Access to fresh water is vital for the economic prosperity of a city and the survival of its citizens. In many developing countries, the high rate of urbanisation has not kept pace with the development and improvement in basic urban service delivery. The result is inadequate access to safe drinking water and sanitation as well as the pollution of natural waterways.
In Africa, for instance, the urban population without sanitation services doubled from 88 million in 1990 to 175 million in 2008, and similarly the number of people without access to fresh water increased from 29 million in 1990 to 57 million in 2008. Access to safe drinking water and sanitation is even more restricted in densely populated slums and peripheries. Residents there often depend on informal water vendors and are forced to pay prices between 20 and 100 per cent higher than the costs for drinking water from public or private utilities.
Local forests, which protect watersheds, are lost due to urban sprawl, cut for firewood and housing materials and vegetation is cleared for home gardens and crops. Hence, the water supply and cleaning function of the forested areas is lost, further aggravating the urban water gap.
Within the city limits, water shortage endangers the survival of a city's population. The child mortality is 10 to 20 times higher in poor supplied quarters than in areas with adequate water and sanitation services. Non-existent or insufficient infrastructure for clean water and sanitation poses a serious risk on public health, increasing infection rates of diseases like cholera, malaria and diarrhoea. In developing countries, up to 80 per cent of all environment-related diseases are due to the lack of clean and safe drinking water.
To raise awareness and speed up action, the focus of the World Water Day 2011 was on "Water and Cities: Responding to the Urban Challenge". Urban water quality and supply will continue to deteriorate if urban planning does not fully integrate watershed management. Therefore, the UNEP International Environmental Technology Centre (IETC) supports local authorities in providing access to safe drinking water, sanitation and waste water management. IETC provides information, capacity building support and implementation of Environmentally Sound Technologies options and management practices adapted to local contexts.