Quentin Grafton (Australian National University, Australia), Safa Fanaian (University of Oxford, UK), Gabriela Sacco (Institute for Global Dialogue and Culture of Encounter, Argentina) and Luis Liberman (Instituto Universitario del Agua y el Saneamiento, Argentina)
World Water Day is celebrated each year on the 22 March. The theme in 2021 is ‘valuing water’ with the aim of getting people, institutions and governments to reflect on how water is central to our world. Access to water is essential to our very survival and sits at the heart of how we frame sustainability (set out explicitly in Sustainable Development Goal 6). It’s basic to life; it unites us, but it also divides us. Global Water Forum’s Quentin Grafton together with colleagues Safa Fanaian, Gabriela Sacco and Luis Liberman make a plea here to place water justice at the core of any reflection on the many values to water.
Any discussion on the ‘value’ of water must incorporate the notion of justice. At a minimum, water justice requires:
-that everyone’s basic water needs are met;
-all those materially affected by water decisions have a respected ‘voice’ at the table; and
-substantive action is taken to correct for past and continuing water injustice.
Without justice, and a transformational shift to a ‘culture of care’, the worthy Sustainable Development Goal to ‘Ensure access to water and sanitation for all’ will never be achieved and billions will remain unserved or underserved in terms of access to clean water and improved sanitation.
The COVID-19 pandemic acutely illustrates the fault lines of water justice. The poor and vulnerable, especially in high density communities who have no, or limited access to the most basic water services, are particularly exposed.
While much has, and is, being done in the ‘Water Action Decade’, there is so much more to do.
The great water ‘divides’
By far the greatest water needs are in low-income countries, but the water ‘divide’ between rich and poor remains in some of the world’s wealthiest nations. Water insecurity is not limited to the global South as there are some 15 million Americans, mostly the urban poor, who have had their water shut off because they could not afford to pay their water bills. More than 20 million Americans suffer from water systems that violate health-based quality standards.
In Australia, a country that prides itself on its water expertise (and wants to play a global leadership role), there is a lack of adequate water and sewage infrastructure affecting tens of thousands of Australians in remote communities. This neglect is a major contributor to the disadvantage experienced by Australia’s First Peoples.
Yet the poor continue to be insufficiently valued to be given the dignity of access to water of an adequate standard. In this time of COVID-19, where trillions have been spent and will be spent by governments in overcoming the pandemic and its impacts, there are still inadequate funds (including spending in rich countries for their own citizens) to deliver the human right of ‘water for all’.
In South Asia, systemic structural injustice perpetuates an unequal burden on marginalised communities who are often at the frontline when any water crisis arises. The result is that some 134 million people in South Asia do not have access to safe drinking water. Impoverished communities in rural and urban regions bear a higher cost to source water, often of questionable quality. Many informal settlements in cities are off-grid and rely on private water supply (tankers). The market-based and disconnected nature of water supply alienates communities and ensures an expensive and exhausting daily battle for water security.
COVID-19 has resulted in a sharp rise in unemployment and economic hardship that makes water access even more challenging. Maintaining basic hygiene was already difficult and costly; the impossibility of following handwashing directives to mitigate COVID-19 is another barrier that increases the disproportionate health burden on the poor.
Unequal distribution of risk
Much of the burden of providing/fetching water often falls on women and girls. This gender burden is exacerbated by barriers to paid employment and climate change that includes reduced river and groundwater quality, and will result in an eventual decline in the water available from Himalayan rivers, and will increase rainfall shocks and floods.
Water risks, including biodiversity loss, reduced water availability, relocation, flooding and rising water pollution, are also unequally distributed. Such risks are felt most acutely by vulnerable communities that encounter disasters and which have inadequate buffers of their own to ‘bounce back’ without support; as illustrated by the impacts associated with last month’s flood in the Himalayas from a ‘breakaway’ glacier.
