Editor’s note: Matt Damon and Gary White are co-founders of Water.org. The views expressed are their own. This is the fifth in a series of articles from the World Economic Forum on the key challenges facing the world in 2015 as part of their Outlook on the Global Agenda. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
Having been in the field, most recently in India, I have seen that access to safe water is just a few dollars away for many people. A small loan can create a pathway to a household water tap. Making access to capital ubiquitous and affordable for those living in poverty would go a long way towards eliminating water stress.
Due to a combination of problems, including rapid population growth, constrained water supplies and high levels of poverty, countries such as India, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Nigeria will be hit the hardest by this trend. Resource-constrained water stress will be the norm for many countries in Asia, while finance-constrained water stress will be the norm for many countries in Africa. This is reflected in the fact that experts surveyed by the World Economic Forum expect Sub-Saharan Africa to be the most affected region, closely followed by Asia.
Despite the obstacles we face, there is room for optimism. We believe that more will be done to increase the efficiency of water in agriculture, which accounts for more than 70 percent of water use. Awareness about the global water crisis is also set to keep growing over the next year, and the private sector is already looking closely at how it can play a stronger role in helping the communities in which they operate, especially in emerging markets.
The health crises of HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and now Ebola have spurred the global community. I believe that this issue will become every bit as important. The misconception that everyone affected is equally poor and waiting for top-down charity is one of the biggest obstacles preventing universal access to safe water. People must urgently recognize that, for 750 million of us, the water crisis is very real.
Perceptions and misconceptions are certainly invoked by “the water crisis.” Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, is often seen as an arid environment. Yet this notion obscures the fact that huge swathes of the African continent have abundant water resources – this may explain why, of all the regions surveyed by the World Economic Forum, African respondents ranked water stress lower on their list of global trends for 2015. Although there may be lots of water in the region, lack of access by people to improved water supply is a crisis now.
Right here are the two main components of water crisis: water resource and water access. We tend to focus on the former when considering the concept of water crisis, particularly in places where water is scarce.
Even where resources are plentiful, there are millions of people who lack access. While the United Arab Emirates has very little in the way of water resources, for example, they have the financial means to ensure the provision of clean water. Ethiopia, on the other hand, is known as the water tower of Africa, but more than half its population do not have access to a safe and reliable source.
In Asia, resource constraint may not be the key driver, but those resources can be depleted quickly given high population density. Crises emerge where there is poverty and a lack of financial resources to combat the problem. In India, there are more than 100 million people without access to improved water supplies, and this is primarily due to poverty.
Climate change will undoubtedly be a big factor in the future, as it will have a dramatic effect on water distribution. As sea levels rise in Bangladesh, salt water intrusion is going to be very problematic for the significant number of people living in areas of low elevation – especially as there is little capacity for treating water. If you imagine living in a water-rich area that becomes water-stressed in the space of a decade, it’s easy to expect crises to emerge quickly.
As water stress increases across the world, there will be political consequences. Will we see neighbouring governments, such as those of Pakistan and India, cooperating or manufacturing further tensions in order to seize resources?
Governments must play a central role. For a start, water treatment and distribution in urban areas is a natural monopoly, as it doesn’t make sense to construct multiple sets of pipes from different companies. In many developed countries, there’s more financial and political will to invest in long-term infrastructure, while in developing countries, it’s not uncommon to see utilities lacking the means to invest in long-term infrastructure and often it is the poor who are left out when this infrastructure bypasses the slums.
Our work at Water.org shows that even people living at the base of the economic pyramid have the potential to be customers. While we believe that affordable access to water is a basic human right, the poor have the potential to meet us halfway if we can give them access to the right financial tools such as microfinance and the ability to connect to the water supply infrastructure.