Raising the benchmark on water security

Dr. Jamie Bartram on why we can't continue building 20th century systems for 22nd century problems.
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October 14, 2014
A Palestinian girl uses a public tap to wash her hand in Jabaliya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

When the Millennium Development Goal of halving the proportion of the world’s population that did not have access to safe drinking was reached in 2010, it was considered a huge success. But what about those who are at risk of losing access or who are vulnerable to climate extremes? And why are many cities still “building 20th century systems for 22nd century problems”?

Looking at the post-2015 agenda, Dr. Jamie Bartram spoke recently at McMaster University’s Water Week about those still facing water insecurity and where truly innovative thinking on water-related solutions might come from. Dr. Bartram is the director of the Water Institute at the University of North Carolina and former head of the Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Health unit at the World Health Organization. He spoke with OpenCanada’s managing editor Eva Salinas last week in Hamilton, Ontario.

You emphasize that the Millennium Development Goals improved access to water however water security may be over-estimated. What do you mean when you say there are ‘billions at risk’?

The simple fact is in the MDG period, the number of people using or collecting water from an improved source has gone from 4 billion to 6 billion people. If you think of that as just a raw number, that is absolutely wild. It is an incredible success.

The way the MDG target is formulated; it’s about halving the proportion of the unserved. The problem with that is the proportion is a very clever formula, but it means you’re ignoring all that population growth. So it is kind of difficult to wrap your head around it. But even with that proportional reduction, the water part of the target is on track. That’s an amazing achievement, absolutely amazing. So that is the good news bit.

Then you’ve got this counterpoint that says don’t be too confident in your successes because in actual fact we set the benchmarks really low. As long as you only have 30 minutes to collect water, a bucket at a time, from a well that is probably a bit safer than it would be if it were fully open, then you count. Well, you know, that is not the height of ambition for the 21st century. It is not the height of ambition of what I want to be working towards. What proportion of the population has actually got water at home? What proportion of the water is safe? What proportion of the sanitation actually protects other people from their own wastes? Once you start doing that, these numbers sort of fall apart.

Considering recent cases of water insecurity that have gotten wider attention — the shutting off of water in Detroit, Michigan, the contamination in Toledo, Ohio, and the drought in California — are risks spread out geographically more than we would think, as opposed to being just in the ‘developing’ world?

"We set the benchmarks really low. As long as you only have 30 minutes to collect water, a bucket at a time... That is not the height of ambition for the 21st century."

We are seeing individual slippages all over. That is no surprise really when you think about it. You will find towns and cities going in the wrong direction in every continent. If you look at the big statistics, many of the gains have been in the most disadvantaged places. Sub Saharan Africa started in a bad place but it has moved an awful long way and that’s great. I worry about much of South Asia on the water side because while there is quite a lot of, for example, pipe water in cities, services are very discontinuous. So you may have a tap in your house, but how often water comes through the house is a completely different matter. So there are some big shortfalls there.

The one thing that unifies the least developed and the most developed countries and everyone in between is rural disadvantage. So rural water, country after country, is way inferior to the situation we have in the urban areas.

You call an incident like Toledo’s an individual ‘slippage’, but should it still be considered preventable?

Should it preventable? Yes. Should what happened in small Canadian systems have been preventable? Yes. Human kind makes mistakes and learns from its mistakes. So the question is, and I can’t answer it, is how well has Canada learned from its small system problems? Because it had some that reached international renown and in a sense could have given a signal, a lighthouse, for how others could respond to small system problems.

Small systems problems such as…

It is not that many years ago that we had Walkerton, or North Battleford. They are small system failures, big time. Their problems at face value should have been preventable.

And boil-water advisories in First Nations communities

We have moved out of an era in which the priority was, in essence, provision — ‘How do we make sure people have something?’ — Into an era in which we have got two challenges. One challenge is we actually have a relatively small population that hasn’t yet achieved provision. That is often the case in indigenous populations. So that is one priority. The other priority is for the majority who now have something, they are at risk. So what is their risk of loss?

So if you look at those two challenges they are very different in nature. We live with them side by side today. How do we reach the residual populations to ensure that they can get services to sustain health and livelihood and development, and how do we increase the security for the majority who now have something?

What do you think of the MDG framework, if we are looking to make a new set of goals?

Having a low benchmark meant that we had to think about those who hadn’t even got on the first rung of the ladder. If we chose a higher benchmark, rung five, we could achieve that by moving people up from rung three and rung four onto rung five and leave the people who haven’t got on rung one where they were. So the low benchmark forces us to worry about the most disadvantaged. You talked about indigenous populations, so it’s great for that. It’s also very clear. Everyone got the MDG target. Politicians got it, ordinary people get it. It communicates very effectively.

I was lucky to be involved in the process that was convened by WHO and UNICEF to think through new targets. I think we got some great proposals for finishing the provision agenda. So we got proposals that say first of all everyone, everyone needs basic water and basic sanitation. Secondly, just because you are in a country where everyone has got basic doesn’t mean you have finished your job. We have got to ramp up, move up the service ladder. We need water not only at home but in other places. So the targets are schools and health care.

What I don’t see is the resilience part. So looking towards the future, we have got lots of storms on the horizon but there are things that could put us off track. The emphasis isn’t there on making sure we have got real sustainability. So if you look at what is coming through, it is great on finishing the provision agenda, it’s not good in morphing into the risk management agenda, delivering water security to the people who need it.

