The task of providing decent water where needed is becoming increasingly difficult all across the world. Countries have in recent decades been making investments in infrastructure designed to alleviate water shortages.
But the response has for the most part overlooked the problem posed by the deteriorating state of aquatic resources.
If the growing water crisis is to be effectively addressed, actions will need to link water use with environmental care.
In many places, even where water is still plentiful, environmental destruction has made water too expensive to use. In some others that enjoy a good supply of water, it is used inappropriately.
Priorities can be so askew that while cities remain desperate for water, farmers are irrigating fruits or cotton in the desert. Even less acceptable, potable water is used to maintain gardens and golf courses while the urban poor are forced to pay dearly to buy drinking water by the bucket.
As a result, about 700 million people in over 40 countries are affected by water shortages. Human encroachment on water environments is also a growing problem.
By 2030 the United Nations predicts that 75 percent of the world’s population will live in coastal areas, putting at risk wetlands that help clean the water environment as well as exposing hundreds of millions of people to the water-related hazards associated with climate change.
The World Bank is the largest official financier of water investments in developing countries. Water projects, covering irrigation and hydropower to watershed management and inland waterways, have shown greater success in recent years than other sectors in meeting their objectives.
Yet the challenge remains of meeting today’s water needs while putting in place innovative strategies to address future requirements. Areas for emphasis fall in five main areas along the axis of water development and environmental management.
First, the most water-stressed group consists of 45 countries, 35 of them in Africa, that are water poor. Water sustainability needs to become central to their development plans, with tailored measures to help meet their urgent needs.
Even water-rich countries such as Brazil or Thailand can face deficiency as water levels in dams and from natural sources fall.
Second, groundwater is increasingly threatened by over-exploitation, inadequate environmental flows, and contamination.
The most severe groundwater depletion is in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. Needed efforts include monitoring groundwater quality, landfill site improvements, and the reduction of infiltration by contaminated surface water into groundwater.
Third, restoration of degraded environments can have big impacts. A Coastal Wetlands Protection project in Vietnam, for example, tried to balance environmental protection with the livelihood needs of people dependent on natural resources. The project helped to reduce the area of coastal erosion by as much as 40%.
Fourth, the United Nations estimates that 1.8 billion people will still not have access to basic sanitation in 2015. More emphasis is needed not only on low-cost solutions to basic sanitation but also on household connections to sanitation systems.
Fifth, investments in water supply need to be coupled with management of demand. Agriculture is the largest user of water in most settings, where efficiency improving technologies are not enough to improve water use.
Greater cost-recovery in water projects would be helpful. Fixing and enforcing quotas for water use, a relatively recent approach, deserves careful evaluation.
Even when these priorities are known, it has been difficult to translate them into action. When the key players sit down to bargain about the allocation of water, the environment gets short shrift.
Political support for reform is often hindered by serious gaps in understanding a country’s water situation. Better data, systematic monitoring and disclosure of findings are crucial to resource mobilization and action.
Knowledge sharing in turn supports the financial outlays and enables better results on the ground.
Vinod Thomas is Director General, at the Independent Evaluation Group, The World Bank, Washington D.C.