With the theme, "Underground Water: Making the Invisible Visible,” this year’s World Water Day highlights the challenges associated with ensuring that people, irrespective of where they fall within the social divide, have potable water from fresh water sources. This is a particular source of concern for countries with disadvantaged economies.
The recent years have been fraught with sustainability challenges tied to water. The COVID-19 pandemic has had the world come face-to-face with the usually-ignored impact of health on all sectors. From education to politics, business to agriculture, many countries went into almost-shutdown mode as COVID-19 bared its fangs. Walking the tightrope of the current state of global affairs while battling a pandemic turned out to be tied intricately to the availability of water for preventing the spread of germs and boosting the general state of wellbeing.
Speaking on how the availability of water affects response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Tedros Ghebreyesus, director-general of WHO, said in December 2020: “Working in a healthcare facility without water, sanitation and hygiene is akin to sending nurses and doctors to work without personal protective equipment. Water supply, sanitation and hygiene in healthcare facilities are fundamental to stopping COVID-19. But there are still major gaps to overcome, particularly in least developed countries.”
Highlighting that the present circumstances could provide an opportunity to increase support to those who do not have the necessary access to potable water, Dr Henrietta Fore, UNICEF executive director, added: “As we reimagine and shape a post-COVID world, making sure we are sending children and mothers to places of care equipped with adequate water, sanitation and hygiene services is not merely something we can and should do. It is an absolute must.”
The current COVID-19 pandemic has once again brought to the fore the need for rural as well as urban communities to have access to quality water as part of the efforts to limit the spread of infections and protect vulnerable populations, underlining that any person, irrespective of social status, literacy background, gender, financial capability or personal preferences, needs water to make the best of their existence.
Yet for many communities in underdeveloped and developing countries, the provision of water by the government is still a far cry from what it should be. Up to five billion people could have difficulty accessing water by 2050, the UN’s World Meteorological Organization warned in 2021. In this context, the dependence on freshwater reserves such as groundwater cannot be overemphasised since many communities depend on wells and boreholes. It is common to find private individuals taking their wellbeing into their own hands by drilling or digging to access groundwater. Those who do not have their own wells or access to a public borehole often have to pay to get water for their basic needs like drinking, cooking, washing, and bathing.
Groundwater currently provides almost half of all drinking water worldwide, around 40% of the water used in irrigation and about one-third of the supply required for industry, according to UNESCO. Due to human use and climate change, pressure on groundwater resources is increasing in many parts of the world. In Nigeria, concerns have been raised over the impact of extensive borehole drilling across the country. Urban groundwater pollution is another major concern, as is the contamination of groundwater from oil spillage from pipelines.
The ripple effects of how limited access to water can impact families, communities, and countries, while not forgetting how animals and plants can also be affected, are often overlooked until something life-threatening happens to serve as a reminder. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown to be an effective reminder, but the question remains if stakeholders are doing enough to make meaningful change that will have far-reaching effects, especially for the disadvantaged.
Away from health, a significant part of the ecosystem is also largely dependent on groundwater, which provides a source for plants to grow, as well as for surface bodies such as lakes and rivers to renew. Groundwater is crucial for the provision of the food and drink that humans, plants, and animals need.
World Water Day offers an opportunity to rethink and rejig the efforts targeted towards the provision of access for those who lack water. With the impacts of climate change and global warming, the percentage of available freshwater, including groundwater, may keep dropping if deliberate efforts are not taken to make a positive difference. Solutions need to cut across sectors of the polity, with the involvement of stakeholders including governments, corporate organisations, and community leaders, among others. Efforts should include the support of vulnerable populations to tap into groundwater sources without harming the environment. Governments and stakeholders at all levels need to step up efforts and move beyond profit-making and blind ignorance to the plight of vulnerable populations, to ensure that such disadvantaged communities do not become victims of unjust systems.
It is easy to assume that since freshwater sources such as groundwater are readily available, it is okay to misuse and waste this water. People need to understand that everyone has a role to play to ensure that water is used judiciously, since just a limited fraction of the general body of water on the planet is available as freshwater. There is also a need to sensitise people on demanding water-sourcing facilities from governments, claiming reliable access to clean water as the human right that it is.