August 21st, 2009 | Posted in Environment
by Jason Bremner, program director, Population, Health, and Environment
This week is World Water Week, and an international conference in Stockholm, Sweden is focusing on the converging challenges that characterize the world’s growing water crisis. Unfortunately I’m not participating in the meeting this week, though the humidity here in Washington DC certainly makes it feel like water week.
Looking at the program for World Water Week, what I find most interesting, and what I see as one of the great challenges of the coming decade is meeting the water and sanitation needs of people living in small cities and towns of developing countries. Safe drinking water and improved sanitation are among the Millennium Development Goal targets and are the two most important means of reducing infant mortality from diarrheal disease, one the leading causes of death of infants worldwide.
Global demographic trends illustrate the challenge effectively. The image below links to a graph showing the urbanization and income trends for every country in the world from 1960 to 2006 using Gapminder.org’s innovative Trendalyzer web application. On the vertical axis is the percentage of a country’s population that lives in an urban area. On the horizontal axis is income per capita. Press the play button after linking through to the graph and watch how countries of the world gradually become more urban as per capita income increases.
Notice, however, that many of the dark blue countries of the world, which represent sub-Saharan Africa have become more urban over time with little corresponding increase in income. I’ve highlighted Nigeria, the country with the largest population in Africa, as an example of this trend.
Click on the image to view trends in urbanization and income from 1960 to 2006.
Nigeria defines urban areas as, “towns with at least 20,000 inhabitants, engaged mostly in non-agricultural work,” and the United Nations Population Division now estimates that approximately 50 percent of Nigeria’s population of around 150 million lives in urban areas. Urban areas constitute both an opportunity and a challenge for meeting water and sanitation needs. Services per capita are cheaper to provide and serve a far larger population. At the same time, the failure to provide services for concentrated populations can lead to massive exposures to pollutants and diarrheal disease.
While urban populations tend to have better access to safe water and sanitation, the provision of these basic services in the growing number of small towns and cities of developing countries is a great challenge in the context of little growth in per capita income, limited infrastructure investment, and centralized government services. In Nigeria, for example, access to improved water services has shown no improvement over the last two decades, and remains just under 50 percent of the total population or more than 75 million people living without safe drinking water.
Click on the image to view trends in access to improved water services in Nigeria.
Some discussions at World Water Week are focused specifically on water and sanitation service delivery in small towns and more broadly on sanitation in urban areas of developing countries, and I look forward to reading more about the case studies and innovative approaches that are discussed. If you know about innovative projects focused on delivering water and sanitation services to urban areas of developing countries I would love to learn about them, or if you think I’m wrong to focus on the challenge of urban areas given poorer access to water and sanitation in rural areas, let me hear your thoughts.