Water: A Matter of Survival in the World of Pandemics
By Guillaume Baggio,
Manzoor Qadir and Vladimir Smakhtin (*)
Ontario, Canada, Jul 1 2021 (IPS) – The COVID-19 pandemic has undeniably
amplified the existing vulnerabilities of billions of people worldwide. Marginalized
communities in developing countries were excluded from social protection and support.
In fact, the pandemic has made many of the goals literally
unachievable in the time left to 2030.
Progress towards SDG 6 — Ensure availability and sustainable management of
water and sanitation for all — is among the goals most suffering. The world at
large was already off track on this before the pandemic.
An estimated 2 billion and 3.6 billion people still live
without access to safely managed water supplies and sanitation respectively.
Funds needed to tackle this immense challenge were estimated in 2016 to be US
$74–166 billion annually until 2030.
They have never been raised, and now, likely, more is
needed. Instead, due to the pandemic, water funding is now projected to decrease.
The cost of meeting other SDG 6 targets – beyond just
universal water supply and sanitation – is not included in the above. With
attention turning now to post-pandemic economic recovery plans, the question is: where and how do
we get the money needed to achieve SDG 6 in the final nine years of the SDG era
if we continuously failed to do so in the first six?
Recently initiated acceleration
frameworks create some hope, and yet it is difficult to be particularly
In this context, providing safe water and sanitation, and
ensuring healthy freshwater ecosystems are no longer matters of just basic
needs, human rights or dignity. They are the matters of survival for all.
Strategic actions are required now rather than waiting for the next pandemic episodes.
Countries will likely have little choice other than
addressing multiple development challenges simultaneously. Yet, from the
standpoint of preparing for future pandemics, further prioritization of those
challenges needs to be made.
In the global water sector, there are several items that may
need to receive priority in the next nine SDG years:
· Ensure water and sanitation access gap in schools.
Globally, 31% and 37% of schools lack access to basic water and sanitation
services respectively. Girls who lack access to safe water and sanitation at
school are more likely to abandon their education creating long-term
impacts, with losses in their lifetime productivity and earnings estimated at $15–30 trillion.
The above challenges have a lot in common. All are
explicitly human-centric and target the most vulnerable; hence they are
critical to address if we are serious about leaving no one behind. All of them,
if addressed, will alleviate the impact of future pandemics.
All contribute to SDG 6 targets on universal water supply
and sanitation. All have strong links with other important SDGs, e.g. you
cannot eradicate a source of refugees without ensuring peace, political
stability and arresting environmental degradation.
And all are implicit within the current SDG targets.
Achieving the above milestones may not be enough for universal access to water
and sanitation, but they will still be unprecedented achievements in modern
Arresting the degradation of freshwater ecosystems – to
alleviate the probability of future pandemics -also needs to be made much
stronger. Although some relevant processes are on the way, they may turn out to be
too lengthy to be effective.
Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic suggests that revisiting and
articulating priorities in the ongoing SDG efforts may be in order. With almost
170 targets, the SDG framework, while comprehensive, is perhaps too ambitious
for a rather short period.
And it is not just the matter of periodic assessment of the
SDG progress, but also the matter of adjusting the targets; particularly when
many original ones were blurred and when new major factors like pandemics
recently reshaped the world. There are things that just can no longer wait.
Fixing at least some of the world’s most chronic water problems is one of them.
Baggio is Research Associate, Manzoor
Qadir is Assistant Director, and Vladimir
Smakhtin is the Director at the UN University’s Canadian-based Institute
for Water, Environment and Health, which is supported by the Government of
Canada and hosted at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario. The Institute
marks its 25th anniversary in 2021.