World Water Day – a time for reflection

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011


Today is World Water Day (http://www.worldwaterday.org/), the annual global day of events that grew out of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The focus changes every year, with the theme this year  titled ‘Water for Cities’. The last 20 years has seen a massive shift in population trends, to the extent that in 2008 the rural / urban population split was 50 / 50 for the first time. Movement to urban centres in search of employment and with high ideals of ‘life in the big smoke’, as well as natural population growth has led to the phenomenon of ‘super cities’ such as Mexico City, Beijing or Mumbai.

Whilst undoubtedly these sprawling urban centres offer genuine opportunity for those lucky enough to stumble across it, or for those with existing connections, for many the ideal of the big smoke doesn’t live up to the reality. Slums have become a common sight across much of the developing world, as cities struggle under the sheer weight of numbers and the effects of insufficient, creaking and mismanaged infrastructure.  Visit Kibera in Nairobi, the largest slum in the city, and the second largest slum in Africa. See children playing next to raw excrement, or hear talk of the rampant disease and lack of corresponding state welfare.   In 2011 it is estimated that globally more than 1,000,000,000 (1bn)people live in slums, a figure expected to double by 2030.

The challenges for organisations like us at The Water Project is to start to recognise the trend, and to tentatively explore ways of engaging with local organisations on the ground in such Informal Urban Settlements (as  they are called in development speak). The context is totally different from working in a rural environment. Levels of crime, illiteracy, disease, unemployment are higher than elsewhere, and as such the challenges of engaging with people are greater. Achieving the goal of community led participative development is tough when people are living in such difficult conditions.

But there are positives too.  A stroll through the web reveals multiple examples of success. Check out Sulabh International (http://www.sulabhinternational.org/) to see great work on communal sanitation blocks in India and Bangladesh. Read about Ecotact (http://www.ecotact.org/) and the example they provide of a profit making sanitation service in Kenya.

World Water Day is whatever you want it to be. For me, I include sanitation in the mix, and I choose to think through ways of proposing that The Water Project focuses part of its attention on the massive and growing issue of urban sanitation across the world.

Peter, our President and founder of The Water Project, chose to invest his efforts in creating the 30 day fundraising challenge. Check it out for ideas on how you too can choose to do something this World Water Day (http://thewaterproject.org/contest/).

Thanks for reading.

Jack Owen, WASH Program Manager