Water touches nearly every aspect of development. It flows through and connects the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by driving economic growth, supporting healthy ecosystems, cultivating food and energy production, and ensuring access to sanitation. We cannot achieve the SDGs without our collective action on water.
Yet today water represents a silent emergency and a risk to our goals of building shared economic progress and sustainable development. The challenges include gaps in access to water supply and sanitation driven by growing populations and rapid urbanization, more water-intensive patterns of growth, increasing rainfall variability, and pollution, among others. The forthcoming SDG 6 Synthesis Report on Water and Sanitation captures the current situation rather succinctly: “the world is not on track” to achieve our water goals embedded in SDG6.
Billions of people around the world still lack safe water, sanitation and handwashing facilities. An increase in wastewater in many parts of the world is affecting quality. National governance structures remain weak and fragmented. Rapid urbanization has put enormous stress on agricultural production and water supply. Financing remains insufficient and data gaps in monitoring are abundant.
The World Bank Group is working with our country partners in a number of ways to address these challenges and ensure that water is used wisely to help achieve the SDGs and a water-secure world for all.
First, the Bank Group has financing and technical expertise. With a portfolio of water investments of around $37 billion, it is the largest multilateral source of financing for water in developing countries. Water projects are inherently cross-cutting, with around 70 percent of lending for services such as water supply and sanitation and irrigation, and the remaining 30 percent mapped to our urban and rural practice, our agriculture practice, and others. And there is great demand for our services – according to World Bank data, the sector requires six times more financing than currently available from government, the private sector, and donors. In other words, to meet the ambition of SDG 6, blended finance needs to be scaled up to meet the global challenge.
Second, the Bank Group brings its experience on data to the table. We work closely with other members of the UN family, such as UNICEF and WHO, on the Joint Monitoring Program, the custodian agency for SDG indicators 6.1 (drinking water) and 6.2 (sanitation and hygiene). We are aligning our data collection efforts for compliance with these SDG indicator definitions. We are also committed to strengthening the results indicators in our lending operations to go beyond access, and instead track service delivery outcomes such as adequacy, reliability, quality, and affordability. Given the country-driven approach of our operations, this means we need to continue strengthening country capacity to collect the data required to measure the SDGs.
Third, we use our convening power to bring stakeholders together. In 2016, the highest level of government leadership—11 heads of state and a special advisor that make up the High-Level Panel on Water (HLPW) —was convened by the World Bank Group President and UN Secretary General to identify a sustainable path forward for water. For the past two years, the HLPW engaged in robust study and analysis to solve the challenge of ensuring the availability and sustainability of water. The Bank Group was closely involved in the entire process, providing both intellectual leadership and logistical support to the HLPW.
The Panel’s report Making Every Drop Count: An Agenda for Water Action was presented to the UN Secretary General in March this year. It calls for a fundamental shift in how the world understands, values, and manages water. Perhaps the Panel’s biggest legacy is how it will continue to leverage the high-level partnerships forged in the areas of investment, innovation, water scarcity, valuing water, and a number of new Bank-funded programs in our client countries addressing the broader resilience agenda. In addition, in March on World Water Day this year, the UN launched the International Decade for Action: Water for Sustainable Development. This Decade for Action calls for all to take action to address our water challenges within this decade.
As we prepare for the upcoming UN High Level Political Forum and the first global review of SDG 6, we also need to identify water’s important interlinkages to the rest of the SDG agenda. Water is managed as a critical resource for development to support agriculture, manufacturing, job creation, and the environment. Investing in effective and sustainable water solutions should enable universal access to sanitation and water, promote water security, and build resilient societies, and will contribute to the Bank Group’s twin goals of ending extreme poverty and promoting shared prosperity.
A recent Bank Group report Reducing Inequalities in Water Supply, Sanitation, and Hygiene in the Era of the SDGs suggests that a drastic change is required in the way countries manage resources and provide key services, starting with improved targeting to ensure they reach those most in need. The report sheds light on major disparities in water supply and sanitation services between rural and urban, poor and non-poor areas, with direct implications on SDG 10 (inequalities) and SDG 1 (poverty). Another report, The Rising Tide, provides policymakers and practitioners with a new framework for thinking about the intersection between water and gender (SDG 5). And issues surrounding universal electrification (SDG 7); rapid urbanization; and agricultural production all illustrated the multifaceted nature of water and its values.
Drought-related crises can even ripple through generations. A recent Bank Group report titled Uncharted Waters found that children in Africa who experience droughts in their infancy receive less food in the critical first 1,000 days of life. This deprivation can result in a phenomenon called stunting, which prevents children from reaching their full cognitive or physical potential. These children drop out of school earlier, have less wealth, and their own children are more likely to be stunted, perpetuating a vicious cycle of poverty and ill-health.
It is important to recognize and respond to the various values that societies attach to water and its uses. We are occasionally prone to making presumptions in development about the availability of water for a variety of critical purposes, but such presumptions become more tenuous with each passing year. The global community must treat water as a global public good, for which we have collective responsibility – and share common benefits and risks – to preserve this precious resource for generations to come. The shape of our future depends upon it.
By Mahmoud Mohieldin, Senior Vice President for the 2030 Agenda, UN Relations and Partnerships, World Bank Group; and, Guangzhe Chen Senior
Director for the Water Global Practice, World Bank Group