World Water Week 2016 – Water for Sustainable Growth

SIWI-WWW-Logo_2015_267x100cWorld Water Week in Stockholm is an annual event that focuses on global water issues. One of the key aspects of World Water Week is the coming together of industry experts in an effort to brainstorm and develop solutions to the world’s most pressing water-related issues.

World Water Week is organized by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), whose vision is a water wise world where the unique value of water is recognized and where water is shared and allocated sustainably, equitably, and efficiently to meet everyone’s basic needs. This year’s theme is Water for Sustainable Growth, and also marks the 20th jubilee of the Stockholm Junior Water Prize. In 2015, over 3,300 individuals and close to 300 organizations from 130 countries participated in World Water Week.

Importance of Water for Sustainable Growth

As the global population continues to increase exponentially, it has become absolutely critical that natural resources be utilized sustainably — and water is arguably the world’s most precious resource. While water is a necessary part of every aspect of life, water availability will be of particular import in five key areas, expanded below.

Agriculture

irrigation_cropsAgriculture is not only critical to nourishing the global population, it is also far and away the most aggressive consumer of water. In fact, 70% of water withdrawals worldwide are for agriculture. Add to this the fact that by 2050 global agriculture will need to produce 60% more food in order to feed the burgeoning population, and it becomes clear that finding ways to farm sustainably is not only prudent, but necessary. The most sustainable form of agriculture comes in the form of rain fed crops. However, only about half of agriculture that has the potential to be rain fed is currently doing so. The rest is relying on irrigation and water withdrawals. Therefore, a key goal for the future is to convert these irrigated crops into ones that are watered naturally, with rainfall.

Industry

The second largest consumers of water are industry and energy, which combined account for 20% of the global water demand. Most of this demand is, of course, from developed countries, since underdeveloped countries typically are dominated by agriculture. Therefore, there exists a serious imbalance in industrial water usage and concern over the future as industrialization spreads as these underdeveloped nations expand. Therefore, water experts are working together to find ways in which all nations can benefit from industrialization while avoiding unsustainable impacts on water demand as well as other natural resources.

Domestic

CityWaterDomestic usage only accounts for 10% of total water demand, but its impacts are arguably the most important. Lack of improved water and sanitation is one of the largest contributors to poverty, illness, and lack of education worldwide. Even with the incredible strides made in the United Nation’s goal to provide improved water and sanitation to all people, an estimated 748 million people still lack access to an improved source of water and 2.5 billion still lack access to improved sanitation. One of the key goals of water for sustainable growth is finding ways in which to unequivocally ensure safe, clean water and hygienic, private sanitation to all inhabitants on the planet.

Ecosystems

Adding to the challenge of water for sustainable growth for agriculture, industry, and domestic usage is the fact that climate change and an ever-increasing population have created a significant impact on our environment. Sustainable development has been a buzzword for decades, and yet most efforts have been largely unsuccessful. Rainforests have been stripped, aquifers practically drained, air quality degraded, and soils contaminated. No longer can sustainable development be a catch phrase or theory – the time has come for a proactive, targeted response to the global ecological crisis, including water supply and demand. Fortunately, savvy water and ecological experts from around the globe are currently working hard towards a sustainable future for generations to come.

Cities

slums_waterCurrently, over half of the global population resides in cities, and that number is expected to increase to over two-thirds of the nine billion global inhabitants by 2050. Most of this increase will happen in developed nations, which will tax infrastructure and likely increase areas of impoverished living conditions. Already in the United States are areas, such as Navajo Nation and the Texas Colonias, that are in many ways similar to those in underdeveloped nations in terms of infrastructure and resource availability. And, with the influx of urban residents, those areas of substandard living conditions are likely to increase – and not just in America. In fact, it is predicted that, without proactive planning, global urban populations will almost certainly experience a serious degradation in living conditions, including inadequate water and sanitation facilities. Therefore, the sustainable development of water resources for not only economic and industrial growth, but also for social equality and justice will be key to the sustainable development of urban areas.

