Delivering global water

One of the Millenium Development goals was to halve the number of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water. At present, we are woefully short of the target - by about 300 million people. Here we look at some of the issues.

Six years ago, leaders from every country agreed on a vision for the future – a world with less poverty, hunger and disease, greater survival prospects for mothers and their infants, better educated children, equal opportunities for women, and a healthier environment. It would be a world in which developed and developing countries worked in partnership for the betterment of all.

The vision took the shape of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These goals range from halving extreme poverty, and halting the spread of HIV/Aids, to providing universal primary education – all by 2015. And they form a blueprint agreed to by all the world’s countries and its leading development institutions. They have galvanised unprecedented efforts to meet the needs of the world’s poorest people.

Unlikely target

One of the MDGs is to reduce by half the number of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water. With half of the developing country populations still lacking sanitation in 2006, the world is unlikely to reach its target.

To be on track to meet this target, another 300 million more people should have been given access to basic sanitation by now. However, the challenges facing the developed countries are not limited solely to those associated with meeting the MDGs. Throughout the world, rising service level expectation, combined with dereliction of assets, are giving water undertakers and regulators problems on a day-to-day basis.

Many of these water undertakers may be unable to implement the capital projects that are necessary to service their customers, or simply to maintain their asset inventory in a serviceable condition. This may be due to a lack of the requisite institutional strength, business systems, operational experience, revenues structure or credit worthiness – or any combination of these things.

There remains a huge gap between the forecasts for the capital spend that is necessary, and the tariff revenues to support that spend. Institutional reforms are often costly, and the cost has to be generated by improved efficiency and effectiveness.

The financial models that served the water infrastructure market during the 1990s may no longer be applicable in the 21st century. For instance, the ring-fenced approach to risk which is necessary for a conventional build-operate-transfer-type scheme may not sit comfortably with the more holistic approach to water resources management being promoted by the Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) philosophy.

This philosophy is that “water development and management should be based on a participatory approach, involving users, planners and policymakers at all levels. Water has an economic value in all its competing uses and should be recognised as an economic good”.

Domestic water, sanitation and hygiene are often divided over a number of government departments, such as water affairs, health, local government, or public works. And over the last two decades much experience has been gained in practical ways to work together effectively across departmental lines

IWRM should increase co-operation and improve coordination between the various departments. The implementation of IWRM-based policies should mean increased security of domestic water supplies, as well as reduced costs of treatment as pollution is tackled more effectively.

Conflict between water users is reduced. The focus on integrated management and efficient use should also be a stimulus to the sector to push for recycling, reuse and waste reduction by industrial users.

High pollution charges backed by rigid enforcement have led to impressive improvements in industrial water-use efficiencies in the industrialised countries, with benefits for domestic water supplies and the environment.

Basic sanitation

None of us in the developed world likes to think of the plight of people who do not have access to basic sanitation, or of one child dying of water-borne disease every 15 seconds (that is eight children while you have been reading this article).

The UN talks of developed and developing countries working together for the betterment of all. However, is it really possible to achieve the difficult balance between the financial drivers for businesses in the developed world, and the economic needs of clients in the developing world?

British Water is jointly organising a major conference, with the ICE’s Water Board, on November 22, 2006, to explore and debate these important issues. Prominent international speakers will address topics such as:

  • What is the size of the challenge?
  • What models are applicable to infrastructure implementation in the coming years?
  • Can Integrated Water Resources Management affect affordability?
  • Funding peri-urban projects in developing countries
  • Can businesses in the developed world provide what is necessary, or will sanitation remain the remit of charities?

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