Understanding the value of water in the decade of action for sustainable development

March 22, 2021

The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on many societies and economies behoove us to appreciate the true value of water and take action to protect this vital resource for the benefit of all. Photo: Praise Nutakor/ UNDP Ghana

Water is the central nervous system in the fight to create resilient and low carbon economies to build back better from the impacts of COVID-19. Access to water and sanitation for all which is Goal 6 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) contributes to the achievement of most of the SDGs.

Yet 785 million people worldwide still lack access to safe water.  Of these, 490 million live in sub-Saharan Africa mainly in rural areas. In Ghana, though the country has made significant progress in ensuring access to clean water, nearly three million people rely on surface water to meet their daily water needs. This leaves them vulnerable to water-related illness and disease. Ghana’s recent environmental analysis report indicates that the cost of environmental degradation due to water pollution is equivalent to 3 percent of GDP.

This year’s theme for World Water Day is Valuing Water. This is apt as many communities struggle to maintain the high level of hygiene required in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Appreciating the true value of water will prompt us to take action to protect this vital resource for the benefit of all.

The availability of water is falling over time and water crisis is the 5th highest risk to society according to the 2020 edition of the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks report . Ghana’s Voluntary National Review report on the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development reveals that water availability per capita has decreased but remains above the threshold for water stress (1700m3 per capita). However, climate change could significantly impact water resource availability especially in the Northern Savannah ecological zone.

In this decade of action, valuing the multiple uses of water, from agriculture to power generation, transport, industry, domestic use, ecosystems, fisheries, and livelihoods will help transform this looming water crisis into an opportunity for advancing sustainable development. There are three reasons to be optimistic as we celebrate world water day today in Ghana.

A growing momentum for an integrated water resources governance and planning

There is increasing recognition of the power of better planning and integrated governance of water resources to enhance climate resilience. Effective regulatory frameworks and tools for managing and protecting water resources are in place to improve water security.  Public awareness and education in water resource management is also growing. And so are improvements in transboundary and international cooperation in the management of shared water resources. However, gaps still exist in the implementation of these lofty plans and frameworks. The activities of many “galamsayers” – small-scale illegal gold miners whose livelihoods depend on mining - are depleting water bodies and raising the cost of access to clean water. Protecting these resources requires robust solutions to address the needs of small-scale mining without undermining the achievement of the SDGs particularly SDG 6.

Ambitious climate plans present opportunity to drive transformation

Ghana is currently updating its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to raise ambition as part of its commitment under the Paris Agreement on climate change. The ongoing NDC update is an opportunity to ensure the full mainstreaming of sustainable water management practices. This must ensure efficient irrigation and drainage systems, basin management, wastewater recycling and reuse, and rainwater harvesting in Ghana’s climate plans for a more inclusive, resilient and low carbon development.

In addition, a transition to renewable energy will reduce the stress on available water resources in the face of a changing climate. Effective implementation of Ghana’s Renewable Energy Master Plan, developed by the Government, with support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), will promote development of Ghana’s rich renewable energy resources towards a low carbon economy. 

Ensuring gender equality in water resources management is a smart investment

Addressing the differentiated impact of climate change on women and men opens up new opportunities to free up time for more productive use. According to the Ghana Statistical Service (GSS) (2018), 21% of women as against 17% of men spend about 1-3 hours per day collecting drinking water when water is absent from their premises. In drought prone areas affected by desertification, particularly in northern Ghana, the time spent is much more as women and girls especially spend an average of 43.5 hours per week accessing water for farming. Lessons learnt from the Government and UNDP supported climate adaptation project, funded by the Adaptation Fund, showed that investments in water infrastructure can reduce burdens on women and girls. The project, which has provided 145 boreholes in 50 communities, is benefiting over 40,000 people mainly women and children because of their distinct roles in water collection and usage.

Looking forward

The cord that binds “people, planet, and prosperity” together is the value that water provides. So, unsustainable management of water resources is a recipe for the destruction of the planet that people depend on and ultimately our collective prosperity. The  recent UNDP  Human Development report: The Next Frontier: Human Development and the Anthropocene’ argues that as people and planet enter an entirely new geological epoch, the Anthropocene or the Age of Humans, it is time for all countries to redesign their paths to progress by fully accounting for the dangerous pressures humans put on the planet. The planet and all the nature-based solutions it provides, cannot survive without water and this calls for investments in water infrastructure.

In this regard, the new UNDP’s SDGs Investor Map for Ghana identified investment opportunities in key areas including sanitation services, for unserved areas. The map also provides market intelligence on investment opportunities in the provision of affordable irrigation solar systems and water dams. These highlight emerging opportunities for the government, private sector and citizens to advance development by valuing water. Protecting this valuable resource and reclaiming water bodies destroyed by unsustainable use provides significant investment opportunities for private investors in the water sector.

Water governance should be reinforced at all levels- local, regional and national, to ensure the reliable delivery of water for priority uses, especially for domestic, and agriculture to head off potential crop failures.

The truth is that we cannot live without water, and this requires water bodies to be clean and safe and citizens have an important role to play. By changing behavior, people can be the key to preventing pollution of water bodies for a healthy environment and a healthy life for all.   

Appreciating the true value of water will prompt us to take action to protect this vital resource for the benefit of all.