In Conclusion

Sustainable development of water resources is paramount for the future health and success of our planet. SIWI’s World Water Week is a way in which experts from around the world are able to meet, discuss, share ideas, and thoughtfully plan for a sustainable future. For more information on World Water Week, including updates, activities, and how you can participate, please visit www.worldwaterweek.org.

 

SaveSave

Water Crisis in the United States, Part 4: Colonias

colonias-in-texas-300x292Recently in the news, we have heard a lot about the nationwide lead in drinking water crisis and the need to update our aging infrastructure. In addition, the plight of the people living in Navajo Nation has been brought to the nation’s attention after being showcased in a video by CBS Sunday Morning News. However, there is yet another very serious water crisis in the United States that has garnered very little media attention, and this week, we will be concluding our four-part series on water crises in the United States by talking about colonias.

What Are Colonias?

Colonia translates to neighborhood in Spanish, and in the United States, colonias are primarily Hispanic neighborhoods found along the Mexican border in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas. With over 2,200 colonias, Texas has by far the most colonias in the nation, as well as the largest colonia population with over 500,000 residents. The modern-day colonia population is about 96% Mexican-American, with about 74% of those — and 94% of colonia children — being American citizens.

colonias_texas_Proyecto-Azteca-300x189
A Texas colonia residence

Colonias originated in the 1950s. At this time, less than honorable developers bought up worthless land along the Mexican border — such as land that was agriculturally useless or located in flood plains — parceled it into tiny lots with little to no infrastructure and sold it off to low-income immigrants in search of affordable housing. To this day, colonias are often bought through a contract for deed, which is a questionable financing method by which developers offer low down and monthly payments with a very high interest rate and no title until the loan is paid in full. Prior to 1995, developers did not typically record the transactions with the county clerk, leaving the buyer with virtually no rights. If they fell behind on payments, the developer could repossess the property quickly, usually within just 45 days, without going through the foreclosure process.

colonias_lots_for_sale-300x201Fortunately, Texas passed the Colonias Fair Land Sales Act in 1995 to somewhat protect colonia residents who are forced to finance through a contract for deed. The Act requires developers to record the contract with the county clerk and to provide property owners with an annual statement that shows the amount paid towards the loan and taxes as well as the number of remaining payments. The Act also forces developers to itemize which services, such as water, wastewater, and electricity, are available, and whether the land is located in a flood plain.

While the Colonias Fair Land and Sales Act has improved contract for deed sales, there remain serious problems. Because property owners do not actually own the land or have a title, they cannot secure any type of financing that uses the property as collateral. Considering that colonia residents are typically well below the poverty level, any other types of financing are also unavailable to them, making it impossible to improve their property. Therefore, colonia residents typically construct their homes in drawn out phases as funds become available to them. Because of this, colonia homes often do not have electricity or even basic plumbing.

Challenges in Colonias

Arguably the most serious challenge facing colonias is the lack of improved water and sanitation services. Many colonias do not have public sewer systems and instead rely on rudimentary septic systems or outhouses that are often inadequate and overflow. And because the land is frequently in flood plains with poorly constructed roads that do not properly drain, sewage collects and pools, rife with bacteria and pathogens. Even colonias that do have sewer systems typically lack any type of wastewater treatment. Therefore, untreated wastewater is discharged into local streams that flow directly into the Rio Grande or the Gulf of Mexico.

Vending machine in Hidalgo, Image courtesy Wendy Jepson www.wendyjepson.net
Vending machine in Hidalgo, Image courtesy Wendy Jepson
www.wendyjepson.net

Potable water also presents a challenge to colonia residents. Very often, inhabitants must buy water in drums to meet their needs, or, even worse, they utilize untreated water from wells that are contaminated. Some private companies have installed water “vending machines” that provide bottled water at an astronomical cost to residents who can ill afford it. Even colonias that do have water lines have major problems, because residents are unable to tie-in due to their homes not meeting county building codes; to meet the building codes, they need to have adequate plumbing — a true Catch-22 situation. In fact, housing in colonias is typically considered dilapidated by local inspectors. Residents often start with just tents, cardboard, and lean-tos, and make improvements little by little as funds allow.

