Right to water: a sustainability challenge

Right to water: a sustainability challenge

March 22, 2019

Right to water: a sustainability challenge

World Water Day is an opportunity to put the spotlight on the right to water, which over the years has become an increasingly important resource for sustainability

“Follow the Water” is the motto of the experts at NASA, the US Space Agency, who search the universe for extraterrestrial life. But why water? Because water creates suitable environmental conditions for plants to grow and for animals and humans to live in, making the Earth a perfect place for life. And the so-called “blue gold” is also an inalienable human right. This was established by the United Nations in 2010, recognizing that all individuals must be able to enjoy, without discrimination, the right to water, so that it is sufficient, safe and accessible for domestic and personal use. A few years earlier, during the 1992 Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro, the United Nations General Assembly decided to establish a World Water Day, which has been celebrated every year on March 22nd since 1993. Given the growing interest in the topic, on March 22, 2018, the General Assembly launched the International Decade for Action: “Water for sustainable development”, which will end in 2028. Increasing attention is being paid internationally to the fact that ensuring the right to water is now becoming more and more a global sustainability challenge. 

The problem in numbers

The theme of World Water Day 2019 is “Leaving no one behind”. In this way, the concept of the right to water, a universal and inalienable right, is reaffirmed, which must ensure access to water, its availability when needed and its safety, namely, uncontaminated water. In fact, as stated in the Water Economy report published by the Barilla Foundation, we must bear in mind that only 0.003% of all the water on the planet is theoretically usable and only about 0.001% is fairly accessible, of good quality and at a reasonable cost for it to be actually used by humans. In addition to these geophysical obstacles, there are others: for example, the growing population on the planet and the increase in global well-being, which cause water consumption to increase, or climate change and pollution caused by human activity, which reduce the availability of this precious liquid. As a result, the effects of all these factors are dramatically reflected in the numbers reported on the official website of the World Water Day: talking about the right to water becomes critical in the case of the 2.1 billion people that do not have “safe” water in their homes, or in the case of the more than 700 children under the age of 5 that die every day from diarrhea due to the consumption of polluted water or lack of sanitary facilities, as well as the approximately 159 million people who are forced to draw drinking water from ponds or streams. Water scarcity also has tremendous social consequences: in fact, it is estimated that 700 million people could be forced to migrate by 2030 due to a violation of their right to water. After all, “blue gold” is also the cause of many conflicts and, today, approximately 4 million people are already facing periods of extreme water scarcity for at least one month a year. This is a prime example that highlights the global nature of the phenomenon, which does not only affect the poorest countries: in 2018, Cape Town in South Africa was the first major city to literally run out of water. 

Is agriculture to blame?

Among the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, number 6 is entirely dedicated to the right to water. However, in order to ensure water for everyone, we must first understand how it is used today and where action can be taken accordingly, in the most effective way. Agriculture is undoubtedly the sector that has the greatest impact on the use of water resources, as it consumes 70% of freshwater, whereas the industrial sector consumes 22% and 8% is used for domestic purposes. As stated in a report published by Economist Intelligence Unit, a large part of the water used in agriculture is wasted due to inefficient irrigation, for example, which wastes up to 50% of the resource used. But when it comes to the consumption/waste of water, it is not sufficient to take into account the water consumed for irrigation, drinking or washing: we also need to draw attention to so-called "virtual water", which is hidden in the food we eat or in the clothes we wear (more than 9,000 liters of water are required for a kilogram of cotton) and that has been used throughout the product’s life cycle. 


It is difficult, but not impossible, to calculate the water footprint of the food we consume and understand its actual impact on health and the environment. The book The Water We Eat, written by Marta Antonelli and Francesca Greco, thoroughly analyzes the relationship between water and food security, citing, among others, the case of Italy, which is the third largest importer of virtual water in the world. 

Solutions at all levels

How can we deal with such a complex situation in order to try and achieve the goal we have set for 2030 of ensuring the right to water to the world’s population? According to Asit Biswas, an expert on the subject at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, “lack of money, scarcity, and so on — they’re all excuses. The problem (with water utilities) everywhere is bad management.” It is therefore essential, as stressed also by BCFN experts, to develop models and tools to promote “integrated” management in order to address the problem of the right to water, with ad hoc laws, but also by involving institutions so as to adequately assess the economic value of water resources. Water management models can differ greatly and strongly depend on the political, geographical and social context in which they are implemented. Israel, which is one of the most virtuous countries in terms of the right to water, has nationalized its entire supply, but this model cannot be easily exported to countries such as India, where an old law dating back to the British colonial period gives landowners full rights over all the water on their property. Technology can also play a significant role, as evidenced by the example of Israel where, thanks to the use of smart irrigation and cultivation systems, almost 100% efficiency in the use of water can be achieved, albeit at high costs that, today, only a few countries can sustain. Therefore, focusing on educating the population could be the winning choice to ensure everyone has the right to water. By comparing the food pyramid and the water pyramid, BCFN experts had already pointed out some time ago that healthy food has the smallest water footprint. Just think, for instance, that a vegetarian diet consumes about 1,500-2,600 liters of water a day, which increase to 4,000-4,500 liters if the diet is rich in meat.  

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