World Water Day: Two thirds of world population could face water shortages

New EU approaches to improving access to safe drinking water in developing countries are starting to bear fruit, writes Neven Mimica.

By Neven Mimica

21 Mar 2016

World Water Day, on 22 March, is an opportunity to emphasise the vitality of water. Leonardo da Vinci once said, "water is the driving force of all nature." This is a powerful message, particularly for developing countries that continue to struggle for access to clean and safe water.

As the world's largest provider of development assistance, the European Union has long kept a watchful eye over the water sector, an essential asset in fighting poverty, inequality and climate change. Nonetheless, our past experience has opened our eyes to the bigger picture.

Access to water alone, without significant improvements in sanitation, will not be able to help fight diseases, taper off child mortality and reduce poverty. Through this broader perspective we can address the close interdependence of these sectors.


Thankfully, we are not starting from scratch. Water was already identified as a key priority within the Millennium Development Goals, which were due to be met by 2015. The objective was to reduce by half the population lacking access to clean water.

Thanks to European financial assistance, over 74 million people (greater than the population of France) in developing countries now have access to drinking water and more than 27 million improved their sanitation facilities.

Since 2004, we have used numerous new instruments to address water challenges, including the EU's water facility, targeting rural and peri-urban areas in African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries with €712m from 2004-2013. Through this facility, with its bilateral support to developing countries, the EU is funding over 300 projects in over 60 countries.

Let me give you some examples of our work on water using projects that I have visited so far during my time as Commissioner. During my visit to Peru last October, I witnessed some of the challenges they face.

Only 3.7 per cent of the population has access to the country's greatest water source, the Amazon, which accounts for 97.2 per cent of its water resources. To overcome this unequal access, the EU supplied €3.15m financial aid to help build two water containers (La Atarjea I and II) to store raw and potable water.

This has secured access to clean and safe water for some of the nine million people living in Lima. The 'Project for the expansion and improvement of water supply, sewage, waste water treatment and reuse systems in the Lima metropolitan area' was launched in March 2014.

It is improving both water resources and the public health of Lima residents. This action was initiated jointly with the German cooperation agency, KfW and Lima's Water Utility Service, SEDAPAL.

The EU is assisting Latin American countries in the water sector in the form of partnerships, trying to ensure that all the concerned parties are heard and are part of the design and implementation of projects.

Last November in Africa, I visited a project in Samburu county, Kenya, where I saw how EU support had built a rain water collector to help local communities that previously had had to trek long distances in search of water for household and livestock use.

Samburu is considered a water scarce county, with most areas regularly experiencing extreme water shortage during periodic dry spells. The water project is currently supporting 400 households and 7000 livestock.

Women are now walking shorter distances to fetch water, allowing them to undertake other economic activities. Livestock health has also improved, as they too are walking shorter distances to water points.

Another key area I'd like to highlight is what we're doing to help build resilience. For example, in order to help the most vulnerable people, the EU has decided to renew the RESET programme to support resilience building in Ethiopia. The country is being hit particularly hard by the most severe climate patterns on record, El Niño, provoking severe droughts.

The numbers speak for themselves; in the past year alone, the number of food insecure people in need of urgent humanitarian assistance increased from 2.9 million at the beginning of 2015 to over 10 million. This is on top of the almost eight million chronically food insecure people in the country.

RESET will increase access to the supply of drinking water and improve sanitation and hygiene, as well as water resource management, among other objectives. This is done for instance by developing irrigation schemes that are accessible to the poor, therefore ensuring the use of modern technology and better quality varieties of crops.

Despite all of these positive examples of what's being achieved, unfortunately it's clear that much more still needs to be done. 880 million people worldwide (or one in eight people) still lack access to safe water and 2.4 billion people (or one in three people) still lack access to a toilet.

These shocking figures are the reason why water is listed in the Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by world leaders in September 2015.

That's also why we aim to achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all by 2030. We are also examining the interlinkages between SDGs, in particular in the context of the water-energy-food security nexus, addressing the high water-related risks in relation with food and energy production. The Commission has launched a programme for this, supporting regional dialogues in different parts of the world.

Strengthening cooperation in the water and sanitation sector is crucial; water scarcity is becoming an increasingly pressing issue. At the current consumption rate, by 2025, two thirds of the world's population may face water shortages.

Nevertheless, I am confident that together with our partners, we will be able to meet the challenge. Strong cooperation is the key to sustainable development and providing access to water and sanitation for all.


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