What are the problems we are trying to solve?
Today, we are facing unprecedented challenges in ensuring that everyone has access to sustainably managed water and sanitation services.
In 2017, out of a global population of around 7.5 billion people, some 1.8 billion people use a contaminated source of drinking water, 2.4 billion people lack access to adequate sanitation facilities, and over 840,000 people die every year from preventable water-borne diseases.
No person or community can function properly without access to safe water and sanitation. Beyond the obvious need to quench one’s thirst, how can people stay clean, maintain a toilet, manage menstruation, run a business, a hospital or a school without a supply of clean and safe water? The wider impacts of this crisis are profound.
Diarrhoeal illnesses caused by unsafe water, poor sanitation and hygiene are linked to around 50% of cases of child undernutrition, which can lead to stunted physical and mental development. What’s more, loss of productivity due to those same illnesses is estimated to cost many countries up to 5% of GDP.
Climate change risks further exacerbating this situation. Changes in water availability will impact food security and health, which have already proven to be a trigger for the instability and insecurity that forces people to become refugees. More variable rainfall mean much greater uncertainty for people, especially smallholders or farmers. Groundwater, reservoir levels and water resources can be depleted where the climate is getting drier, while conversely, floods can kill or devastate lives and ruin homes in areas where rainfall is heavier and more concentrated. Rising sea levels can contaminate coastal groundwater with saltwater. And in all these different situations, it is often the poorest and most vulnerable communities who are hardest hit and least able to cope.
Of course, the more people there are, the greater the demand for water. By 2030, our rapidly growing global population will have at least a 40% gap in its resources and water needs for drinking, washing and cooking, and to maintain sanitation systems to keep clean and healthy. And the greater the number of people without decent toilets or practising unsafe hygiene, the greater the risk of deadly and contagious disease outbreaks, and even international pandemics.
Overall, the water and sanitation sector needs to be prioritized and well-funded. Water is increasingly scarce and the costs of upgrading sanitation and supplying water (for drinking as well as all other human activities) are rising.
Urbanization makes the technical, political and financial challenges of service delivery even more complex, especially in rapidly expanding informal settlements. Put simply, we urgently need to become smarter in how we improve the sustainability and scalability of water and sanitation services, so that we can reach everyone currently unserved.
How ICTs could help us manage water and sanitation services
SDG 6 commits us to ensuring the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, including an end to open defecation, by 2030 – just 13 years away. Technology will play a pivotal role in achieving this ambitious goal, not just in terms of engineering technology in the delivery and maintenance of water and sanitation facilities and systems (such as taps, toilets and pipework), but also in the more extensive use of ICTs in helping us to manage water itself – the resource on which sanitation and hygiene depend.
Good governance, based on reliable information gathered by and shared through ICTs, is essential to manage uncertainty and reduce the risks of overexploitation and pollution of water resources and to extend and maintain sanitation systems that are proven to massively reduce the spread of disease. Without an integrated, data-driven approach to water and sanitation that takes account of the needs of the whole economy and protects the environment, we risk jeopardizing the success of the SDGs as a whole.
The Main Areas where ICTs can Revolutionize Water and Sanitation Management
1. Mapping and forecasting
Governments and water utility companies need to be able to accurately assess the state of their finite water resources, so they can meet current demand and make plans to meet future growth in demand. Networks of sensors, for example, can be used to measure groundwater levels, and satellite imaging is helping give decision-makers a clear picture of how the water system is prepared to respond to people’s needs. Today, satellite remote sensing of groundwater in Somalia is allowing researchers to accurately gauge water quality.
In the case of sanitation, ICTs can be used to change behaviour and spark community-led change. In Kenya, the Ministry of Health has implemented an online, real-time monitoring system of maps and reports to show national progress towards the goal of communities becoming ‘open defecation-free’. The public nature of the system helps participating communities to contextualize the changes they are implementing and serves as inspiration to other communities just beginning the journey.
Agriculture accounts for around 70% of global water withdrawals, so improving the efficiency of this sector will play a major role in the sustainability of the world’s water resources. For instance, knowing when to irrigate crops, and how much water to use, is crucial to maximizing yields. Wireless sensors are being used in the fields to monitor humidity levels and soil moisture, and can automatically turn on irrigation systems, based on the specific needs of those crops at that location and at that point in time.
Advanced monitoring also allows for better planning and management, especially during cycles of drought and flooding. For example, the Somalia Water and Land Information Management project developed by the FAO has developed sophisticated systems for monitoring surface and groundwater to support sustainable development of scarce water resources in Somalia.
3. Smarter systems and services
ICTs are also proving effective in the treatment and recycling of wastewater. A pilot scheme in the Netherlands is linking up five municipalities’ sewerage networks and wastewater treatment plants, so sewage can flow through the entire system under an automated centralized control, and this plan could eventually be scaled up to the national level.
While projects at the regional and national level are very important, we must all take responsibility at the individual level to reduce the amount of water we use, reduce the pollution we may contribute to the water system, maintain our household sanitation facilities, and reuse water where it is safe and practicable to do so.
ICTs can help us to do that, through the use of smart water meters and apps to monitor home usage or, for people living in informal urban settlements with no connection to sewerage networks, using apps and text messages to alert local latrine emptying services, so waste is properly disposed of.
ICT-based advances also may imply a reduction in staff for specific water-related tasks, as well as increased knowledge, skills and capability requirements. They may also raise the qualifications for professionals in water sectors. At the same time, new job opportunities are being created through efforts in R&D and for a broad range of ICT-professionals and/or ICT-versed water professionals who will benefit from new employment opportunities in water organizations.
Some of humankind’s earliest technology was applied to water supply. So technology has always been, and will always be, central to giving people access to water, sanitation and hygiene.
But while engineering and science are not new, the current pace of technological change, and the way ICTs have transformed society, are unprecedented. Our ubiquitous screens have become portals, giving us access to a domain where we can learn from each other, gather information and act in concerted ways that were inconceivable even a few years ago.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the water and sanitation crisis, but there is now an urgent priority: with respect to water as a resource, we need to do much more, with less. ICTs have the power to revolutionize water and sanitation management by helping us develop innovative, efficient, scalable solutions, based on data and evidence.
We need to adapt the technologies at our disposal, mixing physical infrastructure, data management and communication in different ways to meet the needs of different contexts and to live within the limits of the water availability. ICTs are based around communicating and sharing, so ICTs in the context of SDG 6 must be focused on sharing the benefits of water and sanitation equitably to everyone on the planet to help drive progress across many of the other SDGs.