World Water Day 2023: Accelerating Change

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An Interview with Orlando Hernandez, WASH Expert

March 22 marks World Water Day, an annual day of observance where we celebrate and raise awareness of the importance of water and freshwater resources worldwide. This year, World Water Day will focus on accelerating change to solve the ongoing issues we face around water and the actions we need to take in order to meet the sustainable development goals.

In honor of World Water Day, we sat with IBTCI’s Senior Technical Advisor from the Social, Environment, Agriculture Development (SEAD) Practice, Orlando Hernandez to share his thoughts on this important day and this year’s theme of accelerating change.

Orlando is a behavioral scientist and WASH expert with over a 25-year successful record in the management and implementation of applied research in international development. In the last few years, he co-chaired a Hygiene Working Group under the auspices of the Joint Monitoring Program and was involved in defending the inclusion of hygiene in the SDGs, which is now under Target 6.2, Goal 6. In this interview (facilitated by Knowledge Management/Communications Associate, Yarah Qasem) Orlando gives us some insight on the importance of accelerating change to solve the water and sanitation crisis

Yarah: Why do you think days like World Water Day are so important?

Orlando: Well, it shows the importance of the sector, especially for the international community; for those people that are working and trying to meet targets and so forth. To report on what activities are being implemented or not implemented to reach the targets set for the international community. If there is any lag or even if there is an accomplishment just to be able to report back.

Yarah: What do we need to do to address and accelerate change in order to reach SDG 6 targets?

Orlando:  Many things need to be done by different actors. This is connected to water availability and water security. So, when you say we, it depends on what actors we are talking about and what role they play in increasing access to water, and I would also say sanitation and hygiene. Already at the global level we have to think of the level of development countries have.  What may need to be done in developed countries would need to be different from what needs to be done in developing countries.  More in the case of developed countries, even though it may also happen in developing countries residents must have to limit their consumption of water and to be rational about how they use it. There was one experience that I had in one developing country facing water availability constraints where there were no water meters in apartment buildings in urban centers. In cities in this country, there were many buildings with no water meters. In the absence of water meters, residents in many better to do neighborhoods self reported taking very long showers. Without thinking of waste that it would represent.  In  poorer neighborhoods, family members would take turns to use the same bath water, and the gray water was used for other purposes. For those families, bathing was limited to once a week.  In the buildings with no water meters, on the contrary, residents would let the water run until the hot water came on and that also is water that is wasted. So, we as consumers have to be thoughtful of how we’re using the resource.

Protecting the resource in general would help to increase the availability of water. If there is a limited amount of water, the more cautious we as consumers are with its use the more likely that there will be higher volumes of water available for distribution.

Cities could also play a role in making sure there are no leaks in the water distribution system. I know of another city in a Central American country that has lots of leaks and there is a lot of water that gets lost that way as well. So, it doesn’t get to the households. What happens is that one may need to invest in repairing water distribution systems  to make more investments in water to reduce the amount of non revenue water.

In addition to extending access to other neighborhoods, often poor, where no water may be delivered to homes. Governments need to assume their responsibility of providing water for their constituents.  Extending coverage is crucial. The amount of resources needed to extend coverage is quite large. What commitment is there on the part of governments to make the necessary investments to make it possible to extend coverage. The international community has been providing resources to contribute to the process. Governments must devote their own resources to take care of this need. Attracting private sector investments for the water sector is also another possibility.

Let us consumers use water responsibly, ensure that governments also act responsibly, and seek private sector involvement to increase coverage.

Yarah: IBTCI has worked in water and data programs. What do you think is the importance of data in WASH and how do you think it can support the acceleration of change?

Orlando: In many different ways, this depends on what kinds of data, who has access to the data, and how it can be used for making decisions. A global joint monitoring program can tell us what steps have been taken to increase access, who is doing it and at what speed.  The topic for this year’s water day is acceleration and this is because we need that to be able to reach the water targets in the SDG’s. We would have to work four times as fast. If you didn’t have the information, you wouldn’t know exactly what the issue would be.

There are other ways we can use data for different purposes. For example, we need to track water availability. IBTCI is involved in doing context monitoring in one program to track drought.  Data is also needed for managing the operations of water distributors. So data is important for water governance. We need data to see how operators are doing and if they are managing their resources properly and that they are making sure they are generating enough resources to cover expenses to ensure services are running efficiently. And consider how those resources can be used to extend service.

There is a lot of data that has to do with more water security and how the water resource is protected. There is a connection of course between water, forest and soil. If you are cutting down the trees there is going to be more erosion and less water available and more sedimentation. The waterways are going to be filled up and they are not going to be able to carry the water, this will result in floods.

Therefore, the information that one may have about water as a natural  resource and the watersheds is important in order for us to find out how we protect the water resource.

Then there is also water quality data, which will help us make sure that our water is coming out of faucets or pumps a sufficient quality of water for people to drink.

We have to make sure that we are not just construction infrastructure. Data will help us make sure that water runs through pipes and comes out of faucets.

Information on what is the level of water availability, or scarcity for that matter, which parts of a given country may continue without access to safe water, what water management and governance challenges exist, and even what is the impact of safe water access can help elevate the importance of water in the political agenda.