In Latin America, more than 160 million people lack access to safe drinking water and more than 80 million still lack access to improved sanitation services. Huge gaps exists within and among Latin American countries with Haití, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Brazil and Bolivia being the worst affected. Big divides also exist between rural and urban areas in most countries in Latin America. Paradoxically for a continent home to about one third of the world’s fresh water resources, and where gross average water availability is one of the world’s highest, many still do not have their basic water needs satisfied. COVID-19 has highlighted the disastrous effect of this water injustice.
But writing about water injustice is not enough. It demands a response from us all. In the words of Pope Francis: “Our right to water is also a duty regarding water. […] but we need to work concretely to bring about political and juridical commitments in this regard.” In sum, bending towards water justice requires urgent and comprehensive action, and not just in terms of water, as broader and long-standing issues of economic and social injustice must also be resolved.
A global commitment requires transformative change
Sustainable Development Goal 6, ‘Water for all’, is a global commitment and also a human right. It is no coincidence that those who suffered most from COVID-19 have been some of the most affected from water injustice. Our global response in 2021 should be to redirect spending and actions to fully respond to the world’s long-standing water crisis that poses grave economic risks. This requires bold public spending, improved water governance and real justice to ‘build back better’ and to promote well-being and inclusiveness.
Sadly, there is no inevitable arc of history that bends towards justice. Water justice cannot be reduced to a series of processes and formulae. Instead, it calls for attention to context, circumstances and consequences. Water justice will only be achieved by collective action of those committed to its delivery and a recognition that the world needs, and cannot wait any longer for, transformative change to deliver water for all.
Quentin Grafton is Professor of Economics, Australian Laureate Fellow, Convenor of the Water Justice Hub, Convenor of Geneva Actions on Human Water Security and Director of the Centre for Water Economics, Environment and Policy (CWEEP) at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University. In April 2010 he was appointed the Chairholder, the UNESCO Chair in Water Economics and Transboundary Water Governance, which he used to establish the Global Water Forum. He has worked in many different countries in response to water injustice and insecurity which he sees as one of the world’s greatest challenges.
Safa Fanaian has worked with various development agencies to improve water security in South Asia. Her current research focuses on the understanding and mapping governance of water-related risks faced by growing riverine cities in the global south. She is also a National Geographic Explorer. Safa is currently an Oxford-Indira Gandhi Scholar at the Oxford-India Centre for Sustainable Development, Somerville College at Oxford University.
Gabriela Sacco is a Founding Member and the Director of the Institute for Global Dialogue and Culture of Encounter (IGDCE). She is also responsible for the training and education programs of over 7,000 workers of AySA (a water utility) from the labour union’s side. She has led the training of over 14,000 members of cooperatives of work from vulnerable neighborhoods in secondary water and sewage networks. In 2018 and 2019, she was the Co-ordinator of the IHE-Delft Advanced Diploma in Urban Water and Sanitation delivered in Argentina and is currently the Director of the International Diploma in Water Governance, Regulation and Integrated Water Management delivered by the IGDCE with the IHE-Delft and the University of Notre Dame. She is also a member of the World Bank’s Equal Aqua Platform.
Luis Liberman is a Professor at the University of Buenos Aires. He was Vice Minister of Education of the City of Buenos Aires. In 2014 he founded the Institute for Global Dialogue and Culture of Encounter from where he has led an extensive work in right to water issues, particularly in Latin America. In 2017 he organised the first Human Right to Water international seminar at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences of the Vatican and in 2019 he was one of the special guests to speak about water at the Amazon Synod. He directed the project for the creation of the University Institute of Water and Sanitation in Argentina; the first University in the region devoted exclusively to the subject.
The views expressed in this article belong to the individual authors and do not represent the views of the Global Water Forum, the UNESCO Chair in Water Economics and Transboundary Water Governance, UNESCO, the Australian National University, Oxford University, or any of the institutions to which the authors are associated. Please see the Global Water Forum terms and conditions here.
This World Water Day, ask yourself if the people in your region are afforded basic water justice? Are their basic water needs met? Are those materially affected by water decisions represented at the decision-making table? Are substantive actions being taken to correct for past and continuing water injustice?