Water is at the center of economic and social development; it is vital to maintain health, grow food, manage the environment, and create jobs. Despite water’s importance, over 783 million people in the world are still without access to improved water sources, and even more are without access to consistently safe drinking water.
Population and economic growth are pushing the limits of the world’s finite water resources. In some cases water scarcity is already constraining economic growth. Lack of access to improved water supply and sanitation services impose huge costs on society, and especially for the poor. Even where access exists, services have been characterized for decades by poor management, inadequate financing and low levels of investment. Very few water or wastewater utilities in the developing world recover adequate O&M costs from customers and only a handful recovers O&M, debt service and depreciation. Despite the importance of water for development, in a recent sample of 15 countries from sub-Saharan Africa less than 2% of government expenditures annually go to water supply and sanitation and a third of this annual budget was often not spent. The uncertainties brought about by political economy and climate change only add to this sector’s already considerable challenges. Not surprisingly, world leaders now rank water as one of their top critical issues.
Water supply and sanitation is a major priority for the World Bank. The World Bank is the largest external source of financing for water supply and sanitation projects. In FY11 this support was almost US$4 billion and represented 1 in 4 of all World Bank operations. In a typical year, there is more than US$14 billion under implementation for water supply and sanitation. There are more water and wastewater professionals in the World Bank (over 250) than in any other international development institution.