Two billion people still lack access to safe drinking water

Posted on Thursday, 29 August 2013

Nearly 2 billion people still lack access to safe drinking water. Despite the fact that the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) on water was reached in 2010 the scale of the challenge the world faces on this issue is staggering. 

The MDG water target was to halve the amount of people without access to improved water sources but is clear that much remains to be done.

World Water Weeks are organised in different parts of the world at different times during the year. From September 1-6, 2013 World Water Week will be held in Stockholm.  It challenges us to think about the growing challenges faced across the world on this vital resource. 

Growing Demand and Growing Scarcity

While the world population grows at a steady pace, the amount of water in the world remains the same. The world’s population is expected to grow by hundreds of millions in the next few decades. Global water demand is expected to have increased by 55 per cent, due to growing demands from manufacturing, electricity generation and households.

Not only does the amount of water not increase while the demand grows, societies are also facing increased water scarcity in many parts of the world due to drought and degraded quality brought on by floods, pollution and other forms of contamination. To manage this global rise in demand for water and to increase water productivity, incentives for using less water better will be necessary.

Wasting Food is wasting water

At least one third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally, which amounts to about 1.3 billion tonnes per year. In the US, 40 per cent of purchased food is thrown away either in the market of by the consumer. That waste has more than enough calories to meet the needs of all the world’s hungriest.

In the European Union, households, shops, restaurants and other parts of the supply chain waste up to 50 per cent of edible food. The annual food waste translates into 179 kg per person. To curb this development, the European Parliament has called for a goal to halve the EU’s food waste by 2025, and called for 2014 to be declared the “European Year Against Food Waste”.

Embedded in what we eat, and in other consumer goods, is the huge amount of water used for agriculture, production and transport. Agriculture is by far the biggest consumer of water, 70 per cent of worldwide water is used by the agriculture sector.

Depending on the crop, up to a third of food may be lost in the field. Another 10-15 per cent is discarded during processing, transport and storage. In richer countries, production is more efficient so less is lost in the field, but more is discarded into the bin: people throw away good food, squandering the resources used to grow, ship and produce it.

Water Consumption and Water Withdrawals

In The Handbook of Water Use and Conservation, by Amy Vickers, ‘water withdrawal’ is defined as “water diverted or withdrawn from a surface water or groundwater source.” Water consumption, on the other hand, is defined as “water use that permanently withdraws water from its source; water that is no longer available because it has evaporated, been transpired by plants, incorporated into products or crops, consumed by people or livestock, or otherwise removed from the immediate water environment.”

Business and water

The business sector uses around 90 per cent of the world’s water withdrawals (as distinct from consumption), producing essential goods and services for human needs. But businesses, especially those that are big users of water, are becoming acutely aware that water scarcity can present major risks to their operations. Companies in water-intense sectors, such as textile, oil and gas, and food and beverages know that their work with water needs to go far beyond their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) obligations.

The hope is that water, environmental and social issues will work their way more firmly into corporate strategies, and that the private sector will increasingly work together with national and local governments to improve and develop water management. But while some companies have come a long way in their understanding of water risks and how to mitigate them, genuine initiatives in other parts of the private sector are few and far between.

Getting value for water

Industrial water productivity, the value or benefit made from each drop of water used in agriculture or other sectors, varies greatly across countries and is only partially linked to a country’s level of industrialisation. As an example, industrial water productivity is usd138 per cubic metre in Denmark and less than usd10 per cubic metre in the United States. (Source: 3rd UN World Water Development Report, 2009).

Social Justice Ireland’s Policy Briefing ‘Beyond the Millennium Development Goals’ may be accessed here

Beyond the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)

In just two years, the global community faces the deadline for achieving the Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs. While several targets have been met or will be met by 2015, progress in some areas is insufficient. The United Nations is working alongside governments, civil society and other partners to build on the success of the MDGs to create an ambitious Post-2015 development agenda.