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Water testing in the Delta State of Nigeria. Photo by Tom Saatar for RTI International

Water testing in the Delta State of Nigeria. Photo by Tom Saatar for RTI International

Water is fundamental to life in all its aspects, from health to wealth. Water enables sanitary conditions in hospitals and bathrooms, handwashing in schools, and growth in nearly every industry, from agriculture to manufacturing.

Beneath what to some may seem like an endless availability of water is a growing crisis that affects every country in the world: We are rapidly outstripping the world’s ability to replenish and restore water resources for safe water and sanitation. 

Already, the world is off-track for achieving the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) related to water and sanitation, which, given water’s multi-sectoral nature, also puts achievement of every other SDG at risk.

It’s against this backdrop of global crisis that we offer a reflection on what it will take to address and overcome these challenges and get back on track with the SDGs. The growing awareness of water’s relevance to development and our shared future, along with an embrace of innovation, give us hope that a water-secure world is within reach.

Water challenges know no bounds

For those of us in international development, we often hear the statistic that billions of people in the world lack access to basic water and sanitation and that many children, especially girls, miss school because they have to walk for miles on unsafe roads to get water, which may or may not be clean. But this isn’t just a problem in low-income countries.

Many children in the United States don’t have clean water, especially those in rural areas. Water quality issues in places like Michigan and Mississippi have made headlines, as have water-related disasters, like flooding in Vermont.

Water challenges span the water cycle: from access and availability to quality and management. Climate change is exacerbating these challenges, leading to erratic rainfall, flooding, and greater water scarcity. At the same time, water provides a coping mechanism for dealing with climate shocks. In the United States, amid the hottest summer on record this year, many families turned to backyard pools and sprinklers to cool down. In East Africa amid drought, irrigation is helping keep food on the table.

Water underpins every area of sustainable development, including climate adaptation and resilience, and prolonged water stress is already having devastating effects on public health and economic development. For example, countries are facing difficult trade-offs between water for household use and water for agriculture and other industries.

Innovation can get us back on track

The scale of these issues requires new tools and ways of working to optimize our use of water and management of water resources and quality. We are optimistic that innovation can help the world get back on track with the SDGs and put a water-secure world within reach.

First, we are optimistic because water managers and operators are embracing and prioritizing innovation, knowing it will pay off in the future. Water management is a complex venture, and innovation can help streamline decision-making and operations. Utilities and other water managers are aware that they need innovation and are incorporating innovation strategies into their cultures and institutions. Some companies have even created innovation divisions or departments and are allocating funding and staff to applying innovative tools to oversee the complexities of water management more efficiently.

Second, new tools are available for making it easier to manage water resources. One exciting example is remote sensing meters. When placed on boreholes, used widely in rural communities across the global south, this tool helps utilities regularly monitor these precious water sources and service them quickly and efficiently when they break. Less than a decade ago these types of innovations were a nascent idea few spoke about, and now they are regularly considered and used. Recognizing how new tools can revolutionize water management, in Cambodia, RTI is studying how a low-cost, at-home water treatment system that uses UV light and sediment filters could be scaled to help more people access safe water.

Third, the democratic availability of data has made information – especially local information – more accessible to more people so they understand where water is, if it is flowing or not, and what the future outlook of water resources may be. This data, and the forecasting, planning, and testing tools it makes possible, can empower more communities to take control of their water access and use. In Zambia, we are working with USAID to support the government to leverage their own information management system for water to capture and disaggregate more data – at a more local level – to ensure no populations are left behind. In Brasilia, we leveraged an integrated suite of watershed modeling tools that draw on hydrology and climate data to help the city increase the resilience of its freshwater supply to drought.

Fourth, in some cases, innovation is a new or streamlined process or technique, such as in Peru, where RTI worked with the water utility of its capital city Lima to build and use a decision support system that integrates various datasets, real-time data, models, and operational systems into a single platform. As a result, the utility has been able to more efficiently and accurately operate the various reservoirs that supply the city, while saving time and resources for the future. In the United States, the Clean Water for Kids program is implementing a new process to protect the health of children, starting with the environments where they learn and play. RTI is engaging both scientists and citizen scientists to test drinking and cooking water for contaminants like lead.

Innovation is not a panacea or a silver bullet, but when treated as a tool and with the right conditions and a focus on what users need, it can help address the global water crisis.

Hope on the horizon for the global water crisis

The statistics are scary, but the good news is that the global water crisis is garnering more attention and action than ever before from leaders and entrepreneurs. The United Nations hosted its first conference exclusively focused on water in nearly 50 years this past March, and the United Nations Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP) had its first day dedicated to water in its 27-year history last year.

The private sector is increasingly concerned and involved in creating, deploying, and financing solutions. And multiple technical sectors are feeling the pinch – and coming together to collaborate, cooperate and coordinate on water issues. Water is rising to the forefront of global conversations, concern, and – most importantly – action.

Water is in crisis, but given its interconnected nature with every area of sustainable development and the shared challenges countries face, it can also be a great source of solutions. By prioritizing innovation and supporting countries in leveraging new tools, techniques, and data, we can build a future full of safe, clean, and well-managed water.

Learn more about RTI’s work in water, sanitation and hygiene

Learn more about RTI’s Center for Water Resources

Disclaimer: This piece was written by Alayne Potter (Senior Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Manager), Juliana Corrales (Research Environmental Engineer), and Jeremy Lakin (Climate Resilient WASH Specialist) to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.