The ‘Water for Life Decade’ 2005-2015, proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 2003, aimed to promote action-oriented activities and policies for long-term sustainable management of water resources, and to improve sanitation for meeting internationally agreed goals. The Millennium Development Goals pursued during this decade are now being carried forward through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Post 2015, the components of SDG Goal 6 would cover safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene, water quality, water-related ecosystem, integrated water resources management, and water efficiency.

The global picture in the water and sanitation sector, although improved through various actions of UN Member States, still looks  dismal; every 15 seconds a child dies from preventable water-borne diseases, more than one in three people have no access to improved sanitation, one in seven still defecates in the open, over 80 per cent of waste water worldwide is dumped untreated  into water supplies, two-thirds of the world&’s population could  face water stress by 2025, more than 70 per cent of total water consumption is for agriculture where water-use efficiency is very low, and finally, the effect of climate change and urbanization will impact the water cycle, including vital ground water resources.

Major achievements of the water decade at global level include undertaking a global action plan for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) program during 2005-15; specific five year sanitation drive; giving renewed focus to IWRM (Integrated Water Resources Management) using various ‘decade themes’ such as water security, food security, water and energy, water quality, water and sustainable development; creating an environment-enabling corporate sector to participate in the water and sanitation sector; involving political process of Nation States at central level for solving water and sanitation issues, and creating global institutions for  water cooperation.

However, the key challenges faced include building and implementing a mechanism to bring sustainable water and sanitation to remaining unserved people in many nations, requiring a political process for taking stock of progress of SDGs, creating a forum to support better donor coordination at global level, etc.

India, like other countries, has been a part of the Water Decade&’s sustained global efforts.  It achieved the Millennium Development Goals for safe water access, but could not achieve the sanitation target. Even today, about 73 million work days are lost each year when workers become ill through use of dirty water, more than 1,000 children below the age of 5 die every day due to poor water and sanitation, in notified urban slums (one in 6 Indians live in urban slums) 17 per cent of the population lacks access to improved sanitation (which is 51 per cent in non-notified slums),  more than half the world&’s open defecators live  in India,  and a significant portion of the population does not use toilets despite having access to them. In this context the clarion call of the Prime Minister for undertaking Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is timely for making India open defecation free by October 2019.

On other fronts such as trans-boundary water cooperation, India has not ratified  the UN International Watercourse Convention (effective from 17 August 2014) and has progressed little with China and other riparian neighbours in resolving water-related issues. Even within India, the water cooperation among the States is mired with court cases, because of ineffective dispute resolution platform under the existing River Board&’s Act 1956. On water quality, either ground water or surface water, the improvement is insignificant. Schemes such as ground water mapping and management, and the Namami Gange of the central government are yet to have visible impact on the ground.  India needs to walk many miles before satisfactory results are achieved.

Nevertheless, the Water Decade has brought water and sanitation issues as India&’s central focus; created awareness of various stakeholders for treating their availability as a human right and necessary for ensuring human dignity; incentivised various donor communities to work with governments and civil societies  to design solutions for ensuring safe access to water and improved sanitation for all sections of the society;  catalysed the corporate sector to undertake water and sanitation activities through their CSR funds; created awareness of the vital links in the food-water-energy nexus; deepened understanding of the linkage between ecosystems, water, and food production;  taught us that different dimensions of inequality, such as gender,  in the provision of basic  sanitation and hygiene services would require different ways of programming,  and also highlighted the need for water cooperation based on the principles of’ ‘equitable and reasonable use’ and ‘the obligation not to cause significant harm to neighbours’.

Hopefully, renewed efforts will be seen in the years ahead for achieving the global sustainable development goals including SDG 6.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow and Director, Water Resources Division in TERI, New Delhi and a former Secretary, Ministry of Water Resources, Govt. of India.)