How to provide safe water to billions of people by 2030

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Based on rising population, economic growth projections, and current efficiency levels, demand for water in South Africa is expected to rise by 17.7 billion m³ in 2030 while water supply is projected to amount to 15 billion m³, representing a 17% gap between water supply and demand (or a 2.7–3.8 billion m³ water deficit). This gap is critical, and if sustainable socio-economic growth is to be envisioned, such a gap has to be dealt with decisively over this period.

South Africa will have to resolve tough trade-offs between agriculture, key industrial activities such as mining and power generation, and large and growing urban centers. These trade-offs can cause tension and conflict among water users. No actor alone has the ability to solve these challenges, but much can be achieved if water users work together to identify shared solutions and implement strategies, policies, plans, and programs.

Water Challenges

  • 17% gap between water demand and practically available water supply by 2030
  • Agricultural water demand, which accounts for 61% of overall water use, is driven by irrigation, which has water losses of about 30%.
  • The mining sector contributes 18% to South Africa’s GDP; however, it also contributes to water pollution and generates excess mine water and acid mine drainage with high levels of contaminants.
  • An estimated 37% of the water in South Africa’s municipal systems is non-revenue water, a value of around 7 billion South African rand (US$ 500 million) annually.

Water scarcity means increasingly higher water costs, and allocative forces then direct water to prioritize urban and industrial usage, to which the country’s increase in total water demand is largely attributable. South Africa will have to resolve tough trade-offs between agriculture, key industrial activities such as mining and power generation, and large and growing urban centers. A number of technical solutions to this challenge exist: for example, fixing leaks could alone save an estimated 32% of municipal water supplies. However, the second draft of the National Water Resource Strategy of the Department of Water Affairs recognizes that success will depend on how effectively government can work with different stakeholders in the water sector.

Since the 1990s, the rate at which people around the world are gaining access to safe water has not changed. This means we won’t reach the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 6, 'Ensure access to water and sanitation for all', by the 2030 deadline.

We need to accelerate

According to UN-Water, the rate of progress needs to quadruple. In 2020, a considerable feat was achieved in a particularly tumultuous year: 107 million people gained access to safe drinking water at home. However, if we don’t come together and figure out how to reach more people faster, 1.6 billion people will still be without safe drinking water in 2030.

Water unlocks human potential, allowing people to achieve their goals

Drinking unsafe water poses a daily risk, with serious health consequences including sickness or death. When people start drinking water that is free from contamination, cases of waterborne disease drop dramatically. Babies have a better chance of living past the age of five, children can attend school regularly and parents can be steady providers. Water unlocks human potential and increases opportunities for people to succeed.

How do we reach more people, faster?

The good news is that the solutions for improved water don’t require NASA-level scientists. Technological solutions are already abundant. Many of us are most familiar with piped, chlorinated water but there are many other ways to get safe water into a home.

One proven approach is household water treatment. It follows the same steps as a municipal-level water treatment scheme, but can be done right at home: protect the source, treat the water, and transport and store it safely. By embracing this as an option, we can change many more lives sooner.

Image: CAWST

Here are three key components to accelerating progress.

Increase acceptance of alternatives to piped solutions—some leaders already do

The Government of Colombia is determined to reach 100% coverage by 2030. To get there, they are embracing alternatives to piped, chlorinated water that meet acceptable drinking-water quality standards. This is recognized through a change in their legislation to include household water treatment in combination with a variety of water sources (eg., hand-dug wells, springs, surface water).

Many of the solutions they are introducing can be manufactured close to home with local materials and are far less complex to operate and maintain than traditional, chlorinated, piped systems. Through outreach and education, communities are able to select solutions based on their specific context and what they are able to sustain.

If more decision makers and advisors adopt Colombia’s approach, more people will be able to take action to bring safe drinking water into their homes and communities. More people taking action collectively is essential to achieving universal access to safe drinking water.

Embrace household water treatment

Millions of people collect and use water daily from a variety of sources including those that are contaminated with chemicals and feces (human and animal). In many situations, such as in rural and fragile environments, pipes are not practical. And while people wait years for a pipe to arrive, they face daily risks from consuming the water at hand.

Although it is always good practice to use as clean a source as you can, household water treatment is “source agnostic.” This means that anyone, anywhere, can find a technology that works for their personal situation. Household water treatment options include everything from chlorine drops to biosand filters (filters that mimic nature to remove pathogens, using sand, gravel and a biological system). When people learn about and start using household water treatment for themselves and their families, it transforms their lives and provides an immediate solution to an immediate need.

  Water in South Africa -

“The biosand filter helps families consume drinking water that is safe. Thanks to this filter, our health and quality of life are improving”, says Amalfi Romero, a community leader in Los Cabritos, Colombia. “Our children are less sick with diarrheal diseases and skin infections. Water is everything.”

Build local capacity

Turning “water knowledge'' into common knowledge is key to reaching more people faster and building the community resilience needed to confront challenges like COVID and climate change.

The world needs more local experts who can build, implement and educate about water solutions that are the right fit for their communities. People everywhere can have enough basic knowledge to keep themselves and their families safe from waterborne disease.

Effective awareness programs, technical training, appropriate resource materials and supportive networks can set up anyone for success. When people have the education and confidence they need to get started, action proliferates and we may yet reach the 2030 goal of safe water for all.

“Behaviour change is key to everything we do,” says Sam Gil, CAWST Senior Global WASH Advisor. “Combine it with the right technology and services, and we can make lasting change.”