The world’s water woes and the urban divide

Published: 22 March 2011 10:16 CET

By Stefan Seebacher, Head of the health department

Water shortages in the world are nothing new, but access to water and improved sanitation has now become one of the biggest challenges for urban settings where 50 per cent of the worlds’ population lives.

The world’s water woes manifest themselves in many ways: cities face severe water shortages due to climate change and population growth; 4,000 children under five die every day from water-borne diseases associated with a lack of access to safe drinking water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene, combined with an ever-increasing risk from contaminants; the energy costs of water supply are becoming increasingly important to utility companies; today’s cities have ageing pipes and other equipment that require maintenance and management costing billions of dollars annually; and finally, and most importantly, clean, safe water comes with a hefty price tag.

Although we may consider access to safe water and sanitation a human right and not a privilege, we need to face the stark reality that slum dwellers in cities from Manila to Mumbai, and Kinshasa to Nairobi are living in appalling conditions. With no access to water and sanitation, they face illness, disease and death.

Whilst the last 20 years has seen a tremendous effort to increase water and sanitation coverage for the world’s most vulnerable people, it has been significantly undermined by the process of urbanization and climate change. Despite this, cities continue to attract the poor with the promise of a better future.

Over a third of Africa’s 1 billion inhabitants currently live in urban areas, with 70 per cent of them in slums. And according to the United Nations agency for human settlements, UN Habitat, the population of some cities is set to swell by up to 85 per cent in the next 15 years. The most populous city in 2011, Cairo, will grow by 23 per cent to 13.5 million people. By 2025, however, it will have been overtaken by both Lagos and Kinshasa, with 15.8 million and 15 million people, respectively.

In India, the demand for water in Delhi has been rising to such an extent that local authorities can no longer meet people’s needs. The city’s water infrastructure has been so poorly maintained that 40 per cent of the water supply fails to reach consumers.

So how does the world tackle its water woes?

There are three main ways to respond to such challenges: water and sanitation, education and the identification of vulnerabilities.

Firstly, we must ensure that the provision of water, sanitation and drainage is affordable and properly maintained. Solid Waste collection services from low-income communities can significantly reduce flooding during heavy rains, whilst improving child health by reducing exposure to disease. Secondly, communities who are healthier, better educated and living in safer homes are better able to deal with a wide range of shocks and stresses, including epidemics, floods and earthquakes. And thirdly, the identification of vulnerabilities in urban settings can help poor residents who live in self-built or artisan-built structures to upgrade at an appropriate pace and cost.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has committed to contributing to the Millennium Development Goals by providing safe water and basic sanitation to a minimum of 7 million people by 2015 – under the umbrella of its ten-year Global Water and Sanitation Initiative. But much of our work has been in poor rural communities.

We now need to redouble our efforts for those living in desperate conditions in cities.

Port-au-Prince is one such city. Following the earthquake in January 2010, it is estimated up to 1 million people are still living in camps in and around Port-au-Prince. The importance of water and sanitation became even more evident with the outbreak of cholera, which has claimed more than 3,000 lives so far.

The IFRC challenges policy-makers, governments and donors to recognize sanitation as one of the absolute priorities in Haiti’s reconstruction and encourage them to work with stakeholders, multilateral organizations, civil society and the Haitian people to provide the improved sanitation services that the Haitian population needs and deserves.

Likewise, a concerted effort from the international community, the private sector, local authorities and communities themselves is needed to tackle the world’s water woes and to find innovative solutions.

As urban populations continue to swell, the forecast is certainly grim.

The solution must be found through meaningful political and social cooperation, both within countries and internationally, one which the IFRC is firmly committed to.


The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is the world's largest humanitarian organization, with 191 member National Societies. As part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, our work is guided by seven fundamental principles; humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality. About this site & copyright