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Published on: 17/03/2021

Photo caption: Makethewe is pumping water using her family's rope pump. Her father, Tadesse, bought the pump with the help of a small loan that he paid back within 6 months. SNNPR, Ethioipa. Petterik Wiggers/Panos Pictures

It’s 22 March again and the internationally recognised celebration of water. Of course, we use and should celebrate water every day, very much like the unbirthday concept in Alice in Wonderland where something can actually be celebrated on any or all days of the year.

Valuing water

This year the theme is valuing water. That’s a fairly uncontroversial topic at first sight. It’s hard to argue with the idea that we should value water. There are so many things that water makes possible. An incredible range of roles in planetary health. We might worry about quenching our thirst, cleaning ourselves, watering the garden or catching a fish of course, but almost everything we eat, produce or use has some, and often a lot of water, embedded within it.

Water is undervalued because it does not attract the political attention and investment that it needs. The example from Banfora, Burkina where stakeholders recently came together to critically assess their progress in WASH is an exception rather than the norm.

Too many lack access to proper water services and we witness far too widely unsustainable use of the resource. We’ll soon be able to read much more about that in the latest comprehensive summary on the status of water in the World Water Development Report from the UN.  Our progress towards achieving the 8 targets of Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG 6) - which aims to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by 2030 – is not encouraging. The overall conclusion is that the world is not on track to achieve SDG 6.

To pick just one statistic: 3 billion people lacked a handwashing facility with soap in 2017. So, we were not well prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic where hand hygiene can contribute to prevention, and the risks from other diseases that are spread by poor hand hygiene remain far too high.

Governments, water providers and #voicesforwater

So what actually is there to celebrate?

Water is a fundamental public service so one thing we can celebrate today is governments that work for water. We see new examples every week of what can happen to water services when governments fail their citizens. But there are politicians also, locally and globally, that are standing up for water. Whether or not he will be the prime minister after the Dutch national election of 17 March, Mark Rutte has been planning to speak to a high-level UN meeting and show leadership on water. Recently we’ve seen some big new government commitments to infrastructure. The US has its WATER Act (Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity, and Reliability Act) seeking to spend 35 billion USD a year on water and wastewater, while the African Union has its Continental Africa Water Investment Program (AIP) that seeks to invest 160 million USD and leverage 30 billion for SDG water investments (but not per year!).

Water providers are on the frontline and should also be celebrated. Utilities should rightly receive most of the attention. It is only professionally managed utilities that are likely to be able to deliver safely managed services at scale. But let’s celebrate too the committees that are trying to make community-managed water systems work where it is the only option for the time being, and self-supplying households that decide to provide for themselves. We now think this latter model serves over a billion people, and more of the sources turn out to be improved than we had understood. These households value water, and are investing in it.

It’s people that are being undervalued when our institutions don’t deliver good water services. So let’s also celebrate the #voicesforwater: people who raise their voices and stand up for the rights of citizens that are currently being failed by water service providers or authorities. In South Africa, the gaps between good-looking policy frameworks and the reality of service delivery are being exposed by citizens and new solutions are emerging.

There are lots of others too. The role of women as water leaders is rightly in the news (read Sonamoni’s pride and How women gain power by investing in water). As are innovators in water. Maybe next year we will celebrate project managers (read about RUWASA’s transformation – part 1 and part 2).

Valuing water suggests something precious, something that we can each only get a little bit of and that we should be grateful for. Yes, but it’s also a right, and it’s within the grasp of our societies to get an adequate amount, and for it to be safe for drinking. What we should be valuing is water managers that make water supply and its renewable use possible within the limits of our environment. Those managers of course are all of us. Not just because we don’t leave the tap running unnecessarily, but when we vote, pay our water bills or raise our voice.


At IRC we have strong opinions and we value honest and frank discussion, so you won't be surprised to hear that not all the opinions on this site represent our official policy.

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