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“Among the many things I learned as a President,” Nelson Mandela once said, “was the centrality of water in the social, political and economic affairs of the country, the continent and the world.” It is right therefore that water is at the heart of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) framework discussed last week by finance and development ministers in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Water is pivotal to the economic development of many countries like China, India and Brazil, to the security of many water-stressed nations, and accounts for a significant proportion of the $5-7 trillion the UN says should be invested in infrastructure annually.
The troubling state of the world’s water security has come into clear focus over the last decade, and the challenge is urgent. Scientists forecast some 1.8 billion people will live with water scarcity by 2025. Pakistan for example has just one thousand cubic metres of water available per person this summer, a fifth of the amount at independence in 1949. This is not only the result of climate change and reduced rainfall. No significant reservoirs have been built in the country for more than forty years, during which its population has swelled by some 90 million people.
There are growing imbalances between supply and demand elsewhere, especially in fast-growing mega-cities like São Paolo, Lagos, New Delhi and Beijing. This disproportionately affects the poorest and most vulnerable people, but there are also mounting problems in wealthy countries. Earlier this year, California was forced to mandate a 25 percent reduction in urban water consumption for the first time. Again, this was not only due to drought. Extraction from private groundwater wells is in some parts depleting reserves faster than the replacement rate. Other intensively farmed areas, such as the Indus Valley and the North China Plain, face similar difficulties.
Sustainable Development Goal number 6 aims to bring together public, voluntary and private sector expertise and capital around the world to address these challenges. The aim is simple and ambitious: to secure universal access to water and sanitation in the next 15 years, and to manage these sustainably. Having its own specific goal reflects increased status for water since Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general, launched the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), in 2000. Today improvements in water are seen to deliver numerous other social and economic benefits.