It is a great honour to address you at the opening of this important conference on water. The focus of the conference – technological solutions to the crisis of drinking water around the globe – is indeed timely. In recent years, there has been a lot of discussion on the power of technology to transform societies. This renewed interest has been largely inspired by the great advances in the area of information and communication technology, which have spurred the era of globalization. Be it global warming or the current food and energy crises, the greatest hope for sustainable solutions to these challenges lies in technology. It is only reasonable that we look to technology for answers to one of humanity’s oldest challenges, access to adequate safe drinking water.
Many of us take water for granted. At any moment, we only have to turn the tap and there it is. Just imagine waking up one day and finding all the taps dry. That is the reality of over one billion people around the world who don’t have access to adequate drinking water. Although certain countries, for example the small islands and countries in the arid belts of Africa and Asia, suffer from water shortages more than others, the challenge is a universal one. “Only one percent (1%) of the world’s water mass is both fresh and available”. Current conditions of “water stress” affect farming (70%), industry (22%) and day-to-day living (8%). To illustrate this fact, let me quote today’s Financial Times. The Chief Executive of Sextant Capital Management, Mr. Spork, may have got it right when he said “water is the new oil”. “It is underappreciated, mispriced, and growing scarce”. The main difference between the vulnerable countries and the developed countries is that while, for those in the more developed regions of the world, water shortages may mean suspending the use of the swimming pool and turning off the water sprinklers, in the developing regions, it often means disease and starvation. Lack of safe water and adequate sanitation is the number one cause of illness in the world. In the last 24 hours, 6000 people, mostly children, would have died from lack of safe drinking water and adequate sanitation.
Beyond its toll on the millions of people across the world, lack of safe and adequate water has adverse socio-economic consequences for poor countries. Limited resources are spent treating illnesses that might have been avoided. It deepens gender disparities, as time spent collecting water from distant locations prevents women from engaging in productive work and girls from attending school. On average, a woman walks a distance of six kilometres carrying 20 litres of water each day in these countries. Many countries, especially in central and the horn of Africa, are plagued by conflicts that have been sparked off or exacerbated by water crises. Each year, hundreds of thousands of people are forced to leave their lands in search of water, which often results in social upheavals.
Unfortunately, this tragic situation is only getting worse, compounded by a growing population, high rates of urbanization, pollution and global warming. Freshwater sources are in crisis all over the world, with many rivers and lakes already polluted or severely degraded due to disappearing forests, watersheds and other environmental systems. Some key water sources are fast disappearing and unless urgent action to reverse the trend is taken, the lives of millions of people will be at risk. In the last 40 years for example, Lake Chad, on whose waters and river network some 30 million people depend, has shrunk to less than 10 percent of its former size due to overuse, mismanagement, drought and climate change. Similar, if less dramatic, changes are taking place all over the world. In the next 20 years, more that three billion people could be facing water scarcity. The economic, social and political consequences will be immense.
In the Least Developed Countries, much of sub-Saharan Africa and other poor regions, degradation of water resources is largely the result of poverty, as short-term survival needs outweigh the imperatives of long-term resource protection. Faced with declining yields, a farmer whose entire livelihood depends on agriculture will understandably have no second thoughts about encroaching on a vital wetland. By contrast, the greatest threat to water ecosystems in the developed countries comes from unsustainable patterns of consumption.
Without doubt, we need to change the way we use and manage the world’s water resources. Safe drinking water and adequate sanitation are crucial for poverty reduction, achievement of the Millennium Development Goals and sustainable development. They are crucial for preventing forced migration, conflict, and political instability. Our starting point should be the achievement of the target of the seventh Millennium Development Goal to reduce by half the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water in the world by 2015. While this target may appear to be overly ambitious, experience has shown that a lot can be achieved with few resources and simple technologies. For example, a project by UNDP to supply gravity-flow water to a village of 4000 people in Tanzania, at a cost of just 20,000 US dollars, saw accessibility to a water source decrease from 2 kilometres to 150 metres, reducing the burden on women. The local hospital recorded an 80% decrease in water-borne diseases and as a result of better health and less time spent looking for water, agricultural output increased, resulting in higher incomes.
In some cases, mere civic education can result in improved water resource management. While the situation differs from region to region and from country to country, simple water harvesting and storage technologies can go a long way in addressing the challenge of water scarcity. In some regions, the problem is not the lack of water per se, but the lack of drinkable water. Simple water purification methods can greatly improve the situation.
It must be admitted, however, that solving the water crisis in some regions requires heavy investments in infrastructure and fairly advanced technologies which many countries cannot afford. This is specially the case in the arid areas of Africa and Asia, as well as the Small Island Developing States, where water sources are severely limited. Desalination and large-scale water recycling, storage of glaciers water, for example, are beyond the reach of many countries in these areas. As one study noted, “desalinated water may be a solution for some water-stress regions, but not for places that are poor, deep in the interior of a continent, or at high elevation. Unfortunately, that includes some of the places with biggest water problems.” Such countries therefore need to be assisted, with both money and technology, to solve the drinking water problem. Just like what we are witnessing in the health sector, there is a need for public and philanthropic investments in the development and deployment of cheaper technological solutions to the water problem in poor countries.
Solving the world’s water problem requires everybody’s contribution, from governments to civil society and from international organizations to the private sector. In a number of cases, the private sector has contributed to the overuse and contamination of water resources. Precisely for this reason, the private sector must play an important role in solving the water problem. Moreover, no one is in a better position than the private sector to provide the necessary technological solutions to the water problem and promote more efficient use of scarce water resources. Indeed, we can point to some good examples where concession of water resources management to the private sector or to private-public partnership arrangements has brought much needed investment and technology, helping to solve the water problem.
As I conclude, Mr. Chairman, I would like to emphasize that water technologies should give due regard to the situation and role of women in society. Apart from being the most affected by lack of water and sanitation facilities, women play a central role in providing, managing and protecting water. They have considerable knowledge about water resources, including location, quality and storage methods. They are also the most motivated to ensure safe and adequate water supply and sanitation. Any effort to solve the water problem cannot be effective without their full participation.
If we all play our part and chip in with a drop, I have no doubt that we shall resolve the world’s water crisis. As the founder of Buddhism, Prince Gautama Siddhartha, put it more than 2000 years ago, “a jug fills drop by drop.”