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What role for sanitation in water cooperation?

Written by Julian Doczi

Today is World Water Day, in the International Year of Water Cooperation, so it seems appropriate to talk about water, right? Yet these terms, and many of the discussions you will read today, continue to omit one of the biggest factors for actually achieving clean and secure water for all: sanitation. At least 2.5 billion people still lack access to a proper toilet – with this number rising to a staggering 4.1 billion if we include people whose sewage is not properly treated in wastewater treatment facilities.

These are well-known numbers, but what is the actual role of sanitation in the issues being discussed today, on water cooperation, better water management and water security? I identify and discuss three key linkages here:

  1. the impact of poor sanitation on clean water availability

  2. the impact of ‘advanced’ sanitation on water consumption

  3. the direct impact on water cooperation of the various socio-political issues underlying sanitation service delivery.

For this majority of the world’s population, their sewage still pours untreated onto land, rivers and sea, contaminating freshwater resources and putting a greater strain on river basins and their managers. Rampant pollution like this plays a key role in promoting poor cooperation among water users, especially between upstream and downstream users, as it both increases clean water scarcity and creates health risks for water users. The poor suffer most from this, as they have less access to alternative water sources. A recent report by the Asian Development Bank highlights this issue for river basins all across Asia, but cooperation everywhere is being increasingly strained.

Simply striving for proper toilets and sewage disposal is not enough though, since most sanitation systems themselves require water to function. A recent calculation by water expert Peter Gleick estimates that toilets in the US currently use nearly 8.3 trillion litres of water per year; this could be reduced to only 3 trillion if the entire country switched to new, high-efficiency toilets. Of course, in many arid river basins, using this much water would not be feasible (nor would the cost of millions of new toilets) without experiencing substantial declines in water availability, again increasing tensions. Although ‘dry’ sanitation systems like improved pit toilets can undoubtedly ease these pressures, the UN still recognises water-based systems as higher up on the so-called ‘sanitation ladder’, and thus creates continual demand for these systems. This is not to argue that those lacking sanitation should not achieve it, but merely to note that improving sanitation still generally increases water demand (even if the poor ‘leap frog’ directly to high-efficiency toilets), which could further strain water cooperation.

A 2012 report on global water security by the US Intelligence Community recognised both pollution and consumption issues as threats to future conflict over water resources. It found that, in the next decade, these threats could significantly increase instability and regional tensions over water security, especially in the Middle East and South Asia. Likewise, a new report launched today by ODI and Tearfund examines how the way sanitation services are delivered specifically affects cooperation between communities and the relations between state and society. For example, in the DRC, tensions arose between recently returned refugees and long-term residents over the usage, cleaning and maintenance of latrines.

As world-leading water cooperation expert Mark Zeitoun of the University of East Anglia emphasises, linkages are also visible through the issues of human rights and power asymmetries. He highlights that those who fought for the UN General Assembly to explicitly recognise the human right to water and sanitation in 2010 are often the same people fighting for equitable and just water cooperation. In both cases, however, he argues that progress toward these ideals has been slow due to the asymmetric distribution of water and sanitation services in favour of powerful state actors. Quoting Marc Reisner, he highlights that, for the most part, ‘water flows uphill to money, while sewage still flows downhill to the poor’.

These socio-political linkages can be generalised further. As Zeitoun describes, water security is best understood as part of an interconnected ‘web’ of securities, which links water security to food, energy and climate security, and even national security. Through this web, he argues that effective sanitation is an ‘incontestable requirement for individual, community and state development’ in the context of water cooperation. Likewise, the new Asia Water Development Outlook report explicitly recognises the central role played by appropriate sanitation within its ‘five key dimensions’ of national water security. The report found that most Asian countries are merely ‘capable’ or ‘engaged’ in sanitation for water security, with many still downright ‘hazardous’. Almost none were ‘effective’, except for proactive states like New Zealand and Singapore.

These results speak for themselves. It is clear that the levels of development effort, investment and political will devoted to sanitation are still substantially dwarfed by that devoted to all aspects of water, even though sanitation links so closely to water cooperation and security. A report out today by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies issues a call to action on this, to address the longstanding imbalance in the substantial investments made in the water sector as compared with its poor cousins: sanitation and hygiene. It calls for sanitation to be at least as well funded and focused upon as water supply by 2015. I echo that call here. The evidence is clear that we will only achieve better water cooperation and water resources management if we account for the major roles that sanitation plays.

So, as we celebrate this World Water Day and spend this year focused on improving water cooperation, let us not forget to give an equal effort toward improving sanitation cooperation. While organisations are increasingly recognising the linkage of sanitation to all aspects of water management, we should not rest until ‘World Water Day’ is known as ‘World Water and Sanitation Day’. Only by addressing the 4.1 billion people without appropriate wastewater treatment can we hope to achieve holistic water cooperation and effective water resources management that will lead us on a path to long-term sustainability.