Our Urban Era – World Water Day 2011

 Heavily populated urban areas put pressure on already overburdened water resources off the Gulf of Honduras.
Heavily populated urban areas put pressure on already overburdened water resources off the Gulf of Honduras.

In 2008, the world entered the "urban millennium", with over half of the world's population living in cities for the first time in human history. According to WHO/UNICEF's Joint Monitoring Programme, 141 million urban dwellers worldwide lack access to improved drinking water, and one out of four city residents, 794 million in total, do not have access to improved sanitation facilities. A key Millennium Development Goal is to reduce by half those without access to sustainable safe water and basic sanitation by 2015. This is why World Water Day 2011 focuses on Water for Cities: Responding to the Urban Challenge, in the hope that concentrating international attention on these basic service challenges will encourage central and local governments, non-governmental and civic organizations, the private sector, and individuals to work in concert to actively address and overcome these challenges.

Unacceptable Choice

Poor urban residents face unique challenges in water and sanitation compared to their rural counterparts. While people who live in rural areas in the developing world may often have to travel far to water sources, rural residents can drill wells to tap into potable groundwater and sometimes even rely on surface springs for their drinking water. Urban residents' choices of drinking water sources are more limited because they typically do not have the option of tapping into groundwater, and urban surface waters can be contaminated by commercial and industrial pollution. For urban residents, the most viable source of potable water is typically piped water from the city network. However, piped water systems often are not extended to areas where the urban poor live, resulting in dependence on public standpipes or buying drinking water from private vendors, which can prove up to 20 times more expensive than water available from the city's piped network. This makes the source of drinking water for the urban poor often unreliable, expensive, or both.

Sanitation choices for the urban poor in developing countries are limited as well. Cramped living conditions, insecure or nonexistent tenure, and lack of household purchasing power often preclude the provision of even the most basic latrine options at the household level. Piped sewerage is also uncommon in poor urban neighborhoods. Poor urban residents' choices are usually reduced to public latrines, or to several households sharing a single latrine (both of which are often poorly maintained), or no access to any kind of publicly provided sewage system.

Despite the best efforts of governments and donors to offer better solutions, the urban poor's need for improved water and sanitation is growing. Unlike progress achieved in improving global rural water supply and sanitation access in recent decades, due to rapidly increasing urban populations, the world is actually making no progress, or losing ground in terms of its efforts to improve access to potable water and sanitation for the urban poor. Globally there was essentially no gain in the proportion of urban residents with safe water access from 1990-2008 and basic sanitation access fell by one percent. Meanwhile, over 10 percent more rural residents gained access to improved water and sanitation access during this period.

Addressing this challenge now has become even more pronounced because, in this new urban millennium, the historic lack of access to water and sanitation for the urban poor is compounded by the threats confronting urban areas due to climate change, conflict, natural disasters, and rapid industrialization.

Better Choices 

In line with this year's World Water Day theme, USAID is working to develop effective business models, which bring together the combined resources of the public, private, and community sectors to address the water and sanitation needs of the urban poor. This edition of Global Waters presents several of the most promising approaches that USAID supports.

USAID's urban water and sanitation programs have two common characteristics: they are designed to offer more and better water and sanitation choices for the urban poor, and, since the dimension of the problem is huge, they aim to promote scalable solutions.

The articles in this issue highlight some of these interventions: micro-finance programs for meter and water connections in Indonesia; a global public-private partnership between Coca-Cola and USAID; formalizing entrepreneurial water supply investments in Kenya; and introducing low cost wastewater treatment technology in the Philippines are all responses designed to offer more affordable water supply and sanitation choices for the urban poor. Encouraging private, corporate, and voluntary organizations to finance water supply and sanitation systems in the Philippines and in a number of African countries are all recent examples of how USAID is helping countries in the developing world respond to the scale of their urban challenges.

World Water Day provides a powerful opportunity to call attention to the world's most glaring water concerns. USAID is committed to not only recognizing those concerns, but continuing to prioritize addressing them, to help the poor attain affordable and sustainable access to clean water and basic sanitation in our rapidly urbanizing world.

Alexandria L. Panehal, Office Director
Infrastructure & Engineering, EGAT Bureau, USAID

Last updated: September 27, 2013

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