‘Access to water is a question of good governance, not resources’

Global water consumption is on the rise. [Jesada Sabai/Shutterstock]

Water resources are unequally distributed on the planet. But access to water and sanitation depends mainly on good urban planning, Cécile Gilquin told EURACTIV.fr in an interview.

Cécile Gilquin is the head of the water and sanitation division at the French Agency for Development (AFD). On 14 March 2018, she will take part in the conference ID4D “L’eau : quels défis et quelles solutions pour la ville de demain ?” in Paris, organised by the AFD in partnership with the Paris municipality, .

This interview was published in partnership with the development brainstorming blog ID4D.

Water management in urban areas is complicated, particularly in big cities in developing countries. Why is that so?

There is a major issue with water supply and water management in urban areas. 54% of the world’s population already lives in urban areas, and by the end of the century this figure could reach 60% to 92% of the total population. We will therefore see the urban population double in certain cities, especially in Africa.

Historically people have settled where there is water. The first issue is therefore to meet the demands of a growing urban population, we also need to take into account issues relating to good urban planning and the consequences of global warming.

Does water consumption at a global level have a tendency to increase?

In developing countries, water consumption is on the increase because of the fitting of flush toilets and running water. Therefore, consumption is greater than where you have a standpipe which involves going to collect water outside the house. Having direct access to water in some cities compared to access from a standpipe has consequences on water demand.

However, in developed countries such as France we are witnessing a decrease in water consumption thanks to people limiting their use of water, water-efficient household appliances, etc.

At a global level, water withdrawals have greatly increased in comparison to population growth, because of direct water consumption but also because of products in which water is used for their production. The evolution of food codes have also greatly affected it such as eating a lot of meat (whose production requires 15,400 litres of water on average per kilo).

Some consumer goods such as jeans also affect it as their production requires a lot of water.

Why is direct access to water important for the well-being of the population?

Access to water and sanitation is a key public health issue, as in the absence of drinking water we are exposed to diarrhoeal diseases which are the second highest cause of death among children under 5.

Access to water is key to eliminate diarrhoeal diseases as you need to drink clean water but also change hygiene practices, and this can only be done with access to drinking water at home.

In France, average water consumption is around 144 litres per day per person. To drink and meet their hygiene needs, each person needs 20 to 50 litres of water everyday according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

How can urban areas tackle the growing need for water?

There is a headlong rush for investments to satisfy the water demand in cities, and most of the time it is underestimated. Urban planning is therefore crucial.

It takes around ten years to complete a project to a link a dam to a water treatment plant. Such projects need long-term planning, which is sometimes hard to achieve especially in politically unstable countries, but also in slums where the absence of planning regulations complicates the availability of the service.

However, solutions exist when water is scarce instead of looking for new sources it needs to be optimised first. We can improve the system performance by decreasing water losses, by spending money on replacing pipes, and raising awareness on waste.

In urban areas there is also the possibility of recycling waste water, which could constitute an additional source of water. In Singapore and in Namibia, thanks to the recycling of waste water it can be used in drinking water systems. This is a very rare technique, but the use of recycled waste water for irrigation in nearby fields, for example, could reduce water withdrawals in agriculture, which account for 70% water consumption.

Has access to water improved in recent years?

Access to water and sanitation is a human right recognised by the UN. However today, there are still 2.1 billion people in the world without proper access to water and sanitation, of which a large part lives in urban areas. By 2030, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have a set a goal of continuous access to quality water, which we must strive for.

In 2015 we had already reached the Millennium Development Goal (MDGs) on water access by halving the percentage of the world population without access to water. But in some geographical areas such as in Africa this goal was not met.

We always manage to increase the number of people with access to water in cities, but, in some cases, population growth is such that, no matter the progress made, the percentage of people with proper access to water does not change. This means that we need constant investments to absorb the urban population growth.

Are difficulties in water management limited to developing countries?

In most developing countries, almost all inhabitants have access to water. There are no connection issues. However, and we have witnessed this in Brazil and in California, there are sometimes problems with water supplies.

Water resources are unequally distributed around the world. But having access to water isn’t linked with the level of water stress. There are countries where people have good access to water no matter the extent of their exposure to water stress, such as in Morocco and Tunisia, as the infrastructure is already in place. There might be short-term problems such as is the case in South Africa at the moment, where a drought is causing water shortages.

In contrast, in certain countries such as is central Africa, there are no water stress problems, but there isn’t proper access to water as government authorities have not made it a political priority and have not made the necessary investments for it. Water access is a question of good governance, the first cause of lack of access to water and sanitation is not the shortage in water, but the lack of will or means made available by government authorities.

If we follow the evolution of GDP for water and sanitation in African states, we would see that they have not met the objectives they set out as they only spend around 0,27% of their national budget on such matters, this is simply too little.

Search for new urban water sparks conflict in parched Malawi

With increasingly prolonged droughts threatening worsening water shortages, Malawi is moving to shore up water supplies to its cities, including building new long-distance pipelines and dams.