The independent news organization of Duke University

A thirst for equality

guest column

According to the United Nations, 783 million and 2.5 billion people lack access to reliable drinking water and sanitation facilities, respectfully. Consequently, people are forced to defecate in public spaces and travel great distance to collect water. Almost 50 percent of all hospital beds around the world are filled with people suffering from diarrheal diseases, and exposure to contaminated water contributes to 3.5 million preventable deaths annually.

These sobering statistics have profound implications on communities worldwide. The execution of the United Nation’s 6th Sustainable Development Goal—to ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all—will be integral to the success of many other Sustainable Development Goals, including No Poverty; Zero Hunger; Good Health & Wellbeing; Quality Education; Gender Equality; Life Under Water, and Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions. But until the goals set out by SDG 6 are achieved, the human right to clean drinking water and basic sanitation will remain unrealized, even in developed nations. Recent events in Flint, Michigan have exposed the severity of these problems in the United States.

In April 2014, Flint experienced a full-blown water crisis following the city’s switch from Lake Huron back to a Flint River water supply. The highly polluted Flint River was treated with so much chlorine that it became extremely acidic and corroded old lead pipes, which caused dangerous levels of lead to leach into the city’s new water supply.

Flint city officials continued to insist that the Flint River water was a safe, quality product despite its visible effects on public health, and it took Governor Snyder’s administration eighteen months to respond to citizens’ pleas for clean water and medical support. Snyder finally announced a multi-million-dollar plan to reconnect Flint to the Lake Huron water system and began provisioning water bottles and filters to residents in October 2015. However, this crisis was a product of decades of irresponsible water policies, noncompliance with federal laws, aging infrastructure and industrial pollution, and state officials have yet to address many of these facets.

Flint is now in recovery mode, but the crisis has proved costly. Repair costs are projected to reach $300 billion, while chronic exposure to lead-contaminated water has induced dramatic behavioral and academic changes among the city’s children. Given the high poverty rate in Flint, it will be challenging for the city to make a strong recovery when the youngest generation has been placed in an even more difficult position to break the cycle of poverty.

Similarly devastating water and sanitation problems affect the lives of billions of people, and the consequences become exaggerated in parts of the world where water is naturally scarce and governments lack the capacity to address citizens’ needs. However, these stories don’t dominate the media cycle and do not get the attention they deserve. The real and voiceless victims of modern water and sanitation problems are women and girls.

In sub-Saharan Africa, women and girls are unable to reach their full potential in the classroom and workforce because they often spend six hours daily (a collective 40 billion hours each year) fetching water.[i] Their attendance rates and academic performances further suffer if they miss school or work to care for sick family members, or are experiencing diarrheal diseases and chronic hunger themselves. Many schools also lack separate toilet facilities, forcing girls to drop out when they reach puberty.

Women play a foundational role in keeping their communities afloat, so when water- and sanitation-related issues reinforce gender inequalities and hinder productivity, the entire community suffers and the cycle of poverty persists.

The exploitation and mismanagement of finite water resources also threatens biodiversity and the planet. The most poignant example of this would be the damming of the Colorado River throughout the 20th century. The Colorado was once an important source of sediments and nutrients to the Gulf of California. The nutrient-rich water mixed with the Upper Gulf’s salty tides created a suitable environment for many important aquatic species. However, the damming and diversion of the Colorado impeded the flow of sediments and nutrients to the Gulf, which caused the fish population to plummet and in turn robbed the region of a reliable food source as well as fisheries of great commercial and cultural importance.

What will these consequences mean for those of us who do not live in water-stressed areas? A lot, actually. Water is becoming an increasingly contested resource, and although there have not been wars fought over water, disagreements over water ownership can increase tensions between hostile parties. However, water wars will become a reality in the near future due to water’s economic importance and increasing scarcity. Water mirrors oil in this respect given that many wars have been fought over the rights to finite oil reserves. However, water is arguably more conflict-prone due to human dependency on the resource for survival.

There are 276 trans-boundary river basins shared by two or more countries and therefore, 276-plus opportunities for water wars to break out between states or rival groups. Such conflicts, along with droughts, will force millions of environmental refugees to relocate. Additionally, water conflicts undermine economic growth and political stability, thereby fostering a breeding ground for rebellions and terrorists. Water wars, whether they occur abroad or between our own states, will drag the United States into new conflicts and will undoubtedly affect the lives of Americans.

This is not to say progress is not underway. Recent initiatives such as the 7th Millennium Development Goal—SDG 6’s predecessor—have made water and sanitation top-priority issues, but have failed to address the water-related needs of millions of people. These efforts will become increasingly complicated as climate change, population growth, rising energy demand, and urbanization place further stress on water and sanitation resources and infrastructure.

Long-term solutions for addressing water and sanitation problems are more complex than merely developing infrastructure and provisioning supplies. When wells are built in Africa but community members are not educated on how to maintain the well or manage the water, the wells are often destroyed or degraded within three years. Education is therefore essential for reaching full sustainability, and all nations, rich or poor, will benefit from learning how to sustainably use and manage water resources.

The introduction of new technologies into communities worldwide is also essential for providing people of all circumstances equal access to clean water and adequate sanitation. The water catching billboard in Lima, Peru, for example, removes water vapor from the atmosphere and generates a potable water supply for thousands of the city’s water-deprived residents.

Technical and financial support from NGOs and other humanitarian organizations will play a critical role in remedying water scarcity and unequal access. For every $1 invested in sanitation, for instance, there was a return of $5.50 in lower health costs, more productivity, and fewer premature deaths.

Water’s ability to influence health, gender equality, community resilience, economic stability, ecological integrity, and global peace makes it the sustainability issue of the 21st century. The implementation of the 6th Sustainable Development Goal is allowing advocates, policymakers and international humanitarian organizations to rethink their approach towards addressing water and sanitation issues.

Efforts in the upcoming decades need to not only focus on the provision of these resources, but on doing it in such a way that it reduces the systematic health risks and inequalities produced by insufficient and unreliable water and sanitation resources. A full commitment to achieving the goals set out by the 6th Sustainable Development Goal is integral to empowering water-stressed communities and achieving global environmental, economic and social sustainability. Until this Goal is achieved, water scarcity and contamination will continue to threaten economic, health and job security, while heightening tensions between water-stressed nations.

The 6th Sustainable Development Goal is giving us a chance to close many of the gaps accentuated by water inequality and scarcity, while bolstering the viability of all life on Earth. Now is the most critical point in human existence to think mindfully, act responsibly and end our abusive relationship with water.


Share and discuss “A thirst for equality” on social media.