Leaders in Davos Need to do More to Promote Clean Water for All
This year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland brought together heads of state, business titans, and humanitarians. Many of the global leaders, including UK Prime Minister Theresa May and US President Donald Trump, highlighted issues such as the importance of globalization, public-private partnerships, keeping borders open for trade and investment, and the role of artificial intelligence in transforming the world’s economies– all important issues confronting much of the world’s population, particularly in advanced industrialized nations.
Missing from these speeches, however, was any acknowledgement of the pressing problems confronting much of the rest of the world, such as access to safe water and sanitation. As many as 3 in 10 people worldwide lack access to safe water, and nearly 1 in 8 lack access to a toilet. Just five years earlier at this same gathering, then secretary general of the United Nations Ban Ki-Moon called on the Davos participants to pay more attention to water issues, warning the world, “Most of us do not appreciate water. We just take it for granted.” That same year, the World Economic Forum ranked water as the “second most important world risk.”
Resource sustainability is as much an element of globalization as is the free flow of capital and information. The advanced industrialized nations stand to gain many benefits from the developing world. They are an important source of minerals and energy resources and often play broader geostrategic purposes. Take, for example, the small African country of Djibouti, in which 23 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty, and a majority of the population lacks access to safe water. Yet Djibouti also boasts a highly desirable strategic location at the southern entrance to the Red Sea, adjacent to the Bab el Mandab Strait, an important international shipping corridor. As a result, the United States, Japan, France, Italy, and most recently China have all established military bases there. A priority for all these countries, as well as others who benefit greatly from the natural resources mined throughout Africa from these bases, should be working together to ensure access to safe water and sanitation for the not quite one million citizens of Djibouti who share their land, water, and other resources with these much wealthier and more powerful countries.
These countries do not have to look far for inspiration. Multinational corporations and NGOs are making important contributions to making clean water available in the developing countries. Coca Cola and its bottling companies, for example, have established a range of programs focused on water resources. They set a goal to replenish the equivalent amount of water used in their global sales back to nature and communities; in 2015 they returned 115 percent of the water they used through various water projects. The company has also improved its water efficiency by 27 percent since 2004. Its program in Africa, RAIN (Replenish Africa Initiative), is making progress on providing access to clean water for 2 million people through improved hygiene, watershed protection and improved efficiency. A group of engineers from Warsaw-based DePuy Synthes developed a pump to help African villages access water below 100-150 feet, while the NGOs Design Outreach and World Vision raise money to pay for and distribute the pumps as part of the Hundred Pump Project.
At the 2017 WEF, actor Matt Damon presented the work of his water charity, Water.org, after receiving support from Stella Artois, the Belgian brewery. Water.org has developed WaterCredit—a special loan for people who cannot afford to pay up front for access to safe water and sanitation. With the amount of time that people spend collecting water—according to the World Health Organization, women in rural Africa spend 26 percent of their time collecting water—people can improve their income levels and pay the loans back over time. Through its partnership with Stella Artois, Water.org has brought clean water to 800,000 people with plans to reach 3.5 million by 2020.
As global leaders and executives depart Davos, let’s hope that 2018 can be a year where the world makes greater progress on clean water initiatives and embrace the words of Ban Ki-Moon: “Water is life.”