World Water Day 2011 – Responding to the Urban Challenge

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Ivy Tsui is a JD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.

Water is a crisis of inconsiderate policy making and poor water management. Governments, policy makers and communities around the world must actively engage in addressing water management challenges. For example, the research arm of innovations must be strengthened and technology transfer must be spread to an expanded circle of developing countries.

World Water Day 2011

World Water Day started when the United Nations General Assembly designated March 22nd, 1993, as the first World Water Day to promote international efforts to sustain freshwater resources. This year’s main event will be hosted in Cape Town, South Africa, and other major events, including Toronto’s Canada Water Week, are also happening internationally to celebrate this valuable and essential resource.

This year’s theme, “Water and Urbanization”, with the slogan “Water for cities: responding to the urban challenge”, focuses on the impact of growing urban populations and industrialization around the world. It aims to facilitate policy dialogue and collaborations among governments, organizations, communities, and individuals around the world for sustainable urban water management,

Calling for a global campaign on urban water challenges is not an exaggeration. The facts to this pressing issue speak for itself: 828 million people living in slums or bustees around the world have no water sanitation facilities. These people need potable water and sanitation services to keep cities free of diseases. In addition, there is an inequality in the distribution of water—the poor have the least access to water, and are paying up to 50 times more for one litre of water than their richer neighbours because they have to buy from private water vendors.

Although the United Nations had been making consistent efforts and “successfully” improved access to drinking water for 1052 million urban dwellers and connected 813 million people to sanitation facilities between 1998 and 2008, the urban population also grew by 1089 million people in that period.  Thus, the net result offsets the headway made and undermines progress in making water resources sustainable. Adding to this problem is the lack of wastewater treatment and drainage facilities. Water is polluted and supply is sharply depleted. Rapid urbanization also leads to an over-exploitation of water resources. This soaring population and industrialization are posing significant threats to health and the environment because contaminated drinking water could spread cholera, malaria, and other water-borne diseases.

Hand-Operated Water Pump: A Canadian Invention for Developing Countries

In 1978, IDRC (International Development Research Centre) approached Professors Alan Plumtree (mechanical engineering) and Alfred Rudin (chemistry) at the University of Waterloo and asked them to design a hand pump that would be reliable and inexpensive enough for poorer countries to afford, yet simple enough for villagers to maintain and repair themselves. The design—known as the Waterloo hand pump—contains one crucial feature: the adaptability to different materials and environmental conditions. For example, while many developing countries may not have steel foundries, many have access to plastic extrusion and moulding technology so that they could manufacture the hand pump locally and inexpensively.

The technology of the Waterloo hand pump design was transferred to researchers in other countries, which then made adaptations specific for their local conditions. The most successful adaptation of the Waterloo pump to date is the Unimade model, which was developed at the University of Malaya.

Today, different models of the Unimade pump exist to accommodate different environmental and social needs—for example, to pump water from varying depths of groundwater or to supply adequate water for a big village. The most commonly used model, with a depth of 30 metres of groundwater supplies, costs US $160, which is only one-third to one-fifth of the cost of other similar hand pumps on the international market. As of August 1996, 11,100 Unimade hand pumps had been sold to 13 developing nations.

The two researchers at the University of Waterloo never profited from their work, but they found it rewarding “to know that you’ve done had a direct, beneficial impact on other people’s lives.” The discovery is featured in this Historica Minutes clip.

Water is not a scarcity crisis; rather, it is a crisis of inconsiderate policy making and poor water management. Urbanization leads to pollution and increased demand—these must be recognized to stop over-exploitation. We must respond to the critical challenge of providing safe drinking water and water sanitation facilities everywhere. Governments, policy makers and communities around the world must actively engage in addressing urban water management challenges. For example, the research arm of innovations must be strengthened, and technology transfer must be spread to an expanded circle of developing countries. Canada is the second highest per capita water user in the developed world. We, too, ought to implement good practices; we should reduce, reuse, and recycle water.

One Comment
  1. It’s nice to hear about a technology transfer that benefits developing nations. Too often on IP blogs all you hear about are arguments over whether patents block access to medicines and things of that nature.

    Of course, the fact that the handpump development was funded by the IDRC plays a large part in that.

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