The most essential basic need



"For billions of people worldwide, access to safe drinking water and improved sanitation is still a matter of life and death,” according to a recent statement by Andris Piebalgs, EU Commissioner for Development. He added that last year the EU presented its MDG Initiative that aims to “provide an extra €1 billion for African, Caribbean and Pacific countries and has a focus on those MDGs that are most off-track, including water and sanitation” adding that “The management of water resources affects all sectors that are important for inclusive growth and sustainable development, such as energy generation, agriculture, food security, and the environment. We will therefore prioritise sustainable water management in our future development policy". [1]

Global consumption of water is doubling every 20 years, more than twice the rate of human population growth. According to the United Nations, more than one billion people, or about one-sixth of the world's population, lack access to fresh drinking water. Of these one billion, the vast majority is living in developing nations. If current trends persist, by 2025 the demand for fresh water is expected to rise by 56 percent more than the amount of water that is currently available.

Although water is one of the most common resources on the planet, only 2.5% of it can actually be consumed, and the rest is salt water. Of that 2.5%, two-thirds is confined to glaciers and permanent snow cover. Only a fraction of the world's water is liquid freshwater, and it is being diverted, depleted, and polluted so fast that, by the year 2025, two-thirds of the world's population are expected to be living in a state of serious water deprivation. [2] This problem is magnified by highly inefficient water use (principally for irrigated agriculture) in most countries.

There are reports that “Multinational corporations recognise these trends and are trying to monopolise water supplies around the world.” Consequently many cases of the prices of water for citizens being increased dramatically are being reported. [3]

Trying to understand whether water scarcity may lead to conflict, a team led by Professor Aaron Wolf from the Department of Geoscience at Oregon State University, has looked at the dynamics behind water conflict. What they found out was that there is a relationship between change in a water basin and the institutional capacity to absorb that change. These changes can be hydrologic (floods, drought, agricultural production growing) or institutional (disintegration of countries, emergence of new nations). River basins are variable and treaties can deal with variability. However, climate change is going to increase variability and, with it, risks of conflicts in areas where treaties lack. This is the case in the Himalayan basins, where a billion and a half people rely on the waters that originate in the Himalayas, and where no treaty coverage exists to deal with that variability.


[1] A. PIELBAGS, EU Commissioner for Development, EU / EWI Press Release: “World Water Day: Commission launches €40 million to improve access to water in Africa, Caribbean and Pacific” , 22 March, 2011, see: http://www.euwi.net/news/world-water-day-commission-launches-%E2%82%AC40-million-improve-access-water-africa-caribbean-and-pacific (last consulted 10 November 2011)

[2]   M. BARLOW, National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians / Director, International Forum on Globalization, “World Bank and Multinational Corporations Seek to Privatize Water: The Global Water Crisis and the Commodification of the World’s Water Supply”, 2000, see: http://www.freshwater.net/ (last consulted 10 November 2011)

[3] M. BARLOW, Ibid.

International Action

Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)

According to the MDGs, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water should be halved by 2015, starting from a reference point of 23% in 1990. The world is currently on track to achieve and even exceed this, having reached 13% in 2008. But nearly 900 million people still do not have access to safe drinking water. 330 million of these live in sub-Saharan Africa. (The MDGs also state that the number of people without access to sanitation should be halved. The world is off track on this). 

World Bank Water Strategy and Policies

The World Bank is one of the leading international organisations dealing with world water issues. It has a number of effective programmes in place. However, the Bank also supports many privatisation policies which may consider to run counter to the idea of a transparent, public control over water resources.

Global Water Partnership 

The Global Water Partnership was founded in 1996 by the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) to foster integrated water resource management (IWRM), and to ensure the coordinated development and management of water, land, and related resources by maximising economic and social welfare without compromising the sustainability of vital environmental systems.

It is based on a network of Regional Partnerships in the Caribbean, Central Africa, Central America, Central and Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Caucasus, China, Eastern Africa, Mediterranean, South America, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Southern Africa and West Africa. It currently comprises 13 Regional Water Partnerships and 73 Country Water Partnerships, and includes 2,069 Partners located in 149 countries.

UNDP Water and Oceans Governance Programme

Water plays a pivotal role for sustainable development, including poverty reduction. The use and abuse of and competition for increasingly precious water resources have intensified dramatically over the past decades, reaching a point where water shortages, water quality degradation and aquatic ecosystem destruction are seriously affecting prospects for economic and social development, political stability, as well as ecosystem integrity. Water Governance refers to the range of political, social, economic, and administrative systems that are in place to develop and manage water resources and the delivery of water services at different levels of society (See Water and Oceans Governance Programme).

