September 20, 2014 HealthSociety

Keynote Speaker Hans Rosling

Water’s key but complex role in development and health

With water professionals gathered in Lisbon to exchange experiences on providing water and sanitation around the world, keynote speaker Hans Rosling of the Gapminder Foundation highlights the complexities involved in meeting these basic needs and argues for changes in how development support is provided.

‘How do you prioritise water against schools, HIV, roads? These are the tough decisions,’ says Rosling. He notes also that the cost per family of meeting water needs differs from area to area and country to country. ‘They are so highly contextualised that the easiest thing to do in a country with development aid is to vaccinate kids.’

Rosling acknowledges the importance of vaccination, but notes that essentially it involves getting children together and then vaccinating particular age groups. ‘It is very, very straightforward,’ he says.

Water, in contrast, is a challenging and context-sensitive issue. ‘80% of the world’s population has a decent water supply. In the developing world, only 20% have a severe problem. This is why the whole concept of development is too old-fashioned. You can’t merge Turkey and Brazil with Afghanistan and Somalia, but that is what we keep doing.’

Focus is critical. ‘Water is extremely important, or not an issue to bother about, depending on where you are,’ says Rosling. ‘The way we have organised development cooperation is based on understanding that the developing world needs a lot of things, and that is not true any longer.’

Dealing with water is made more complex by the fact that both quantity and quality are of concern. Water quality is vital, especially as far as the health dimension of water is concerned. That said, Rosling believes the world needs to take a more pragmatic approach to water quality: ‘If you are very poor in a water-scarce area, what is more important – better quality water, or more of it?’