World Water Day 2019

Moving toward a sustainable, clean and safe water supply.

Today, billions of people are still living without safe water–their households, schools, workplaces, farms and factories are struggling to survive and thrive. In other parts of the world, water might traditionally have been abundant, but a changing climate and under-financed infrastructure pose new challenges.

March 22nd is World Water Day, dedicated by UN-Water to raising global awareness on the human right to access clean water and sanitation. The day represents a step on a long path–getting us closer to realizing the sixth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG1) of the UN 2030 Agenda. This year, World Water Day addresses the human right to water under the theme Water for all—leaving no one behind.

But first, let us take a step back to ask what “safe water” means. Under the UN’s definition, safe water is shorthand for a “safely managed drinking water service”–water that is accessible on the premises, available when needed, and free from contamination. The immediate thought might be to confine the issue of leaving no one behind to areas with less developed water supply infrastructure, extremely high population densities or naturally severe water stress. However, the application is much broader, and extends across the world. The key lies in understanding what leaving no one behind means from within one’s own sphere of influence. Even in California, which ranks as the world’s fifth largest economy, well over half a million people lack access to improved sources of water.2

With the rapid development of global infrastructure to which we at WSP contribute, there is always a risk of people and communities living on the margins being forgotten. For many of us, this type of risk is always front of mind when helping our clients create cost-effective solutions for providing clean and safe water.

The challenges are as many as they are diverse, varying depending on local geography as well as the climate and the socioeconomic landscape. As a global team of experts, WSP is committed to helping our clients both develop and reach the SDG objectives that apply to their unique situations. In line with this, we have seen SDG 6 and the water supply question taking on an ever-greater degree of urgency with each passing year. In the summer of 2018, even traditionally water-rich countries like Sweden were facing production shortages.3

How do we get to clean and safe water in real life?

Across the globe, WSP engineers and specialists are involved in all aspects of the water supply chain, which originates at the policy level. Advice on tariff-setting, which allows the utility to charge the correct amount to provide a sustainable service in the long term, requires an in-depth understanding of the entire business model, and must be tailored to the needs of both end users and the supplier. The correct balance is critical to ensure that water remains affordable, without creating a long-term maintenance debt.4

Many challenges in water supply arise at the source, be it aquifers, rivers, lakes or the ocean. The sustainable abstraction of water requires an understanding of not only environmental conditions and water quality, but also the legal and social situation. This is achieved by using a combination of computer modelling tools with sample testing, historical data and legal know-how to determine the source resilience, status and capacity. The end goal is to supply the population, while minimizing the impacts on the local ecosystem as well as historic users.

To be considered safe, the water must first be treated. Treatment facilities vary hugely in scale and complexity, from supplying hundreds to millions of people. The technology must be carefully chosen and monitored to provide the right quality of service at the right cost. As an example, over the course of 2018, WSP was involved in a rapid response effort (in infrastructure terms) for designing and implementing new desalination plants in South Africa,5 helping to push back the theoretical “Day Zero” that point at which the wells will run dry.

Both the water and wastewater treatment processes required to provide safe water require a huge apparatus of facilities and pipes. Once everything is in place and operational, the infrastructure must be managed and maintained. One of the key challenges is deceptively simple: much of the asset is underground. Tracking a network of pipes measuring thousands of kilometres and constantly growing, takes enormous effort. There are many strategies for dealing with this complexity, and business alliances have proven to be quite effective. In Australia, WSP entered a partnership,6 together with TasWater, UGL and CPB Contractors, to help ensure that Tasmania has access to water for the future. 

Supplying safe and clean water and sanitation to all is an enormous challenge, but a combination of global experience and local presence will go a long way toward determining the right questions to ask, and what is needed to get the answers. World Water Day offers a good opportunity to look at how each of us fits in, and ask ourselves how our knowledge can be applied to reach a tomorrow where we can truly have water for all, leaving no one behind. A world where whomever you are, wherever you are, water is your human right.7

1  https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdg6

2  https://pacinst.org/publication/measuring-progress/

http://www.svensktvatten.se/fakta-om-vatten/vattenutmaningar/vattenbrist/

https://www.wsp.com/en-SE/insights/setting-sustainable-tariffs-for-water-and-wastewater-services-in-sweden

https://www.wsp.com/en-ZA/news/2018/wsp-helps-city-of-cape-town-bring-emergency-desalination-plant-online

https://www.wsp.com/en-AU/news/2019/a-sustainable-water-future-for-tasmania

https://www.worldwaterday.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/WWD2019_factsheet_EN_vs4_29Jan2019.pdf