A Tipping Point for Water

As a sector in world affairs, water is reaching a tipping point. Over the next two decades, the global push for food and energy security and for sustaining urbanization will place unprecedented demands on water.

Ours is a "thirsty" world, in which agriculture and energy compete with the needs of cities. At the same time, climate change may worsen the situation by increasing water stress and extreme-weather events. Hence, the water and climate nexus can no longer be a side event at global-climate talks. All of this is happening while the important push for universal access to water and sanitation services -- despite the impressive gains over the past several decades -- remains an unfinished agenda.

The Sustainable Development Goal on water recognizes its unique and interconnected nature, with one overarching goal for water bringing together formerly disparate approaches. It states, "Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all."The challenge for all nations is implementation.

Three important issues define this challenge.

First, building and fixing pipes isn't enough. Efforts must concentrate on fixing the institutions that fix the pipes and their governance structures in order to make universal and sustainable access to water and sanitation services a reality. This also means factoring behavioral insight into infrastructure-related policies and programs.

Vietnam has provided access to clean water to 1.3 million people in 4 provinces in the Red River Delta, including 100 percent of the poor people living there, by better understanding and empowering communities themselves. The water supply was established under innovative enterprises, with proper management and operation capacity, communities held a 10 percent stake in the enterprises, which ensured a strong sense of community ownership and commitment, as well as deep community involvement in the planning, supervision, construction, operation and maintenance.

Further, through a revolving fund managed by the Women's Union, households received access to low-interest loans to build or rehabilitate more than 48,000 hygienic toilets and sanitation facilities, while also promoting hygienic behavior, increasing the percentage of households with hygienic toilets from 25 percent to 87 percent. The government's partnership with the World Bank was funded with around $110 million, and due to its success, additional financing has been provided to expand and scale up successful experiences to a National Target Program, targeting 240 communes in eight other provinces!

Second, in the context of water security, more than ever, pricing and valuation of water has become essential. Today, the world is seeking to put a price on carbon, but there is uncertainty on how to value water. Pricing will need to play the role of supporting water efficiency and reducing waste; facilitating the allocation of water between competing needs; creating accountability in water-service providers; meeting environmental needs; and securing universal access and affordability. A single price cannot meet these differing objectives, but no pricing or underpricing leads to inefficiency, inequity, and mis-governance. Indeed, the most expensive water, especially for poor people, is free water. Time and again studies have shown that subsidies in water are often captured by wealthier people, while poor revenue streams for service providers undermine their accountability and ability to universalize services, leaving poor households without formal water service. The Gordian knot of pricing water can only be cut in the context of institutional reform, sector governance, and ensuring that the linkage with the state can allow distributional goals to be addressed through effective safety nets financed separately and securely.

Third, we have to combine forces with global partners, key civil-society organizations and others to prioritize water in the international arena, including at places like the Paris climate talks (COP21) and beyond. Climate change is water change: floods, droughts and extreme weather. We must work together to secure the support necessary to help countries build resilient cities and communities.

As an example of what we can do, the Xinjiang Turpan Water Conservation Project in China is helping improve water resources management in the Turpan Basin, the hottest and driest place in the country. It has already reduced over-extraction of already-limited groundwater supply by almost 25 million m3 -- the equivalent of 250,000 Olympic-size swimming pools -- while 42,100 meters of irrigation canals have been rehabilitated. Among other measures, an innovative evapotranspiration-based integrated water management system is helping officials assess, plan and allocate water, supported by the world's latest remote sensing technology on evapotranspiration measurement. This is already helping increase farmers' income.

For some "a water secure world for all" is an aspiration. For us it is a must. At stake is our fight to eradicate extreme poverty and boost shared prosperity.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, "What's Working: Sustainable Development Goals," in conjunction with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The proposed set of milestones will be the subject of discussion at the UN General Assembly meeting on Sept. 25-27, 2015 in New York. The goals, which will replace the UN's Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015), cover 17 key areas of development -- including poverty, hunger, health, education, and gender equality, among many others. As part of The Huffington Post's commitment to solutions-oriented journalism, this What's Working SDG blog series will focus on one goal every weekday in September. This post addresses Goal 6.

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