoes - which are then exported to Europe, or to produce mangos for the US market," she said.

"But there's enough water everywhere to guarantee the right to it."

Those guarantees have become more difficult, as water resources are increasingly controlled by large companies. Some NGOs claim that privatization runs counter to ensuring the right to water - but de Albuquerque disagrees.

"The main thing is that nobody is discriminated against," she told Deutsche Welle. "The main thing is that the water is still good quality; the main thing is that water remains affordable for everyone in the country."

An EU aid project has provided residents of a Bangladeshi village with clean water
De Albuquerque said it is important that clean water remains affordable for everyoneImage: EU pressefoto

Potential for the private sector

Providing infrastructure can be a tall order. James Dalton of IUCN noted that the private sector doesn't always have the "golden solution," and firms have to factor in risks and the costs of investment.

"A lot of it boils down to economics," he said - meaning things don't get built if a company is unable to recover the costs.

But that doesn't mean there isn’t room for government regulation. De Albuquerque was in favor of official efforts to ensure the private sector doesn't raise prices - meaning water remains affordable, even post-privatization.

Meanwhile, she said poorer residents should enjoy the same benefits as those with more purchasing power, and that means companies should fund infrastructure in both wealthy and poor neighborhoods.

In light of a recent UN resolution underscoring the human right to water, governments are showing more political will tackle the problem. Beate Rudolf, director of the German Institute for Human Rights, told Deutsche Welle the issue is a matter of sustainability, and a means to an end:

"In order to support development in these countries, you have to start by achieving these basic rights."

Author: Ulrike Mast-Kirschning, Amanda Price

Editor: Anke Rasper