Gregory Pierce is the associate director of research at the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation. He studies access to clean water and try to support local agencies and communities’ efforts to realize human right to water in California. We met him at UCLA, where his office is located. As for all our interviews, we started by showing him the video below with testimonies that we collected around the world. That’s how our conversation about access to water started.
20 Questions About Water: What is your first reaction to these testimonies?
Gregory Pierce: I agree that it is amazing that water access remains such an endemic major problem. It is really all across the world, although there are degrees of lack of access. But it is also not amazing when you look at how high inequality there is in so many different resources and services.
20QAW: Can you make a quick historical review of water access?
G.P.: That’s an interesting question! I think there are two different answers to that.
The first is that in higher income countries there were high rates of death and disease from water until the late 19th 20th century, just like that remains in many lower income countries. Then in the US and other countries, we put in modern pluming and modern drinking water systems. There are still issues here, but they are not as profound as in other places. In other countries some places still don’t have these systems. But that has been a major progression over the last 200 years.
“There has been a huge effort globally. It’s one of the success stories of global aids effort”
20QAW: How has access to clean safe water improved over the decades?
G.P.: Again, before the 19th century it was pretty much even across places, depending on your source water. But I would highlight that it’s not all bad story. Since the early 1990’s there has been huge progress in terms of the percentage of people in the world who have access to fresh clean water. It is just that population growth means that the raw number of people who don’t remains pretty much the same because the countries that have the worst water access tend to also have the highest population growth.
There has been a huge effort globally. It’s one of the success stories of global aids effort, that the percentage of the population has increased who has access, but there are still a lot of people who don’t.
20QAW: What is the current situation with access to water worldwide?
G.P.: Well, I am going to say, the clean part is much the same as it has been over the last 10 – 15 years. I don’t know the numbers on the top of my head but there are around 800 million people who do not have access to safe clean water per the WHO (World Health Organization). Some people would say that number is much larger. But I would say the real negative trends are in terms of water scarcity, in terms of climate change, and the acuteness of water scarcity in certain parts of the world where water is simply running out. Of course, Cape Town being a vivid example of that. But that is going to happen more and more over the next few decades if there is not really novel planning and policies to address these issues.
20QAW: Who is responsible for providing access to water?
G.P.: That’s a great question! I think that the government should generally be responsible at local level. It should be responsible for providing water to whatever the given community is. But since they don’t in so many cases, or don’t adequately, it becomes a case where private companies and NGOs come in and try to fill that gap, and get criticized for it. But I think in many cases where governments are under-resourced and/or corrupt, it has to be a combination of those three in conjunction with communities to provide real solutions.
20QAW: Which types of projects are the most successful in bringing clean water to communities?
G.P.: I think those types of projects that don’t just build infrastructures but actually have a plan for maintaining infrastructure and also have a plan for how to finance the on-going maintenance of systems that work for communities but also work for whoever is providing that, often requiring subsidies from other populations or other areas to meet the needs of under-resourced communities.
20QAW: How could everybody have access to fresh clean water?
G.P.: I would say it is possible for everyone but people who live in super remote rural areas, if they don’t have available water there is a question of whether they simply need to move to find that resource. But for everyone else sure. If the average moderate to higher income person were willing to pay a little bit more for water, everyone could have safe clean water. It is not that hard to do financially or engineering wise, it is a matter of political will.
“The investments in local water resources and technologies will pay off in the next hundred years”
20QAW: How do you see the water situation in a hundred years?
G.P.: I see it in some ways being a lot more decentralised. Pretty much every area in the world, barring a few, is going away from trying to go and grab water and import it. They are trying to recycle more water, capturing more strong waters, in some cases desalinated water. The investments in those local water resources and technologies will pay off in the next hundred years and really benefit large amounts of the population. It is just the question to me really if the small populations that get left out of large systems right now whether they are going to benefit from any of these things without getting consorted efforts.
20QAW: What do you want to answer to those people that you just saw?
G.P.: I would just say like I said. It is amazing in one sense that this is taking place, but it is also not amazing because even the average person who ears about these things and is shocked and scandalised doesn’t tend to do a lot to put pressure on his politicians or his local water systems or other decision makers to actually change the status quo. I think there is starting to be awareness. More awareness in the USA since Flint, but there is still not enough action by people who could influence decision makers to really change things, to address the situation.