Looking Ahead Towards a Water-Secure World for All

Editors Note: In this post, Guang Z. Chen, Senior Director of Water Global Practice at World Bank Group, discusses the role of World Bank and its partners in meeting the water-related challenges facing our world. This post originally appeared on The Water Blog of the World Bank Group, to view the original post please click here

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To many people, it is a surprise to learn that in an age of such advanced technology, at least 663 million people still lack access to basic needs, like safe drinking water, or that 2.5 billion people lack access to sanitation, such as a toilet or latrine. And while much progress has been made, receiving safe drinking water 24 hours a day, seven days a week simply by turning a tap is still a dream for many in the developing world.

Even fewer realize this is not just a problem for families, but also for those on which families rely and that also need water: the farmers who grow the families’ food, the environment that protects and sustains their homes and communities, the businesses that employ them, the cities that house them, the schools that educate their children, the clinics and hospitals that treat them, and even the power plants that generate their electricity.

Why does this challenge persist? How can this challenge be met? And an increasingly urgent question: is there enough water to go around?

Water is becoming increasingly scarce, including in places where it was once considered plentiful. Meanwhile, extreme water events, such as floods and droughts, are increasing in frequency and intensity because of climate change. Further, cities are growing faster than ever, which means more demand coming up against a decreasing supply.

This is an urgent challenge. Business as usual will see some areas lose up to an additional 6 percent off of their GDP growth by 2050. Something has to change.

I recently assumed the role as head of the World Bank Group’s Water Global Practice (GP)to help countries do just that. With a portfolio of roughly $35 billion in 170 water related projects globally, the World Bank Group is the largest external financier of water related development projects. In response to demand from countries for support in implementing these changes — in the form of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) related to water — we will leverage this portfolio and draw on a team of over 300 experts from 78 nationalities based in nearly 60 countries around the world to help our clients identify options for economically, environmentally and socially sustainable solutions tailored to their context. Success will require a focus on institutions, information, and infrastructure.

We will do this working with the United Nations, civil society organizations, the High Level Panel on Water, and other sectors like agriculture, environment, energy, urban development, and the climate policy community to help countries bring about that change in a way that acknowledges the right to water and sanitation for all, the value of water and water-related services, in behavioral, cultural, and economic terms, and the role of water in climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Today, many people have the false perception that freshwater resources are infinitely available and therefore of lesser value. This leads to behaviors like overconsumption and poor services. Given this, it is important to recognize the call to action by the High Level Panel on Water (HLPW), which met for the second time a few weeks ago at the UN General Assembly in New York. At that meeting led by World Bank President Jim Yong Kim and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the HLPW launched an action plan to mobilize the global community around SDG 6 and related targets. I echo their call for a fundamental shift in the way the world thinks about and values water, with the vision of a future where individuals and societies automatically make better decisions with respect to water and how it is used and allocated.

However, I also believe donor support is one piece of a larger puzzle. Countries need support from their leaders, citizens, and neighbors to bring about this kind of change in mindset towards water stewardship.

At the World Bank Group, with an eye towards ending poverty by 2030 and promoting shared prosperity, we will do our part working with partners to drive towards the water related SDGs and continue building support for this change to encourage the political will and financial resources needed to help countries meet their targets with home grown, scalable, and sustainable solutions.

I am glad to see the Water GP has advanced in an area for which I have advocated for some time: connecting the water supply and sanitation subsector to broader water resources management. I also believe it is increasingly impossible to separate the Water agenda from the urban agenda, just as we cannot separate the climate and Water agendas. There is much we can do on Integrated Urban Water Management to help countries tackle these challenges.

Similarly, it is increasingly difficult for countries to separate water from agriculture, environment, energy, health, and others, which all rely on water. We’ll work closely with our colleagues in other GPs at the World Bank Group to help identify cross-sector solutions that could help our country clients leapfrog ahead.

We must also work hard to ensure focus on global trends does not take focus away from trends like slow progress in ending the practice of open defecation. Sanitation was the most off track of the MDGs, so we must continue the focus on the SDG targets for water supply and sanitation. In addition to our work on rural sanitation, we are intensifying our efforts on urban sanitation and fecal sludge management.

Thanks to support from bilateral donors, we will continue to supplement Bank operations with thoughtful analysis, cultivated partnerships, and advocating for high level support on issues like sanitation and climate change, which we hope will help us continue to be a reliable, effective partner for our clients.

Looking ahead, I do believe it is possible to achieve much together with our eyes set on the World Bank’s twin goals of ending extreme poverty and boosting shared prosperity and the SDGs related to water. I look forward to hearing feedback from you during this journey together.