UNDP assists countries to achieve equitable allocation, develop capacities and implement integrated approaches to water resources management through adaptive water governance to reduce poverty and vulnerability, sustain and enhance livelihoods and protect environmental resources.

UN Water

UN-Water strengthens coordination and coherence among UN entities dealing with issues related to all aspects of freshwater and sanitation. This includes surface and groundwater resources, the interface between freshwater and seawater and water-related disasters.

Global Annual Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking - Water - GLAAS

UN-Water GLAAS is an initiative implemented by the World Health Organization (WHO). The objective is to provide policy-makers at all levels with a reliable, easily accessible, comprehensive and global analysis of the evidence to make informed decisions in sanitation and drinking-water.

Convention to Combat Desertification in Countries Experiencing Serious Drought and/or Desertification, Particularly in Africa (UNCCD)

The UNCCD was adopted (in Paris on 17 June 1994) to combat desertification and mitigate the effects of drought in countries experiencing serious drought and/or desertification, particularly in Africa, through effective action at all levels, supported by international co-operation and partnership arrangements, in the framework of an integrated approach which is consistent with Agenda 21, with a view to contributing to the achievement of sustainable development in affected areas.

EU Action

The EU considers the protection of water resources and of fresh water ecosystems as one of the main cornerstones of environmental protection in Europe. The EU tries to develop concerted actions to ensure an effective protection.

In addition to being a party to the UNCCD, the European Community is also a Party (check) to the following other water related MEAs:

Helsinki Convention on Watercourses and International Lakes (1992)
River basin conventions (Danube (1987), Elbe (1990), Oder (1996), Rhine (1999)
Barcelona Convention (1976) as amended and its protocols
OSPAR Convention(1992) as amended
Bonn Agreement (1983)
Helsinki Convention on the Baltic Sea (1992)

The EU Water Framework Directive

Water resources frequently span geopolitical boundaries. Truly sustainable use and protection of resources thus often requires international and regional co-operation. The key EU legislation on water, the Water Framework Directive [4] establishes a broad management approach based on EU river basins.

The directive promotes the general protection of the aquatic ecology, specific protection of unique and valuable habitats, protection of drinking water resources, and protection of bathing water. The directive makes a distinction between surface water (ecological protection, chemical protection and other uses) and groundwater (chemical status, quantitative status). In addition, it aims to coordinate the application of other water-related directives (Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive, Nitrates Directive, Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control Directive,...) through a combined approach.

All the elements of this analysis must be set out in a plan for the river basin. The plan sets out how the objectives set for the river basin are to be reached within the timescale required.

The EU Water Initiative

Millions die each year from diseases related to unsafe water, or for lack of access to water. Millions more are forced to waste whole days of work or school just to fetch water from remote locations. And the numbers of those forced to emigrate by drought and climate change climb every year. To respond to the need for increased focus on water in development policies, the EU launched the EU Water Initiative (EUWI) in 2002. It is a political initiative that seeks to assist partner countries in the development and implementation of policies and strategies for the water and sanitation sector. In that framework, the EU and the ACP countries launched the ACP-EU Water Facility in 2004 with €700 million devoted to projects for the period 2005-2013.

During World Water Day, on 22 March 2011, EU Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs announced the launch of a pooling mechanism of €40 million in the framework of the ACP-EU Water Facility. This mechanism has been created to blend grants from the European Development Fund (EDF) with loans from the EU multilateral and bilateral finance institutions to finance projects for access to water and sanitation services in African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries. This financial instrument should increase the leverage effect of the financial aid and will trigger private sector participation. It also aims at contributing to EU support to Developing countries' efforts to reach the MDG for drinking water and sanitation.

Adaptation to Climate Change

In April 2009 the European Commission presented a White Paper on adapting to climate change which presents the framework for adaptation measures and policies to reduce the European Union's vulnerability to the impacts of climate change.

The White Paper highlights the need "to promote strategies which increase the resilience to climate change of health, property and the productive functions of land, inter alia by improving the management of water resources and ecosystems.“

The accompanying Impact assessment [5] and the Policy paper on Water, Coasts and Marine issues provide an in-depth analysis of the role of water and ecosystems in the transmission of potential climate change impacts to the economy and society. The IA also describes the potential for ecosystem-based adaptation approaches and the need to properly assess the environmental impact of adaptation measures and policies.

