Can everyone have access to safe drinking water by 2030?

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By Ibrahim Thiaw

The good news: everyone, all 8.6 billion of us, are expected to have access to clean drinking water at a walking distance of no more than 15 minutes from our homes by 2030. It sounds like a tall order when 1 in every 5 people lacks access to clean and safe water today. But this goal is achievable if recent global trends on access to clean drinking water continue. The bad news: To sustain that achievement through to 2050 and beyond, bolder action is still needed in at least two areas.

First, obstacles to safe water access must be overcome together. For instance, actions to tap fresh water to supply areas where it is scarce must go hand-in-hand with measures to keep the land healthy. Only then will we provide surface and ground water long into the future. Second, we must identify and act on the obstacles impeding access to safe water that were uncovered in a recent assessment.

Three key obstacles are known to hinder access to safe potable water for 1.2 billion people globally. One, the physical absence of a fresh water source. Two, inadequate infrastructure to supply the water. A third emerging challenge is the ever-increasing pressure on fresh water reserves above and below ground due to increased demand and the Earth’s warming, both resulting from the combined effects of poor land management and climate change.

A recent assessment using data from countries to examine global trends in the proportion of the population with access to potable water yielded interesting results. The well-known drivers known to influence access to safe drinking water — deforestation, poor crop and soil management, overgrazing, disturbing the water cycle, discharges and industrial activities – are not telling the full story.

Access to safe drinking water increased among rural populations in all developing regions of the world. Even with population growth, over half of the rural population in the 121 primarily developing countries that submitted the reports now has access to safe drinking water. By contrast, the proportion of the urban population with access to safe drinking water declined, in part due to much higher rates of demographic change in urban areas. Many of these new drivers reflect urbanization trends and far more complex – and interdependent— rural-urban linkages than in the past.

Certainly, the success achieved in rural areas underlines the effectiveness of the past strategy of integrated water management. We must continue with it. But an evolution in the drivers that facilitate or hinder access to safe drinking water is a red flag. It points to potential new obstacles that may require urgent action in order to meet the 2030 target or to sustain that achievement afterwards.

A more in-depth analysis of these drivers and their interaction with water and land management systems is necessary both to better understand the threats they pose and to identify opportunities for improved government response so no one is left behind. Action on these gaps will pre-empt the unintended consequences of policy failure, including increased insecurity and forced migration.

“Leaving no one behind” means investments in rural and urban areas must, at once, build resilience in rural systems and ensure access to safe drinking water in the urban areas keeps pace with urban growth. It means all future analyses on safe water access are seen through a sharper lens to ensure any social-economic inequalities are unmasked.

Leaving no one behind must mean also universal access to safe drinking water is guaranteed for future generations. The analysis suggests that the corrective measures in place today are inadequate, given the rapidly diminishing surface and ground fresh water sources, such as ice caps, aquifers and lakes, worldwide, due to climate change. Without adjustments in response to these trends, we could achieve the 2030 goal of universal access to safe water only to run out of fresh water sources for the long-term.

Let us never lose sight of the threats ahead and do all we can to keep the land that replenishes our surface and ground water sources in perfect health.(

Author is Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification and Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations

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