Investment in water is improving the lives of billions of people in developing countries, with more than 2bn getting access to safe drinking water between 1990 and 2010 and better sanitation made available to 1.8bn people. But the stresses on the world’s water supplies are mounting. Another 2.5bn people remain without clean water or basic sanitation; climate change and population growth are exerting more and more pressure on supplies, while rapid urbanisation means cities in the developing world will house an additional 70m people a year for the next 20 years, and by 2030 the world will need 45% more water just to keep pace with the rising demand for food. Today, the world must also look to the longer term, and the knowledge, technology and infrastructure that will be needed to meet tomorrow’s demands.
There are three things that countries and the development community can do to transform the management of water. First, countries must manage water as they would a portfolio of investments. That means taking a short-term, a medium-term and a long-term view. Such an approach would give decision-makers a bird’s eye view of the way water is used at the moment, and allow them to identify those water assets with economic potential and those that are liabilities in need of careful management. The latter might include falling water tables, climate change impacts and the opportunity costs of using water in one way rather than another. Opening such a portfolio to public debate would quickly identify gaps in infrastructure, services, productivity and knowledge, and help the development community and investors to target financial and technical support more efficiently.
Second, countries must seize the enormous opportunities provided by Information Technology. Today, more people in developing countries have a cell phone rather than a toilet. We have to work out what this technology can do for water. One great example illustrates the potential benefits of the imaginative use of IT. In 2011, with support from the World Bank and other partners, post-conflict Liberia was able to map more than 10,000 previously unknown water points within six months by sending 150 data collectors around the country on motorbikes equipped with phones using mobile technology designed by an organisation called Water for People. The knowledge gained from this survey provided a significant pillar for the country’s water investment plan.
Third, countries and the development community must take the “softer” side of infrastructure more seriously. By this I mean things such as personal behaviour and incentive structures for people and institutions. We must invest time and money to understand the impediments to sustainable water management, whether it is a lack of political will or barriers to participation or factors that undermine the viability of water utilities. We also need a deeper understanding of the preferences and behaviours of the poorest segments of society, especially women and girls who spend much of their time managing their water needs. It is clear that somewhere in these “softer” areas are the triggers for major, gender-inclusive development. This year’s Rio+20 summit provides the international community with an important opportunity to shape the development agenda for decades to come. This must include strong and balanced proposals for water built into the Sustainable Development Goals.
Mahmoud Mohieldin is Managing Director of the World Bank.