The theme of World Water Day 2019 is “Leaving no one behind,” and is an annual call to attention on the critical importance of water in all parts of life. This year’s theme recognizes that while there have been critical gains within the WASH sector as a result of the MDGs and SDGs, many still live without access to basic water, sanitation, and hygiene services. Even as the global development community works to achieve SDG 6 and “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all,” the U.N. estimates that nearly 800 million people still do not have access to water. This is unacceptable.
But what do water and sanitation have to do with land? Intuitively, many of us understand that there must be some relationship between water and land, if nothing else other than that the tangibility of both. Yet, water and land (and the access and security of tenure of both) are more related than you might think.
Habitat for Humanity’s Solid Ground Campaign has four sub-themes: secure tenure, gender equality, slum upgrading, and disaster resilience. Water crosscuts all four. Understanding how water and sanitation is related to each sub-theme provides important insight into how the sector can work to leave no one behind in achieving access to WASH services.
Access to water is intrinsically linked to a person, household, or community’s secure land tenure. Martin Sjostedt of the University of Gothenburg, Sweden said it best in his paper in Habitat International: “To live without land tenure often means to live under constant threat of eviction, which in turn not only hampers investments by citizens but also excludes them from accessing services provided by the government or by private water agencies.” In order to close the water coverage gap, land policy must be improved upon and formally recognize the continuum of land rights.
Access to WASH services is linked to gender empowerment. In the developing world, the physical and social burden of collecting water weighs disproportionately on women and girls. It is not uncommon for the nearest water point to be more than two miles each way, requiring women and girls to spend considerable time each day on this task. This journey often drains their energy and exposes them to risks of disease, physical assault and other security concerns. Further, global lack of adequate sanitation interferes with girls’ education, as an estimated 15 million girls drop out of school each year when they reach puberty because of the lack of proper sanitation and hygiene facilities. Globally, over 1 billion people practice open defecation (OD), which results in water pollution, increased water treatment costs and outbreak of diarrheal diseases. Apart from health concerns, women and children face the greatest security risks while attending to nature’s call in the open. The construction of toilet and bathhouses can significantly contribute to ending OD and its adverse effects, which largely requires availability of land.
Slum upgrading is the process by which living conditions are improved in informal settlements, typically through incremental change. A critical component of slum upgrading is ensuring that a community has access (or at least improved access) to basic services, including water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) facilities. Slum upgrading must be an integrated process, as providing access to decent shelter must include access to adequate WASH services for a variety of uses.
According to UN-Water, “700 million people worldwide could be displaced by intense water scarcity by 2030.” Additionally, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change affirms that global climate change will expose new risks while amplifying existing vulnerabilities to human and environmental ecosystems through drought, flood, erosion, wildfires and other natural disasters. The effects of these events weigh disproportionately on impoverished and vulnerable communities, whose water infrastructure is weak or nonexistent to begin with. Capacity building for community disaster resilience and adaptation are critical in ensuring that the water coverage gap does not widen because of climate change and related natural disasters.
In order to achieve SDG 6 and to ensure that no one is left behind in achieving access to safe and sustainable WASH services, the global development community must recognize the complex and multi-layered relationship between water and land. This World Water Day, join Habitat for Humanity International’s Solid Ground Campaign, and recognize how critically important land is to our goals as advocates for safe and inclusive water access.