Water Poverty: is there a solution?

Water is the most basic human need, yet many countries around the world suffer from water poverty. According to the World Health Organisation, 844 million people across the world do not have access to clean, safe water, with 159 million people using water collected from untreated water surfaces such as lakes, ponds, rivers and streams.

Furthermore, the WHO predict that by 2050, half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas.

Map showing key areas suffering from water poverty

 

Water poverty and water wars have become recently used terms to describe the effect that poverty has on people’s access to water based on economic circumstances, with conflict breaking out because of this, hence the term ‘water wars’.

 

I spoke to Deepa Joshi, a senior research fellow at Coventry University from the Centre for Water, Agroecology and Resilience who is an expert on water and the economic, social and political factors that affects water equality.

“Well, water poverty, let’s begin with that. It’s a term that’s been used for a long time and recently it relates to the fact that there are some of the population who do not have access to domestic drinking water to adequate quantities and appropriate quantities.

So, this is a poverty related with not only access to water but this poverty is also very much related to the fact that their economic poverty also prevents them from finding ways to access water, and I think the water wars in a way are linked to poverty because a lot of the water wars and this is linked to water poverty very well”.

Asking her about water wars, Ms Joshi said the concept of water wars “began in Latin America with the privatisation of water and domestic water supplies and with the argument that water should not be a private good but it should be a public, a human right”.

Much of the reason water poverty exists is because of the use of water in the country as a whole and where much of the supply is directed towards, but also of depleting groundwater resources.

The British Geological Survey developed a study to map the groundwater resources in Africa, highlighting key countries that have massive water banks underneath the ground surface.

 

British Geological Survey map showing groundwater resources in Africa

 

Many organisations have suggested that Africa needs to take advantage of this untapped resource, especially when most of the continent suffers from water poverty, sanitation and water-borne diseases.

 

 

One of the most affected countries by water poverty in the world is Kenya, where 46% of the population do not have access to clean water. According to UNICEF, 80% of hospital cases are diseases that can be easily prevented with 50% of these cases being water-related illnesses.

Kenya has 1.04 Billion cubic metres of groundwater that can be used but only 500 million cubic meters is taken advantage of. (groundwater governance 2011).

In rural parts of Kenya, water is also an area of conflict between nomadic tribes as resources to help feed families and livestock sometimes cannot meet the needs of more than one tribe. This can then lead to tribal wars breaking out over an area with more resources, especially close to the country’s borders with Ethiopia and Somalia.

However, Shannyn Snyder, Professor in the Environmental Science department at George Mason University in Virginia, has done research into Kenya’s water scarcity and the country’s future is looking up with help from NGOs working there.

“Kenya is unique in that water project resources, such as The Water Project, have had good fortune working in Kenya, due to contacts they have already made in that country in terms of contractors and others, and the UN has had a long-standing WASH project there”, she said.

On the issue of Kenya’s groundwater levels and if better irrigation can help ease the water gap, Ms Snyder argues that water supplies in Kenya are heavily dependent on rainfall levels: “there are dry and drought seasons, meaning that even if they had good infrastructure, the rains do not come, so it is impossible to replenish groundwater sources that feed into the aquifer.

Even when wells are dug, they tap into the water table and everyone uses water that just doesn’t get replenished.  That lowers the water table for the entire region, and eventually, they have to dig even deeper wells just to reach any water at all”.

 

However, groundwater levels worldwide are depleting at an alarming rate.

Speaking on why this is, Deepa Joshi said “groundwater levels are depleting actually because of the agricultural use of water which is one of the largest uses of water and I think most times people are practising farming and agriculture, such as growing rise in California or growing asparagus in Peru to export for European markets, are some of the reasons or this cultivation of commercial, high water intensive water-guzzling crops regardless of the water inequality”.

 

So then is public policy necessary to ensure water is equally distributed? “There are economists and institutes that have argued that water is so precious and finite that you have to put a price on it to ensure its efficient use, but then how do you define efficient and who gets to define when it is efficient, are the questions that need to be asked”, said Ms Joshi, suggesting that a wider conversation about water usage needs to be discussed

 

A second, pressing issue affecting water poverty in Kenya is the privatisation of water supplies. A price on water leaves many Kenyans suffering from extreme economic poverty without means to access clean water. Shannyn Snyder reflects that “Privatization in Africa has notoriously left people without water, because they cannot afford to pay.  Wealthy people can afford it.  The poor cannot”.

 

Furthermore, women suffer worse consequences than men from water poverty due to the long distances many women and girls have to walk just to find water sources. This in turn, prevents them from going to school and trying to escape living below the poverty line. Ms Snydder found that women are often excluded from policy discussions; “everything from policies which exclude women from the planning of water infrastructure to the responsibility of women to provide water in the household at often great personal costs, including sexual violence, women suffer more because of their position”.

“Women are not “at the table” when infrastructure decisions are made, so water flows to where the men need it – to the animals, to the farms – agriculture.  Water flows to industry – because, again, women are not represented in those circles either”.

Taking all of that into account, it is evident that water poverty needs to be addressed effectively, with women being at the forefront and personal needs being out above the needs of industries that are not water-conscious.

We are living in 2018, with technology in all industries being created and updated every day, yet millions around the world still lack the fundamental need of any human on this earth: water. Perhaps it is time to put aside the gadgets and focus on basic human needs and ensuring all people worldwide have equal access to these needs.

Raisa Ismail

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