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World Water Day: why does it matter?

A Concordia researcher looks at the ongoing struggle to democratize access to safe supplies
March 22, 2016
By Govind Gopakumar

Photo by Angus (Flickr Creative Commons) “Obstacles to the processes that underlie the democratization of access to safe drinking water hinge upon social, political and economic factors.” | Photo by Angus (Flickr Creative Commons)

Govind Gopakumar
is an associate professor in Concordia’s Centre for Engineering in Society. A main focus of his research is the social dimensions of the sustainability of water supplies.

The United Nations’ (UN) 2016 World Water Day comes as we transition from a global development agenda circumscribed by the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDG) that wound down last year to one marked by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) that were unveiled this year.

Against the backdrop of this transition, it makes sense to ask what implications World Water Day holds this year.

What is meant by "quality" or "safe" drinking water?

Drinking water is a particularly vital use of water because its consumption forms the basis of human life on the planet. Compared to other major uses of water such as agriculture and industry, the quantum of water used for human consumption is a relatively minor fraction. But unlike other uses, we now consider the quality of drinking water of equal importance to its quantum.

This in itself is an achievement of a specific historical moment (often referred to as the bacteriological city or the sanitary city) in the municipal history of cities initially in the UK and western Europe and then later (with varying degrees of effectiveness) around the world. With it came the recognition that the quality of drinking water is an important determinant of human health.

Within the UN's development agenda, this recognition has translated into the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) program. This program attempts to develop integrated ways of thinking about the supply of drinking water and systems of sanitation in ways that secure health goals.

One common articulation of the WASH agenda has been through an insistence on “improved” systems of water supply and sanitation.

An “improved” water supply system is one designed to prevent contamination of water by protecting the source and by isolating its conveyance. Similarly, an “improved” sanitation system is one that restricts contaminants in the waste stream from spreading in the environment.

An improved water supply and sanitation system are thus the basic building blocks necessary to further the public health aspects of development. This was the focus of the MDG. The SDG attempts to go further by incorporating the governance aspects (questions of who provides the water supply and to whom) with the public health aspects.

Does the consumption of water considered "safe" in a developing country carry risks?

Yes, the consumption of water considered “safe” purveyed through an improved water supply system does carry risks. The UN MDG has recorded that 91 per cent of the world now has access to safe and improved sources of water. However, such statistical measures need to be taken with a generous pinch of salt.

One major limitation of this measure is that it is only an indication of coverage. Ninety-one per cent coverage does not tell us anything about the actual operation of water-supply systems on the ground. There could be considerable variation in the effectiveness of the operation, its ability to isolate water flows from waste flows, the nature of materials used and the kind of water source used.

All of these factors affect the quality of piped water. Thus a coverage measure is not a complete guarantee of the quality of water purveyed.

To give an example: in some places water is not available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Thus for many hours of the day underground pipes do not contain any water. When underground pipes are empty, there is a possibility of water from the surrounding soil seeping into the pipes, thus affecting the quality of water delivered through those pipes.

What does the democratization of water access mean?

It attempts to consider the governance aspects of water supply and sanitation. Rather than focusing entirely on the public health aspects, the focus is now increasingly on associated social, political and economic questions.

Thus questions like the following are intimately related to the nature of operation of the system: Are services affordable? Which groups of people lack or are denied access? Do women and children have the voice to access services?

Bringing such concerns to the agenda of water supply provision forms part of the democratization of water access.

What are the main obstacles to the democratization of access to safe drinking water

The main obstacles hinge upon social, political and economic factors.

For instance, in a society where safe drinking water supplies are affordable to only a small fraction of the population, obstacles may include the skewed economics of water in that society, the absence of a political will to rectify the situation and the inability of oppositional social movements to assert their voice to rectify the situation.

Such obstacles are quite often not simple to rectify because they are bound up within social, economic and political structures that permeate the location.

Since the UN, being an international organization, is able to intervene in the societies of member states, how the SDG is operationalized to enhance democratization will be a challenge we will witness in the coming years.

Find out more about research at the Centre for Engineering in Society.



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