World Water Day sees crises of inequality in countries both rich and poor

Milo MitchellMilo Mitchell | Updated: 24-03-2021 10:06 IST | Created: 24-03-2021 10:06 IST
World Water Day sees crises of inequality in countries both rich and poor
Representative image Image Credit: ANI

Since 1993, World Water Day has been held on March 22nd to highlight the value of clean water—and the fact that 2.2 billion people around the globe sadly do not have access to this precious commodity. This year's commemoration comes at a particularly poignant time, as the coronavirus pandemic has shone a global spotlight on how essential clean water is to health. For one thing, it is nearly impossible to carry out the hygiene measures needed to keep the disease at bay without ready access to safe water. For another, researchers have suggested that the coronavirus might spread through wastewater or improperly treated water.

Even as COVID-19 has sparked renewed awareness of how vital access to clean water is, global water security has never been more imperiled. In fact, by 2025, half of us will be living in water-stressed areas. Tragically, the world's youngest citizens are the most heavily impacted, with one in five lacking sufficient supplies to cover their daily needs.

Even as technology improves and demand for water rises by 1% every year, water 'variability' continues to increase, as much because of inadequate management of this basic public service, as because of global warming. Yet this fundamental, finite resource is all too often undervalued–particularly by those who have it constantly on tap. Two recent examples from two places with paradoxical political identities illustrate the widespread and grave nature of the world's water problem, even in today's globalized world.

Mismanagement in Mississippi

A recent water emergency in Jackson, Mississippi, demonstrated how water poverty springs up in the world's largest economy. One month after a major February storm caused a week-long power outage across the American South, the residents of Jackson were still under notice to boil tap water given the damage caused to the pipes. Even then, with water levels hovering at a paltry 37 pounds per square inch, residents were lucky if they could get more than a dribble from their taps. Most citizens relied on precious supplies of bottled water from distribution points across the city for drinking, cooking, cleaning and even flushing, while others began to collect and melt snow and ice in buckets. The city finally received clearance to lift the notice, but exhausted residents are now demanding accountability for the chaos and a promise that change is nigh.

Indeed, the recent crisis is not solely attributable to chaos wreaked by the storm. The fact that Jackson suffered this public health crisis more keenly and for longer than the other cities hit by the same storm is the fault of the state administration, which has sidelined the majority-Black city for several decades. According to Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, the state leaders have so far neglected the city despite the "millions of dollars" which it contributes to the state of Mississippi's coffers. Human rights campaigners have long recognized that "structural racism" leads to unequal access to water—something that Jackson residents have ample experience with.

Indeed, this year's emergency was only the latest example of how a chronic lack of investment has left Jackson residents facing alarming water insecurity; in 2016, the city's aging water pipes were found to contain deposits of highly toxic lead.

Jackson's public finances are running low, however, and a preliminary quote for a rehaul and 'winterization' of century-old water infrastructure came to a startling $2 billion. It is easy to see why an increasing number of municipalities are privatizing their water systems in a bid to offset the colossal costs involved, despite the fact that development experts have warned of the risks of opaque and unequal access under private ownership. For now, it remains to be seen whether Lumumba's request for $47 million to shore up essential water infrastructure in Jackson will be granted.

Chronic shortages in Cuba

While shortages of safe tap water in the US are infrequent on the whole, water insecurity is tragically commonplace in large swaths of the world. In Cuba, for example, much of the population only has sporadic access to running water, sometimes for as little as one or two hours a day, while as much as 50% of Cuba's available drinking water is lost due to leaks in its antiquated pipelines.

Despite a new constitution passed in 2019 which established the right to clean water, getting water to flow through the country's taps is a Herculean task that involves an army of manual laborers from inspectors, to pipe layers, to trucks and horse-drawn carriage drivers. Fumigators are also crucial, as, during the short periods when water is running, residents fill up cisterns and tanks—which then attract mosquitos who could propagate everything from dengue fever to Zika virus.

Resourceful Cubans have come up with innovative ways to cope with the water crisis. In addition to bottled water, they rely on trucks called pipas, which drive around supplying water to areas with insufficient pressure or broken pipelines. The situation remains a huge drain on Cuba, however, because of the burden on health care and economic productivity caused by the lack of widespread access to clean and safe water. To make matters worse, rather than directing funds exclusively to the implementation of water facilities, Cuba's authorities are forced to cash out on monitoring the country's thousands of kilometers of low-lying coast in order to better predict flooding and droughts. Even then, the country has to rely not only on the National Water Resources Institute but also on assistance from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Russia.

Cuba and Jackson, Mississippi are just two among countless examples of communities struggling with a scarcity of safe water. As the coronavirus pandemic throws the world's water crisis into relief, governments must prioritize the provision of this basic human right. Bottled water and water trucks can provide a lifeline to tide them through the pandemic, but more sustainable long-term investment in water infrastructure will ensure that the globe is future-proofed against further crises.

(Disclaimer: Devdiscourse's journalists were not involved in the production of this article. The opinions expressed are the personal views of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Devdiscourse and Devdiscourse does not claim any responsibility for the same.)


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