What framework then would be better to address risk management?

Climate change is a great example or climate extremes. We actually know quite a lot about how to develop and manage water and sanitation systems that are resilient to climate extremes, floods and droughts are the main examples. The question is, are we doing so? I think the answer to that is probably either no, or at least not as much as we should be. So there are simple things that we can do but unless we make a policy decision to do it, unless we are willing to invest they are not going to happen.

So in an era in which we are increasingly recognizing the threat of climate extremes and we are talking the talk of climate extremes, the American Society of Civil Engineers still gives the U.S. its own water and wastewater infrastructure a D-grade every year because they are under-invested in replacement and refurbishment. That replacement and refurbishment process ought to be an opportunity.

We might think of water security more readily with climate extremes, but what about humanitarian crises, such as refugee migration or disease outbreaks?

I think it does get the visibility in the humanitarian setting. And people get it, it’s very easy to imagine without water life is very difficult. So it’s an easy sell.

Sanitation is more difficult. We still tend not to talk about it and it’s not as immediately compelling for many people as the water story. The health care setting thing I think is different. We just finished some work for WHO trying to look at what do we actually know about water and sanitation and hygiene, but let’s focus on water and sanitation, in health care settings — the truth is its appalling. In many countries from which we’ve managed to collect data, in effect there are large numbers of health facilities without water on the premises. Sometimes without water within 500 yards. Sometimes without even a basic functional latrine. I don’t know how you run a health facility without water and a toilet. I can’t imagine what that looks like… You know, in health care there is a saying ‘First do no harm. Primum non nocere.’ Taking people to a place without basic safeguards seems to me to infringe one of the basic tenets of medical practice.

On the technology side of things, you argue infrastructure is lagging behind. How so?

The main message is that we are still building 20th century systems for 22nd century problems. So we still do water systems like we did 50 years ago and we still run waterborne sewage systems like they were designed by the Victorians. Yet the world has changed hugely and we have not had the radical re-thinking. Potentially because we have invested so much.

I mean you look under the city, look under the streets of a city like Toronto. We have got so much invested in all that fixed infrastructure. The idea that maybe there is a different way we could be doing things, that’s really scary. Yet that is the level at which the question needs to be asked because that infrastructure lasts. It doesn’t last 10 years or 20 years. A lot of that kind of infrastructure lasts 50 years, 70 years. So what we are putting in the ground today is meant to be working more than half a century in the future.

But how do we plan for something that may arise in the future?

Well you plan strategically. You want more adaptability. That would be part of it. Part of it is thinking beyond the ends of our noses because at the moment we are not thinking 50 to 100 years down.

Are there examples of this kind of innovation right now?

I’m not going to respond to it quite like that, but I will give you a tangential expression. We have seen some major urban regeneration projects in developed countries, well in different countries. I’m thinking of developed countries. One after the other, they re-sewer or they sewer for the first time large urban areas.

It really concerns me that maybe that’s not the right way to be spending our money and maybe we have a better way of managing shit than diluting it with water, pouring it down leaky pipes and then spending vast amounts of money to separate the water from the shit again.

Is anyone doing that differently?

People are starting to think about how to do it differently. Actually doing it differently? Not really. Small scale, rural, composting toilets. But actually saying ‘let’s not connect a major urban development area, the regeneration of a developed city centre, let’s not connect it to a sewer’? No, I have not found anyone that is actually thinking in those terms.

Yet that is where the opportunity is. Radical re-thinking of how we manage our physical infrastructure.

Where is some of this thinking taking place; are there certain institutions known for it?

You hear these conversations starting to take place. We talk about it. There are conversations around themes like ‘Cities of the Future’ but they are very early stage conversations and we are not really seeing the prototype in the piloting and the testing.

Are solutions then going to come from a combination of international cooperation and local thinking?

I think so, yes. This is counter-current thinking — most people are looking for the sanitation solution to come from urban centres in the developing world because that is where you have got the biggest deficit — but I suspect it will come from small urban settings in the developed world because I think that is where the crunch will hit.

I think there will be cities, for example in North America, towns and cities, whose infrastructure crumbles and don’t have the financial clout with which to replace it.

Such as Detroit?

Detroit is an odd case because you have actually had a de-population. Let’s not go there. Let’s go to a town that got its sewer infrastructure just after World War II. There are many, many of them. Its tired, its exhausted. The town is still there, it has grown a bit, it has been extended. It is not hugely wealthy, but neither is it de-populating like Detroit. That infrastructure is at the end of its life.

I would imagine that in the next 10 to 20 years there will be quite a lot of those that just haven’t got the financial muscle to dig up the streets, lay the new piping. We can do a certain amount of patch-up and we are pretty good at doing that, that’s what engineers do. But sooner or later we have to lay things anew and I just wonder if we can afford it anymore.

And therefore turning to…?

Therefore I think that will create a demand for an alternative. The problem at the moment is the alternative isn’t there.

And it might not be cheaper.

Might not be, but it could be. I mean we shouldn’t pretend that we are confident that this big, fixed infrastructure with very high-end of pipe treatment costs is necessarily the best way to do things.

It might be, but it might not be.