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Sink or Swim: Water and the SDGs

By Alice O’Connor
on October 17, 2017

In Quantum of Solace, Bond thwarts yet another greedy plot to gain over-arching power. But in the new millennium his villain is hungry – thirsty – for water:

“This is the world’s most precious resource and we need to control as much of it as we can.

Dominic Greene (villain).

Water is essential. Currently, 40% of people live in an area of water scarcity. By 2030 close to 4 billion people will live in an area of severe water shortage. We predict water will become the major geopolitical challenge in achieving the 2030 sustainable development goals (SDGs). This is why we need to shift our thinking. We need to consider water as an asset privy to ownership and control. Albeit, ownership that is morally accountable, globally responsible and equitable. Water may be a natural resource but it only becomes accessible to many when infrastructure to supply and maintain it is utilised. The major conflicts over water highlight its geopolitical role especially in the Middle East, the Nile, and the Tibetan Plateau.

Water is a key factor across the majority of the SDGs. It is vital not only to sustainability, climate change and health but to peace, gender equality and economic growth. Previously considered a renewable resource, worldwide water scarcity demands a new outlook. This issue is integral to SDG6 – to ensure global availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation. In a time when water will soon become the new oil, the water rich countries of Brazil, Russia and Canada will have a geopolitical advantage. Sustainable resource management (SDG11) will require a global approach to maximise agricultural output whilst increasing efficient water use. As water scarcity worsens and food security is threatened, this will be integral.

Another key component of SDG6 is provision of ground water – a public good – to every household. Only 10% of urban Nigerian households have piped water; a similar story in many countries. This necessitates the creation of private wells, or buying water from private providers who lack regulations in sanitation and cost. Whilst Tanzania’s water budget has quadrupled over 12 years, those who have access to basic water supply, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) has plateaued at 50%. This illustrates that the issue is not necessarily bad policy, but rather poor implementation. The problem seems to lie with a lack of coordination and allocation of responsibilities in regards to water sanitation and provision.

There is also a need for transparency as to what citizens have as a right to demand in accordance with SDG1 –equal right to economic resources. Last month the World Bank (WB) published a report investigating why 18 countries lacked basic WASH services. It aimed to find solutions to the current disparities existing between areas of high and low income. A lack of adequate WASH services contributes to undernutrition due to pathogens that inhibit nutritional uptake. It found that 40% of children under 5 years in Guatemala, Niger, Mozambique, Yemen and Bangladesh suffered stunting in growth due to chronic undernutrition and diarrhoeal diseases. Long-term this equated to poor cognitive development, missed school days and reduced ability to work – all playing a detrimental role in breaking the cycle of poverty.

A second 2017 report from the WB investigated the relationship between water and gender, and how equitable implementation of WASH services can lead to the success of SDG5. It aspires to give women equal rights to economic resources and end all forms of discrimination. During menstruation a lack of access to clean toilet and hand washing facilities has a profound impact on female empowerment. The study found that one quarter of girls in India did not go to school during menstruation due to a lack of toilet facilities. In addition, females who did not have access to toilets faced an increased risk of harassment during menstruation.

Partnership for the SDGs is in fact the final goal; with water its major challenge. China, whilst a water poor country, will emerge as a key player in the water debate as it controls one of the major geopolitical hotspots – the Tibetan Plateau. Known as the ‘third pole’, the Tibetan Plateau holds the third largest supply of freshwater, which China is currently taking advantage of with its $62billion project to dam and divert water. One example is the rerouting of the Brahmaputra River to join China’s drying Yellow River. Such a project will cause mass disruptions to the water supply to northeastern India and Bangladesh, impacting 200million people’s clean drinking water, agriculture and livelihoods. Partnership on this scale will not work without global governance and a commitment to balance country-specific goals with the achievement of the SDGs.

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