Imagine you live in a town where you have to use a bridge in order to cross a river each day to get to work and back. What happens when this bridge collapses? Your options are to swim across the river, fly over the river, use a boat to cross the river, or to stop working and stay at home. Each of these options come with a cost and a risk. While flying or using the boat may be safe to do, the daily use of any of them is an additional expense, putting a strain on your monthly budget. Swimming across could be dangerous, especially when the current is strong, while opting to stop work could be just as dire in a context where it is hard to find an alternative job. This scenario is similar to the experience of using and managing our precious water resources.

Water is second to air for the survival of all living things. Water is required for the formation of soils, cultivation of crops, the rearing of animals, and so much more. All forms of energy such as wood, hydroelectricity, etc. used at home come directly or indirectly from water. Water can either prevent disease or promote the spread of diseases. Water can also be a weapon, initiating conflict, or it can be a tool for peace building. Everyone needs water to drink and for personal hygiene and sanitation which is, at least to some extent, dependent upon the availability of water. This makes water an unavoidable bridge that everyone must use to ensure a safe and affordable quality life and health.

The World Health Organization and United Nations estimate that nearly 844 million people lack access to clean water and that 2.5 billion people live without access to adequate sanitation. For the rest of the population that does have access to water and sanitation facilities, sustainable maintenance and use of the facilities is a challenge. Sustainability has been viewed from the development context to be controlled by five main factors: social, technological, economic, policy and institutional, and environmental. The struggle to get these five factors incorporated into the design, use, and management of water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) facilities has posed the most challenging obstacle for development organizations. The organizations have invested time building community-based WASH committees, adopted technologies that are repairable at the community level, and incorporated livelihood programs to empower communities economically.  Government entities have developed policies and instituted measures to coordinate and support stakeholders. Nevertheless, the results are disturbing. Globally, between 30-60% of hand pumps do not function correctly. The causes of these facility failures can be traced to the five factors of sustainability, given above.

With the introduction of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 targets by the United Nations in 2015, it is expected that the issue of access to sustainable WASH services will be significantly reduced, if not completely resolved. The goals are so interconnected that development organizations must explore ways to empower communities to act on their own behalf. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 specifically states that countries must ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, while SDG 11 aims at making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. Without a doubt, water plays an important role in creating and maintaining safe and resilient cities and settlements. In populated communities, the extraction of groundwater can exceed the recharge, and lowered groundwater levels may lead to subsidence and, likely, the collapse of buildings. Waste, if not managed correctly, can result in poor water quality and a high cost of water treatment for domestic use. This negatively results in an unaffordable water supply and disease outbreak in the cities and settlements as people may access poor quality water to meet their water requirements. This week, World Water Week, reminds us that our water resources are under serious threat and that climate change and variability will continue to worsen the situation.

Land, like water, is inextricably linked to the achievement of SDGs 6 and 11. Land is required for construction of WASH facilities as well as the construction of suitable housing systems. Poor land use can result in the deterioration of water quality, poor groundwater recharge, and subsidence. As Habitat for Humanity’s director for international shelter initiatives, I am exploring the vast possibilities that exist for the Solid Ground campaign’s efforts to improve access to land for shelter and WASH and waste management services. Solid Ground creates the advocacy platform that advances access to land ownership and use. Please join Solid Ground to build a bridge between land ownership and use to ensure sustainable and safe cities.