Summary of Live Q&A discussion on the Guardian Development Professionals Network, which included RWSN input on the expert panel.
How can water be better managed to ensure enough supply for a growing global population? Our panel of water experts have their say.
Calculate the water available: We need a better accounting of our “water balance sheet”. In many places, we don’t have any idea how current and near-term future demand matches up with the available surface and groundwater supplies. The WRI’s Aqueduct tool has a water supply/demand indicator – called “baseline water stress” – that gives a good preliminary read on whether local water use is sustainable or not. Betsy Otto, global director – water programme, World Resources Institute, Washington DC, US, @wriaqueduct
Link global water use: Although the Swiss are quite efficient at using water within our country, we have a huge water footprint because of all the food and goods we import, often from very water stressed parts of the world. Globalisation means there is a global water economy at play. Government regulation or taxation could nudge behaviours onto a more sustainable path. Sean Furey, water and sanitation specialist, Skat, St Gallen, Switzerland, @thewatercyclist
Think across sectors: Currently, those who work on “water services” think almost exclusively in terms of access, and those who work on “water resources” think in terms of sectors and water usage. I think the water service people (myself included) need to think harder about where the water for increasing coverage is going to come from, and how we can best implement sanitation services that protect water resources. Sophie Trémolet, director, Trémolet Consulting, London, United Kingdom, @stremolet
Treat water resources better: For a long time we treated water as limitless, and the incentive structures in cities and rural areas pushed people towards unsustainable practices. Water distribution being highly subsidised by governments doesn’t help create awareness about its actual value. We must make measurable efforts to change water-use habits in a global scale. Carlos Hurtado Aguilar, manager – sustainable development of water resources, FEMSA Foundation, Monterrey, Mexico
Develop water monitoring and regulation: Governments can provide both regulatory sideboards – such as requirements for full cost recovery on water tariffs – and incentives – such as cost-share on water reuse and rainwater harvesting systems. For developing countries (and many developed countries) this may feel like a daunting task, but governments do this sort of thing for education, energy, and other sectors. It’s high time to do the same for water. Betsy Otto
Establish accountability mechanisms: To secure a safe water supply for the poorest people, service providers should get into trouble when they fail to provide the services the poorest need. There should be cross-subsidies between the rich and the poor but most importantly cross-subsidies that work in reverse should be eliminated. With the money saved, direct subsidies can be given to the poor. We should also encourage the poorest people to be more self-reliant (e.g. encourage rainwater harvesting practices) and to demand good quality services as customers. Sophie Trémolet
Construct better water points: I’ve been looking at water point data in various countries and the number of boreholes and wells that are reported dry or seasonal only is shocking. In places like Sierra Leone, Liberia and Tanzania, more than 15 to 20% of water points fail in the first year after construction. That’s why we are working with Wateraid and Unicef to improve water well drilling practices. Poor communities often have to contribute a great deal for a new water point, so it clearly isn’t right when they are left with a dud. Sean Furey
Invest in simple, efficient irrigation technology: Some means of beating water scarcity in agriculture – for example, farming close to rivers – are cheap but unsustainable. This could of course be prevented if there is an effort to invest in simple but efficient technologies for irrigation. This would break the vicious cycle where water scarcity leads to the invasion of marginal lands near rivers, which in turn undermines the ability of the river system to replenish its water resources, leading to further scarcity. Greenwell Matchaya, researcher and economist, International Water Management Institute, Pretoria, South Africa, @IWMI_
Promote rainwater harvesting: We need to challenge the way that rainwater harvesting is thought of. Everyone knows about it, but its use and implementation is piecemeal and I don’t see any big agencies or donors pushing it forward. Can we have a ‘reinvent rainwater harvesting’ challenge? Sean Furey
Secure sufficient financing. To guarantee future populations have reliable access to water and sanitation, the top priority is securing the money to ensure that systems are built and adequately maintained over the years. Sophie Trémolet
Work with communities: The sustainability of water interventions is essential if we want communities to actually have better opportunities for development in the future. Helping community leaders take ownership of their water solutions and transferring that to their neighbours is one of the best ways to ensure projects remain a part of people’s lives. Carlos Hurtado Aguilar
Invest in staff skills and capacity: To get good water data requires skilled hydrometric staff. It isn’t sexy and it is often the first budget line to be cut when departments are squeezed but it’s essential. I worked in Liberia (before the Ebola outbreak) last year and one of the major challenges for managing water resources we found is that there are hardly any measurements of anything and it’s difficult to guarantee the quality of the information that does exist. Sean Furey
Apply smart strategies: WRI’s global analysis is finding that future water stress is driven far more by demand than supply. Even in areas that will experience big hydrologic impacts from climate change, unmanaged demand will be a bigger impact. Ironically, that is cause for some optimism. If we apply the smart strategies that we already know work in the urban, rural and agricultural contexts, we can reduce future conflict and secure more water for equitable development and growth. Betsy Otto
Read the full Q&A here.
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