The human right to water could be delivered in the towns and cities of the world for a pittance. Quentin Grafton takes a look at why isn’t it happening.
On World Water Day it is worth reflecting on why water needs this kind of global attention. After all, for many of us in the developed world water is, typically, available from the tap 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Only when there is a drought or a flood do we stop and notice how much we depend on water to always be drinkable and always be there.
Sadly, for billions of people, many of whom live in poor countries, water is either not drinkable or not reliably accessible. In this water world, the human right to water has not yet been achieved. Instead, securing water fit for purpose is a major preoccupation for many, especially in rural areas in major parts of Africa and Asia.
Even in middle-income countries, such as Brazil, millions of the urban poor do not enjoy reliable access to water that is safe to drink. And in some of the wealthiest countries in the world, such as Australia or the US, remote Indigenous communities lack the access to high-quality water that consumers in cities in Sydney or New York take for granted.
Insufficient volumes of water and/or water that is unsuitable for drinking, cooking or washing is a blight on all humanity, wherever they live. This is especially true because the human right to water could be delivered in towns and cities at a cost of less than a dollar per day to those who are able to pay for water services.
To add insult to injury in terms of inadequate access and water quality, the poorest in many cities of the world often pay multiples more per volume of water consumed than their richer residents. This is because the poorest do not enjoy the access to utility or town/city water that is piped to dwellings in established neighbourhoods and, instead, must purchase what water they need from water carriers or access untreated water.
The human cost of this inadequate access to water is devastating in terms infant mortality. It also increases morbidity for adults, many of whom have reduced lives and quality of life as a result.
The human right to water is achievable. It is not good enough for people to wring their hands in sad recognition of poor governance and inadequate resources, as if the lack of a human right to water is simply a fact of life. Instead, we need to collectively solve a problem that can, and must, be fixed.
I was most fortunate to recently attend a Dialogue in Rome at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences Dialogue that was co-organized by Catedra del Diálogo y la Cultura del Encuentro (The Chair of Dialogue and Culture of Encounter). There, 62 people – including Pope Francis – signed the Rome Declaration on the Human Right to Water calling for a “universal responsibility for action”.
For those attending the Vatican-organised Dialogue, the irony did not escape us that the Rome Declaration was made in a city that more than 2,000 years ago provided drinkable and accessible water to its one million or so inhabitants. If ancient Rome could deliver the human right to water and in all of its cities and towns, why cannot we do the same in every town or city in the world in the 21st Century?
The first place to start to deliver the human right to water is to provide a basic volume of water, say 30 litres per person per day, free or at very low cost for the poor. This does not mean free water for everyone. But it does mean the provision of communal water that allows people access to drinkable water.
Provision of basic water services must be accompanied by investments in adequate wastewater disposal to provide protection from water-borne diseases. The capital costs for critical water infrastructure could be paid for from a mix of taxation revenues or by simply ensuring those who are able to pay are charged the full costs of water services.
The second step is to make sure that water is priced to reflect its value and scarcity, which requires water meters to know how much water is being used by consumers.
Paradoxically, the better off are often those who are most subsidised by below cost water utility prices that, in many cities, do not even cover the marginal cost of water delivery. By contrast, the poor who have no access to piped water often have no choice but to pay a much higher price to secure water.
Third, by pricing water properly for those who can afford to pay, it would encourage private sector investments and attract capital that may otherwise not be forthcoming. Private sector investment does not mean privatisation of water and water prices need to be regulated to avoid monopoly pricing. But it would allow for the possibility of public-private partnerships which could provide, beyond scarce capital, additional expertise and capacity.
These three steps are no pipe dream. They have been done before in cities like London and Paris in the nineteenth century and, in the past decade, in Phnom Penh in Cambodia. But doing so demands that governments place a priority on the poor and vulnerable, and that richer countries support these efforts.
Of course, these three steps alone will not solve all of the world’s water challenges – there are still plenty of big issues to tackle such as the depletion of critically important groundwater resources or over-extraction and pollution of streams and rivers. It also leaves unanswered the much harder problem of delivering on the human right to water to the rural poor.
Nevertheless, on World Water Day 2017, if the world’s policymakers were to take the three steps of provisioning, pricing and partnering, they would deliver better health and dignity to hundreds of millions of people at a cost of less than a dollar per day for those who can afford to pay. Surely this is a price worth paying?