As part of the actions included in the White Paper, Water Directors of EU Member States adopted in December 2009 a Guidance document on adaptation to climate change in water management to ensure that the River Basin Management Plans (RBMP) are climate-proofed.

As a next step, the Commission will present by 2012 a 'Blueprint to Safeguard European Waters', which, together with the analysis of all plans for 110 river basin districts, will perform a review of the Strategy for Water Scarcity and Droughts and of the vulnerability of water and environmental resources to climate change and man-made pressures.

Successful adaptation to the impacts of climate change on water depends not just on effective national and European water regulations, but also on the extent to which water management can be integrated into other sectoral policies such as agriculture, energy, cohesion and health.
Adaptation is being taken into account in the review or implementation of other relevant environmental policies, in particular biodiversity, coastal and marine environment.


[4] Directive 2000/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 October 2000 establishing a framework for Community action in the field of water policy

[5] Commission staff working document SEC(2009) 0387 final accompanying the White paper - Adapting to climate change: towards a European framework for action - Impact assessment, Brussels, 1 April 2009

Role of Earth Observation

According to a recent UNESCO study, "Earth Observation data, when used jointly with in situ data, can provide an essential contribution for the creation of inventories of surface water resources, the extraction of thematic maps relevant for hydrogeological studies and models (land cover, surface geology, lineaments, geomorphology,...) or for the retrieval of (bio)geophysical parameters (water quality and temperature, soil moisture,...)." [6] For instance, studies led in the US allowed the measurement of water clarity and quality in Minnesota Lakes and Rivers using remote-sensing. [7] These techniques can be used to monitor the clarity of both freshwater systems and the marine environment and are already commonly used to detect pollutions such as the one that affected the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizon industrial catastrophe.

On a political level, Earth Observation appears as an essential tool in the management of internationally shared water resources and aquifers, allowing the development of basin-wide approaches and facilitating international cooperation on water resources. Indeed, "Earth Observation's simultaneous area wide and transboundary coverage provides a uniform spatial information layer to correlate or extrapolate isolated field data. It thus can be a cost efficient and objective mapping and monitoring instrument." [8]

The report however mentions two main caveats:

  • EO is not a stand-alone tool but requires ground-truthing and needs to be integrated and assimilated by means of geographical information systems (GIS), data modelling and decision support systems with other available information and data like well information or geological maps. 
  • Additionally and in the context of groundwater management, the report notes that EO is confined to the land surface: optical remote sensing sensors measure the reflectance of surface features, radar and thermal sensors allow only to detect and to identify features at or very close to the surface. For application to groundwater management, Earth Observation can usually work only indirectly by means of proxy information or secondary effects. 

A team of scientists from Stanford led by Jessica Reeves may have found a way to cheaply and effectively monitor aquifer levels in agricultural regions. To do so, they use data from satellites that are already in orbit. The scientists used interferometric synthetic aperture radar, known as InSAR, to calculate the variation of ground elevation on uncultivated patches of land and managed to extrapolate the level of groundwater.

"Hydrologists and regulatory bodies looking for more data to better understand their groundwater system could one day set policies requiring farmers to leave a patch of land clear for InSAR data collection", Reeves said. Furthermore, the technique could be used in agricultural regions anywhere in the world, even those that lack modern infrastructure such as wells. [9]

Earth Observation is also used in raising awareness on the need to save water. The World Bank Save the Rain initiative allows web users to calculate the value of capturing and saving rainfall on rooftops anywhere in the world. The programme enables users to be aware of the amount of rainfall that can be harvested in one year and how many kilograms of different crops could be grown from the captured water.


[6] "Application of satellite remote sensing to support water resources management in Africa: Results from the TIGER Initiative", IHP-VII, Technical Documents in Hydrology, N°85, UNESCO, Paris, 2010

[7] P. L. BREZONIK, L. G. OLMANSON, M. E. BAUER, and S. M. KLOIBER, "Measuring Water Clarity and Quality in Minnesota Lakes and Rivers: A Census-Based Approach Using Remote-Sensing Techniques", CURA Reporter, Summer 2007, see: http://water.umn.edu/Documents/Brezonik_et_al-Measuring_Water_Clarity.pdf (last consulted 15 November 2011)

[8] UNESCO, Ibid.

[9] S. YOUNG, "Satellite data provide a new way to monitor groundwater aquifers in agricultural regions", Stanford Report, December 13, 2010, see: http://news.stanford.edu/news/2010/december/agu-water-imaging-121310.html (last consulted 15 November 2011)