Changing the way we change the world

World Water Day or Groundhog Day?

By Susan Davis, Executive Director

[Apropos of Groundhog Day (the movie): a repost from March 26, 2016]

Tuesday March 22 was World Water Day.  But to me, it felt like Groundhog Day (the movie).  If you haven’t seen it, Groundhog Day was a 1993 romantic comedy in which Bill Murray’s character, Phil, has to relive the same day over and over again until he gets it right.

groundhog day

Phil & Punxsutawney Phil (groundhog) in Groundhog Day

Some of the things that it seems I hear over and over every World Water Day are:

  • Why water is important. We seem to bend over backwards to talk about all the different ways water intersects with other sectors: health, nutrition, and education, for example.  This year the major themes were water and climate change (UNICEF), water and jobs (WaterAid), and water and security (USWP) (check out #WorldWaterDay on Twitter).

Who are we making this case to?  The people who don’t have access to basic water services already know this.  Most of us attending World Water Day events or following the blogs and hashtags already know this.  We shouldn’t need to justify “why water” – water has been considered (by most) a human right since 2010. If you don’t agree with the human right part, just imagine your life – any part of it – without ready access to water. Also, it has a whole day named after it.  Of course, so do groundhogs.

  • X billion people don’t have access to improved water.

We quote these numbers over and over, but they are – like a groundhog – pretty squishy numbers. It depends on how and what you count. According to the JMP, 663 million people lacked improved drinking water sources (UNICEF and World Health Organization, 2015).  Kudos to the Joint Monitoring Programme for trying to collect the data that exist, but – to start – these numbers (collected by national government entities) probably greatly underestimate the people who live in urban slums: “as they are living in settlements which officially do not exist, such people frequently do not get counted in surveys or censuses” (Black and Fawcett, 2008).

And if you go beyond just access and start thinking about services (considering quality, quantity, reliability and accessibility), the numbers get much bigger.

  • 3 billion people don’t have access to safe water (University of North Carolina, 2012)
  • 4 billion (more than half the world’s population) don’t have permanent and satisfactory safe drinking water supply in the home (AquaFed, 2011)
  • 4 billion people face severe water shortages for at least one month of the year (Carrington, 2016)

Then think beyond services at home to everywhere people go (e.g., agricultural fields, workplaces, healthcare facilities, schools, prisons, refugee camps, and community centers), the numbers of people who don’t have even a basic level of services everywhere are probably much higher. For example,

  • In the least developed countries, 49% of schools don’t have access to adequate water and 53% of schools don’t have access to adequate sanitation (UNICEF 2015).
  • 38% of health care facilities across 54 low- and middle-income countries lack access even to basic levels of essential water, sanitation and hygiene services (WHO, 2015).

Phil: Do you ever have déjà vu, Mrs. Lancaster?

Mrs. Lancaster: I don’t think so, but I could check with the kitchen. (IMDB)

What will it take for us to stop re-living Groundhog World Water Day over and over? According to the Agenda for Change, getting to the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target of universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene by 2030 requires a fundamental change in the way we in the sector work. Next year, can we start talking about these questions instead of “why water”?

  • What are the barriers within a country to ensuring that everyone has at least basic water services?
  • How can your organization best address those barriers or help to strengthen the system (national or local)? This might mean changing the way you work.  I can hear some eyes rolling.  Some people think it takes too long to fix the system.  But in Groundhog Day, Phil learned to master ice sculpting, play jazz and speak French in one day (sort of).
  • How can universal access be funded? To start, we can learn from how the successful and/or rich countries did it.
  • How can we be sure that universal access leads to universal, sustained basic water services? And share actual evidence and examples of what has worked over time in a way that others can replicate or build upon.

I don’t have all the answers, but I do know I don’t want to feel like this next March 22.

Phil: What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?

Ralph: That about sums it up for me. (IMDB)

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