Water, food security, climate change: top concerns in an urbanizing world

August 29, 2011

STOCKHOLM – With its focus on water and global urbanization trends, the just-concluded Aug. 21-27 World Water Week Conference in Stockholm Sweden called on greater funding to assure sufficient clean water resources are available to meet present and future demands in rural and urban areas.

Conference participant Mary Obiero, water program coordinator for CWS’s East Africa office noted that 889 million people live in the world’s slums, according to UN estimates for 2010, and more than 70 per cent of Africa’s urban population lives in slums.

Obiero said those who live in slums are being referred to as the “un-served.”

“Water and sanitation are very serious problems in urban areas,” she said. “Without sanitation, people in urban areas are creating a lot of pollution and the problems that go with them.

“It’s estimated that half of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050. We have a big problem in terms of ways of providing water,” Obiero added.

CWS’s David Weaver, senior advisor for global advocacy, said concerns about massive urban population growth were prominent during the conference.

“Urban planning has been unfashionable over the last 30 years,” Weaver said. “But in developing countries, people who have no history in their lives and cultures of what we call infrastructure are leaving rural areas and going directly into cities, squatting on land at the edge of cities.

“How do you deal with the water/san needs of these huge masses and in an environmentally sustainable way? That’s what leaders are looking at,” he said.

“Only 10 percent of effluvia – worldwide — are treated before released to the environment. Organizing urban infrastructure is the job of government, local/urban.”

Obiero said that in Kenya, “Nairobi’s water utility will have a separate division to address the ‘un-served’ – those who won’t or can’t pay for water services but who in fact may end up paying more (to buy water).”

She added: “At the end of the day, people don’t pay for water, they pay for services, for the process of managing our water systems, getting water to the tap, to the people. Water, like air, should be for free. Kenya’s new constitution spelled out that water is a human right.”

But, Obiero said, the government is still working on providing that human right to everyone.

“Fact: to produce enough food to satisfy one person takes about 3,000 liters of water,” said Obiero. “We must look at water as part of addressing food security and climate change. Food production can’t stand on its own. We have to look at sanitation and agricultural processes that involve pollution.”

Obiero said conference attendees were looking ahead to the next World Water Day, whose focus will be water and food security.

“Water is everybody’s issue,” Weaver said. “It’s clear here at World Water Week that, on the one hand, we live in a highly globalized world where you’re impacted by global systems even if you don’t recognize it. But, on the other hand, there is such diversity in local settings that there is no one size fits all solution to these issues.

“It’s the general agreement that a lot of different options must be crafted to meet local conditions, and there has to be a lot of innovation at the local level to make it work right.”

In drought-plagued parts of Kenya and neighboring Uganda, CWS has assisted communities in developing small-scale solutions such as sub-surface sand dams, shallow wells, cattle troughs, and water retention devices that provide clean water sources close to the communities for human and livestock consumption and for agricultural use.