Why is access to clean, safe water so elusive?

And what can our industry do to address this challenge?

The water fountain at the WELL Certified EDGE Olympic building in Amsterdam makes access to water easy and encourages hydration among employees.
Photo credit: EDGE Technologies

Biology tells us that water is the key to sustaining life, and history has shown that water determines where and how humans live. Early on in humankind, all settlements were located near wells and springs, with drought and flood periods deciding the survival of most early villages.

To support population growth, water management systems with astonishing levels of complexity were developed to ensure the sustainability of large ancient cities such as Angkor, Constantinople and Tenochtitlan. Aqueducts built by Persians, Romans and Mayans marvel us to this day and, in some cases, are still in service. Arguably, the city of New York has developed to its current size and population because of the foresight of the engineers and planners of the early 20th century, who built a drinking water supply system that reaches as far as 200 kilometres away.

While access to water pretty much has enabled the development of our current cities, water shortages have wiped away empires of the past and appear to threaten the existence of some of the largest cities in our current world. The UN Sustainable Development Goal 6, to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, is a direct call to action in what is, literally, a life-or-death issue for humankind.

In addition to addressing the challenge of access to water, ensuring that water is safe to drink is as critical as the presence of the resource itself. Our understanding of what constitutes safe drinking water has certainly evolved from the ancient times, when aesthetic considerations (taste, smell and appearance) were the only criteria to determine its safety. Greeks and Romans were aware of a relationship between the sourcing of water and public health, avoiding reliance on marshes and springs near mines for drinking purposes. With advances in microbiology in the 19th century, this link was affirmed, particularly after confirming that the source of the 1854 cholera outbreak in London was a contaminated water line.  With today’s availability of advanced treatment technologies along with the identification of new threats, such as chemical contaminants and Cryptosporidium, we now have an evolving paradigm of what constitutes safe drinking water, built upon chemical and biological indicators and thresholds, as well as an assortment of technologies to reach desired safety indicators.

Yet the question lingers: why can’t we provide safe drinking water (UN SDG target 6.1) and eradicate waterborne communicable diseases (UN SDG target 3.3), even in locations that are less financially or water-constrained? Any answer is extremely complex, but we can certainly point to a few issues and recommend ways to help reach these targets.

One important aspect raised by UN SDG 6 is that the issues surrounding water are not just about availability, but also about its ability to sustain life in the short, medium and long run. Water must be viewed from a holistic approach, like sourcing, treatment, use, conservation and recycling activities impact each other as well as the health of humans and the planet as a whole.

However, water governance is heavily compartmentalized. When it comes to drinking water, it is common that streams, reservoirs, aqueducts, treatment plants, municipal distribution lines and, critically, buildings, are managed by different organizations and report to multiple authorities. It is challenging to provide safe drinking water at a kitchen tap if a building does not take minimum precautions to keep the water safe, such as periodically maintaining the plumbing system. Conversely, as happened in the U.S. city of Flint, Michigan, poorly planned changes in the water sourcing can create havoc in a city’s public and private water infrastructure, let alone the consequences for public health and the seemingly irreparable loss of trust in those who provide water.

Compartmentalization of water governance occurs not only at the spatial level, but also at temporal scales. Design, construction and operation teams may not be working in tandem; moreover, they may not fully comprehend the effects of one on each other. Water infrastructure design, in particular, should place special attention in preserving water safety during operations above everything else. When water safety is an afterthought, risks of contamination may increase, and remediation costs, both economic and environmental, usually outweigh any other benefits, including water savings.

One can see that, given the level of temporal and spatial coordination required to provide safe drinking water for all, minimum levels of transparency, education and ease of access to information should exist regarding: (1) activities that may change the water quality, (2) indicators of water quality, and (3) plans for assessing and correcting situations when the water quality may be compromised. This push for transparency is critical to engage the community at times when the water safety could be at risk, including after extreme weather conditions or natural disasters. Similarly, education about water quality indicators should raise awareness instead of panic. As many other privileges, water safety is often treated as an entitlement until the moment it is lost, which is usually too late. Availability of contingency plans should diffuse worries of the local community when corrective action needs to be taken.

Finally, let us not forget why we care so much about water access and management. The reason is…to use the water! The main goal of a well-managed water system is to satisfy people’s basic needs of hydration, food preparation and hygiene. Water is prone to deterioration if not in constant flow. For instance, chlorine added for disinfection at the water treatment plant decays in about one day. If the water is left stagnant, it is more likely to foster the growth of microorganisms and to deteriorate pipes – meaning we all have the responsibility of using it to keep our pipes safe. Tap water is usually the cheapest, most sustainable and healthiest way to stay hydrated.

Throughout history, water has held a fundamental role in myths and ceremonies, and in driving modern civilization. Today, we should celebrate the fact that safe drinking water is largely a reality. Let’s drink it, use it properly, and leverage our buildings and infrastructure to work towards providing access to clean, safe water to the 25 per cent of the world’s population who lacks it.

This article is written by Rodolfo Perez, PhD Director, Standard Development at International WELL Building Institute

Rodolfo Perez serves as the Water Concept Lead on the Standard Development team at IWBI, where he brings his experience in research, development and the public sector to the development of the WELL Building Standard.

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