Due to the lack of improved water and sanitation, as well as lack of electrical services, it should come as little surprise that health conditions in colonias are often deplorable. Hepatitis A, dysentery, tuberculosis, cholera, salmonella, and other diseases occur at an astronomically higher rate in colonias than they do in the rest of Texas, according to Texas Department of Health data. To make matters worse, most colonias do not have local medical services and have a serious shortage of primary care providers, and most colonia residents lack health insurance. Therefore, the average age of colonia residents is only 27 — a full 10 years younger than the national average. And, just as is the case in Africa and other developing areas, quality of health is directly linked to quality of education. Therefore, many colonia residents remain undereducated — 55% of residents do not have a high school diploma — causing the cycle of poverty to continue generationally. The unemployment rate in colonias is anywhere from 20-60%, compared with 7% for the rest of Texas.

Assistance to Colonias

Thankfully, through a series of public outreach initiatives, more attention has been brought to the existence of colonias and the third-world conditions in them. In the last 20 years, the Texas Secretary of State has been recording the infrastructure, or lack thereof, within colonias and providing a significant amount of funding — tens of millions of dollars — to improve these areas. And it is working, albeit slowly. Since 2006, about 100 colonias have been moved out of the “red” category, indicating the worst conditions. However, with over 2,200 colonias along the Texas-Mexico border, there is still much work to be done.

On a federal level, USDA Rural Development has grants available through the Individual Water and Wastewater Program for households residing in an area recognized as a colonia before October 1, 1989. The colonia must be located in a rural area and determined to be a colonia on the basis of objective criteria including lack of potable water supply, lack of adequate sewage systems, lack of decent, safe and sanitary housing, and inadequate roads and drainage. Grant funds may be used to connect service lines to a residence, pay utility hook-up fees, install plumbing and related fixtures like a bathroom sink, bathtub or shower, commode, kitchen sink, water heater, outside spigot, or bathroom, if lacking. Qualifying applicants must own and occupy their home, show income from all individuals residing in the home below the most recent poverty income guidelines, and not be delinquent on any Federal debt. The maximum individual grant for water systems is $3,500 and for wastewater is $4,000 with a lifetime assistance maximum not to exceed $5,000 per individual. Further information can be found on USDA’s web site. In addition, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in Texas, Arizona, California, and New Mexico has set aside up to 10 percent of their State Community Development Block Grant Program (CDBG) funds for improving living conditions for colonias residents.

leticia-jones-300x191
Leticia Jones has received several business loans from LiftFund and now the future of her catering business is bright. Image courtesy dallasfed.org

Fortunately, colonia residents are a very resourceful, tight knit group who are willing to work together and help each other, and some private and non-profit institutions have also become involved in the plight of colonia residents. For example, Texas A&M worked with residents on a water filtration project which involved making simple filters to make water potable. In addition, a non-profit lender called the LiftFund has provided loans to some colonia residents to assist them with starting a business. These loans have a very low interest rate and are given to people who cannot qualify for a traditional loan. Colonia residents are very often entrepreneurial in spirit, perhaps through necessity. After all, for years they have done what they need to do to get by, whether it be selling handmade crafts at flea markets or cutting up tires dumped along colonia roads and turning them into unique flower pots.

In Conclusion

Colonias are a little known part of America that have conditions oftentimes no better than those found in developing countries. One of the biggest causes of generational poverty in colonias is attributed to lack of basic water and sanitation services, causing health and education issues. Just like the plight of the people living in Navajo Nation, it is shameful that people living in the richest land in the world do not have access to these basic human rights. Add to this the lack of charitable organizations supporting water poverty in the United States, and colonias qualify as one of the most significant, and heartbreaking, water crises in the nation.Subscribe-to-our-newsletter1