U.N. Report: “Sick Water?”

A new United Nations report “Sick Water?,” released today on World Water Day, finds that “Globally, two million tons of sewage, industrial and agricultural waste is discharged to the world’s waterways.”  As a result of this water pollution, more than half of the world’s hospital beds are filled with people suffering from disease caused by water related illness.  In addition to disease, water-stressed and rapidly urbanizing communities around the world are grappling with the need for effective water management.  Climate experts predict that the effects of climate change will exacerbate problems with droughts, flooding, and instability in food production.  Without proper management, greenhouse gases linked to wastewater, methane and nitrous oxide emissions will rise by 25 and 50 percent, respectively, between 1990 and 2020.

To combat these global problems, “Sick Water?: The Central Role of Wastewater Management in Sustainable Development” provides six recommendations:

  1. Countries must adopt a multi-sectoral approach to wastewater management as a matter of urgency, incorporating principles of ecosystem-based management from the watersheds into the sea, connecting sectors that will reap immediate benefits from better wastewater management.
    1. Successful and sustainable management of wastewater requires a cocktail of innovative approaches that engage the public and private sector at local, national and transboundary scales. Planning processes should provide an enabling environment for innovation, including at the community level but require government oversight and public management.
      1. Innovative financing of appropriate wastewater infrastructure should incorporate design, construction, operation, maintenance, upgrading and/or decommissioning. Financing should take account of the fact that there are important livelihood opportunities in improving wastewater treatment processes, whilst the private sector can have an important role in operational efficiency under appropriate public guidance.
        1. In light of rapid global change, communities should plan wastewater management against future scenarios, not current situations.
          1. Solutions for smart wastewater management must be socially and culturally appropriate, as well as economically and environmentally viable into the future.
            1. Education must play a central role in wastewater management and in reducing overall volumes and harmful content of wastewater produced, so that solutions are sustainable.

              The report’s recommendations exmphasize sustainable water management.  In developing countries like India, the urban poor suffer the most from water scarcity and pollution.  Indian megacities like Delhi and Hyderabad do not provide 24/7 water supply.  Hyderabad, for example, only delivers water two hours every second day, which residents have to store by using energy intensive pumps.  As experts from the Administrative Staff College of India (ASCI) emphasized to me last week, “It is not a water production problem, but a water management issue.”           

              While the U.N. report focuses on developing countries, the recommendations for effective water management are equally applicable to regions in developed countries facing water scarcity.  For example, as my colleague Barry Nelson discusses, California faces serious water management problems, as it struggles to supply the agricultural industry and water-scarce southern California while protecting the environment and promoting water conservation statewide.

              The report's recommendations underscore the need for action locally, nationally and globally.  In India, groups like ASCI and The Energy Research Group, are advocating for efficient water management – a key element of India’s Water Mission under the National Action Plan on Climate Change.  And, groups such as, the Center for Science and Environment are providing detailed blueprints on local water management and cleanup plans for Delhi’s central river, the Yamuna.  Similarly, in Washington, my colleague Heather Allen discusses the need for the Obama Administration to reinforce the U.S.’s commitment to global clean water – by focusing on increased access to safe water and sanitation and improving the efficiency and management of water resources globally.  Meeting these water challenges by implementing the six water management strategies discussed in the U.N. report is essential to ensuring the sustainability and health of communities around the planet.