The recent release of the United Nations State of the Climate Report highlights the need to cut carbon emissions to ensure human health, but the UN isn't stopping there. Their Sustainable Development goal aims to ensure healthy water for everyone by 2030.
Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly has become a basic protection measure against COVID-19. Yet, it disguises the requirement of access to pure water. No wonder the current pandemic has raised awareness for many of us about the crucial role of clean water in keeping people healthy. Despite this heightened awareness, clean water access remains scarce for much of our world’s population as more than half of the globe does not have safe sanitation services. This is unacceptable.
Clean water for human health is only half of the issue, however, since safe drinking water remains a privilege and not a right for far too many people as roughly one in three people on the planet lack access to safe drinking water. Think about that, approximately the combined population of the United States, China, and Brazil still drinks from a water source that is polluted in some way. Typically, there are two primary ways that water becomes unsafe for use: first, it is contaminated due to high levels of chemicals or antibiotics and second, it can transmit diseases to those who drink or use the water source. Both of these are avoidable and we must do better.
This alarming context motivated the United Nations to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) in 2015. Particularly, SDG 3.9, aims to ensure healthy lives by reducing deaths and illnesses from water pollution by 2030. In just one decade, the United Nations is committed to reverse the staggering statistics of global inequality of the basic human right to safe water.
There are several human-made threats to safe water access for both humans and nature. First, climate change acceleration makes safe water even more scarce through increasingly damaging droughts and floods, but also through the evaporation of water basins due to higher temperatures. Second, water mismanagement threatens underserved populations. Third, water pollution is endangering biodiversity. Overcoming these won't be easy as each solution to these challenges requires an unprecedented global-scale response.
The SDG's work interlinks and focuses on all three challenges, but water mismanagement in our infrastructures requires special attention because it devastates local communities that are already underserved. The way water is cleaned, stored and distributed is an invisible process in a comfortable urban life surrounded by easy-on and easy-off taps. This is not the case in often powerless rural communities because the State often falls short in providing such services and the market is not attractive enough for the private sector to pick up the slack.
Poor water service and water mismanagement are the leading causes of supply outages, community pollution, human disease and even conflict. Here is where the United Nations steps in by supporting stakeholders of all sizes to address the stark inequalities of water infrastructures.
So, what can individuals do to foster responsibility and maintain access to safe water resources for everyone? Several small actions are at our reach. Obviously, being conscious of your water use and using natural cleaning products are small, but meaningful everyday actions.
However, there is a lot more. You can also invest in social enterprises that are already leading an inspiring path to save water resources. These are all over the world, but here are a few: Safe Water Network is improving water management in villages from Ghana and India to ensure fair and clean water access, Lifestraw provides filters to water-scarce communities across several African countries, Futurepump leverages solar energy to pump safe water to rural areas in Kenya and India and Isla Urbana purifies rainwater harvesting in Mexico. These innovative enterprises are thriving and are already closing gaps, but more help is needed.
You can also get directly involved by supporting the enforcement of environmental regulations to protect water resources. Unfortunately, in the United States specifically, many environmental regulations were seen as barriers to business and were dismantled in the 1990s. This mentality remains because environmental protections that foster safe water for all continue to be rolled back. But, there is hope, President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to ensure that the federal government will recommend that each state adequately monitors environmental pollution of land, water and air resources, including emissions, criteria pollutants, and toxins in frontline and fenceline communities. This policy shows that the government understands that their economy and environment can coexist for the betterment of the people and the environment. It is a good first step.
Finally, a commitment to human health equality through water sustainability needs to be reflected in our smallest actions and in our everyday thoughts. This can be as simple as feeling grateful every time you serve yourself a cup of coffee, brush your teeth or wash your hands. Feeling grateful for safe water is a powerful tool to prevent water waste and pollution. However, the most important way to protect water resources is to activate your voice by casting a vote in both local and federal elections. SDG 3.9 is looking to ensure clean water for everyone on our planet it is ambitious but possible.
Judith Arrieta Munguia is a career diplomate and Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy of Mexico in New Delhi. She was an advisor at the Office of the Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Chief of Staff for Multilateral Affairs. She also coordinated development and economic issues in the missions to the United Nations in New York and Geneva, and to the European Union in Brussels. She was appointed Sous-Sherpa to the High-Level Panel on Water in 2017-2018 and has published several articles on international issues. She holds a master's degree in Diplomacy and International Commerce and a Ph.D. in Political Science.