Let's not wash our hands of water security

Posted on: October 2, 2020

Director General of the CGIAR International Water Management Institute


Water falling onto hands from a tap
Many vulnerable populations still lack access to clean water. Photo: Riccardo Mayer/Shutterstock

The post-coronavirus recovery will offer a chance to improve water security for the world's neediest people

Access to clean water for washing hands has been the first line of defense during the COVID-19 pandemic. This has made water security a renewed priority for development assistance and for investment in resilience. As governments and health agencies look to invest in better hygiene standards to protect against future diseases, more resources are likely to be directed towards meeting immediate needs by installing more pipes, taps, and wells.

But delivering water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services is much more complex than providing infrastructure alone, and is a vital part of the much broader challenge of managing water as a critical resource that cuts across all sectors of society. Multiple needs for water – from agriculture to sanitation and consumption – often put pressure on supplies, which are already being increasingly threatened by climate change and population growth as the world's global commons are overexploited. So coordination across sectors in how water use is managed is growing ever more important.

Domestic, agricultural, and industrial water use can often be neatly divided in urban areas, but rural families, especially in low-income countries, strive each day to meet many water needs - from drinking, cooking, and cleaning to irrigating crops and providing for livestock – at the same time. The result can often be a trade-off in which no need is fully met, not even with re-using water wherever possible.

Delivering the human right to water for hygiene and sanitation, while simultaneously meeting rural families' other critical needs, requires careful management and collaboration. Water security must be delivered not just by those providing WASH services but through cooperation across broader water and environmental agencies.

At a time when authorities are exploring ways to boost resilience against shocks like COVID-19, investing in, and scaling-up, such collaborative approaches needs to be prioritized.

Water management must be reinforced through the coronavirus recovery. This includes allocating supplies for different uses and preventing pollution, as well as monitoring resources to avert shortages, manage risks, and improve sustainability.

Balancing competing water demands while safeguarding it in the natural environment is a challenge: one solution is to develop services that address multiple uses and community needs.

CGIAR’s International Water Management Institute has rolled out an approach known as “Multiple Use Water Services” (MUS) in more than 30 countries, so as to meet different needs in line with available resources.

Following a phased process, communities lead the design of a service that best delivers water for rural households in collaboration with local authorities and service providers.

In South Africa, where only five to 10 percent of rural households use water exclusively for domestic purposes, the MUS approach involves addressing needs with multi-purpose infrastructure at or around homesteads.

By facilitating this kind of “bottom-up” approach, investment can be directed towards delivering a minimum of three to five liters of drinking water per capita per day, while strengthening the management and sustainability of supply for other needs.

Water governance - including formal frameworks setting out how to prioritize countries' resources - is a second priority for security.

Recent legislative changes in Colombia, for example, have recognized multiple uses of water beyond domestic ones, and incorporated providing supplies to serve the varied needs of smallholders and rural families for irrigation and forestry as well as hygiene and sanitation.

Broadening the legal framework to encompass different water uses allows for developing policies that support multi-use systems, complementing the right to water and sanitation with the wider management of water risks and needs - an especially important approach for rural people.

Water for hygiene and sanitation will contribute most to good health and prosperity when WASH services are delivered together with meeting these other needs. Being able to wash hands properly is of little value if a harvest or herd – and therefore, food and income - is lost through water scarcity.

Investment in WASH can and should go hand-in-hand with investment in improving the sustainability of water resources and the resilience of supplies.

In Nepal, for example, around half of the country’s finance for development from 2018 to 2019 was foreign aid, with public investment in WASH services at around three percent. But the recent introduction of federalism, strengthening locally-representative governance, allows for reallocation and re-prioritization of budgets and finances.

The country's newly-unveiled 2020/21 budget demonstrates its government’s continued interest in promoting water for agriculture, with NPR27.96 billion ($234 million) set aside for irrigation alone, including subsidies for innovations like solar-powered pumps. Meanwhile, the hope is that federalism will bring local governments closer to communities who understand their own environments and water needs, and can thus pave the way for more innovative, community-led financing and business models.

Finally, while access to clean, safe water is a fundamental human right, it also relies on managing natural resources in ways that ensure sustainable and resilient supplies. Guaranteeing that everyone gets enough to live a healthy, fulfilling, and successful life is about far more than turning on the taps.

The world has a chance, through the COVID-19 recovery, to recognize the importance of water to the resilience of communities worldwide, to develop new financing models for the sector and to channel greater investment into its management and governance from source to sink.

This piece was originally published for the GEF-Telegraph Partnership.

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