Children with dirty hands. Long lines at public water points. Cholera sweeping through a densely populated settlement. In the short-term, these public health issues can often be solved through Water, Sanitation and Hygiene projects – WASH, for short. But as the storms of climate change and variability, urbanization, and migration gather on the horizon, the benefits of traditional strategies – building or rehabilitating water and wastewater systems, or promoting improved sanitation practices and hygiene behaviors – are proving to be fleeting. While these efforts may meet a community’s needs, they don’t prepare them for an uncertain future. For development to be truly sustainable, communities need water security: the adaptive capacity to safeguard the sustainable availability of, access to, and safe use of an adequate, reliable and resilient quantity and quality of water for health, livelihoods, ecosystems and productive economies.
Of course, WASH is an important stepping stone toward a more water secure world. Global access to safe water, sanitation and proper hygiene education can reduce illness and death from disease, leading to improved health, poverty reduction and socioeconomic development. But as climate change and variability continue to impact the water cycle, weather and climate events like seasonality, extreme events, and climate-related disasters will become the norm. The resulting unpredictability of when, where, and how much rain will fall will put even more stress on already complicated projects.
And climate change is not the only significant challenge on the horizon for water professionals. Growing social, political and economic trends like urbanization, monoculture and migration will complicate already challenging global conditions. Communities that already lacked a sustainable water supply will now experience more varied and complicated water challenges, such as seasonally insufficient water supplies, or polluted water resources in the aftermath of a devastating hurricane. What’s more, externalities for downstream communities, notably absent from general WASH considerations, are going to become more commonplace. Hitting these moving targets will require not just improved water access, but holistic water security that will last for the long-term.
Let’s look at a common WASH solution: supplying a community with a pump or a borehole to improve water access. Of course, this provides immediate benefits: improved quantity, and usually quality, of water for that particular community. But when water availability in an area increases, humans and livestock flock to those water points, causing surges in water use. Ironically, this puts extreme strain on local resources, from water sources to agricultural and grazing lands. Without a systems-thinking approach, these kinds of WASH projects sometimes lead to larger water demands, contributing to the very problems they attempt to solve. But with an eye toward water security, water can be better managed to head off these unwanted externalities.
Drinking water and adequate sanitation are crucial to human survival, but they’re only the first step in human development. If we want to make development sustainable, we need to teach communities to plan, adapt and bounce back from the unexpected. Without water security, WASH successes are fleeting at best – but if WASH professionals work in tandem with water security experts, the benefits can be substantial, both now and in the future.