“We Need Water!” Becoming an Increasingly Common City Cry

“We Need Water!” Becoming an Increasingly Common City Cry

Although recent U.N. reports suggest global water access is improving, scientists and researchers say this is far from the truth.

Echoes of a global water crisis were once a dismissed topic, and after recent United Nations (U.N.) efforts to increase accessibility to clean water around the world, many have begun to think we are headed in the right direction. According to scientists and authorities abroad, however, this is a problem that is not only unsolved, but likely to get worse.

Global data underestimates the water crisis for one main reason: U.N. regulations on international organizations’ measuring methods is too broad, lacks attention to water quality, and does not address affordability or regularity. Every country is dealing with the water crisis almost entirely on its own standards, and it’s creating a global illusion. A recent U.S. News article reports on this rise of thirsty cities.

The most recent report supporting these claims is "Unaffordable and Undrinkable: Rethinking Urban Water Access in the Global South” by the WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities. It is the latest in a series of recent studies warning about the correlation between dwindling global resources and climate change trends.

Although the U.N. reports an improvement in global water access, the rising move to cities and the common use of direct (or intermittent) piping systems—instead of continuous water piping—invalidates this assumption. The U.N. reports that more people globally have gotten access to improved water, but the recent report (among others) notes that the portion of urban residents receiving piped water has actually decreased since 1990. Researchers focused on 15 cities in Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. They found that many of these communities (most notably in Latin America, then Asia and Africa) piped water to a home or a yard with intermittent piping. Only three cities in their sample (Colombo, Sri Lanka; São Paulo, Brazil; and Santiago de Cali, Colombia) have continuous piped water supplies.

Why does a continuous piped water supply make a difference? Continuous piped water, as opposed to piped water, is more protected from potentially harmful elements like sewage, groundwater, and other contaminants. When the pressure in a piped network drops, these contaminants are more likely to enter the water source.

“All of us who work in Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia and other parts of the global South, we thought ‘These don't actually represent what's happening in the cities we work on,’” says Victoria Beard, a professor of urban planning at Cornell University and Fellow at the World Resources Institute. “They draw attention away from the crisis.”

Even though global water scarcity is affecting both urban and rural communities, the crisis will undoubtedly be an inescapable reality for governments and city planners. By 2050, 68 percent of the world’s population is expected to live in cities. Four years ago in 2015, only about half of the world’s urban population had access to piped water, the report finds. While this problem affects everyone, it is up to city leaders to make the first major strides.

Authors argue that no action from city leaders could mean a “day zero” for even more cities in developing countries. While investing in better, universal drinking water in urban areas would cost an estimated $141 billion over five years, refusing to address these issues could cost a potential $260 billion in a single year.

The report suggests city governments and officials take the following steps:

  • Expand and improve formal piped water networks to increase access.
  • Address intermittent water service to allow businesses and individuals to anticipate their water access and plan effectively.
  • Pursue many strategies, like offering water subsidies, to reduce the cost of water for low-income residents.
  • Work reasonably to upgrade infrastructure and improve water access to the urban under-served.

“We feel that a lot of cities are not being proactive in terms of the investment and planning that needs to take place,” Beard says. “Without cities taking the actions in our paper, I expect that this problem will get worse.”