A report released by UN International Children's Emergency Fund (Unicef) to mark World Water Day on Wednesday raises more fears about water scarcity, but includes an encouraging case study of a pilot programme in Bangladesh that has helped tens of thousands of people affected by lack of clean water in the country.
“A change in climate is felt through a change in water” — Unicef
A Unicef report titled “Thirsting for a future: Water and children in a changing climate” released on Wednesday describes the current state of the world water crisis due to climate change and makes grave predictions about the future if the crisis and its causes are allowed to continue unchecked.
On a global scale, the report warns that by the year 2040 nearly 600 million children will be living in areas with extremely limited water resources. Currently, over 800 children under the age of five die every day from diarrhea linked to inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene.
— UN-Water (@UN_Water) March 15, 2017
Moreover, water stress also has a disproportionate impact on women and girls worldwide as they spend a total of 200 million hours collecting water every day. Girls of school age are therefore necessarily at a disadvantage compared to their male counterparts.
Spotlight on Bangladesh
Even when compared to countries in the Middle East and in sub-Saharan Africa, Bangladesh faces a unique set of challenges concerning water resources. According to the report, Bangladesh is “one of the countries worst affected by saltwater intrusion and groundwater salinisation”, and this directly affects the quality of drinking water. It is estimated that approximately 20 million people living in coastal areas of Bangladesh are already affected by this.
While Bangladesh is already at a high risk of flooding due to its natural topography, the report says climate change leads to more frequent and intense storms and rising sea levels which, in turn, contribute to more flooding. The flooding not only destroys water, sanitation and hygiene facilities but also causes salinisation and thereby compromises the quality of drinking water in coastal communities.
But it is not all bad news for Bangladesh. In order to ensure access to reliable drinking water in the worst affected communities, Unicef piloted a project to install Managed Aquifer Recharge (MAR) systems in Bangladesh in 2009. Unicef initially proposed the MAR system as an alternative, cost-effective, and climate/disaster resilient option, and the results from the project have overwhelmingly confirmed that.
The pilot project started with only four MAR systems set up at four sites and since then has been scaled up to more than 100 MAR systems, with the potential to be used throughout Bangladesh. According to the report, each MAR system can serve several hundred people and can be easily maintained by the communities themselves.
What else can be done?
In Bangladesh as in most developing countries, the major factors behind increased water scarcity are rapid population growth and industrialisation. Both are known to contribute significantly to man-made climate change, and, as the report argues throughout, climate change directly compromises access to and availability of safe, clean water for drinking as well as sanitation.
While population growth and industrialisation are inevitable in Bangladesh, Unicef says the effects of climate change on water sources need not be. The report provides a number of recommendations that can help to mitigate the effects of climate change on water sources if governments, businesses, and communities follow through and take concerted action.
Unicef is urging governments to prioritise the most vulnerable children’s access to safe water above other water needs to maximise social and health outcomes, and to integrate climate risks in all water and sanitation-related policies and services.
The organisation says businesses need to work with communities to prevent contamination and depletion of safe water sources, and that communities themselves should explore ways to diversify water sources and to increase their capacity to store water safely.
— UN-Water (@UN_Water) March 22, 2017