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Fixing Water Infrastructure, Creating Jobs: A Win-Win for the Planet

If you had scanned the news on water issues over the past year, the following stories might have jumped out at you:

  • Children in Flint, Michigan, are likely suffering permanent brain damage caused by lead in the city’s water system.
  • Residents of São Paulo in Brazil—the most water-rich country on the planet—have turned on their faucets to dry heaves, with water shutoffs now common citywide.
  • The World Economic Forum has ranked water crises the third most impactful risk facing the world today, after climate change and weapons of mass destruction.

Although these water problems have different drivers, there is a common element among them: poorly supplied or mismanaged water resources. People worldwide, it seems, are sitting on a diverse set of hydrological time bombs.

On the other hand, if you had scanned the year’s news for stories on unemployment, you might have learned that:

  • The United Nations estimates that 600 million new jobs will be needed worldwide by 2025 just to keep pace with growth in the working age population.
  • About a quarter of the world’s employed people, mostly in developing countries, live below the poverty line.
  • The World Economic Forum names unemployment and underemployment as the top risks for doing business in half of the 140 economies surveyed.

What’s the connection? Taken together, these six news items suggest a critical opportunity to create jobs worldwide while also supplying and managing water sustainably. In recognition of World Water Day (March 22)—focused this year on water and jobs—it makes sense to think of water security and fuller employment as two sides of the same coin.

The Pipes, the Pipes Are Calling

In much of the world, water infrastructure is either crumbling or has yet to be built. The American Society of Civil Engineers, for example, gave a nearly failing grade to U.S. drinking water and wastewater infrastructure in 2013, as leaky pipes and the overflow of sewage and stormwater systems create an inefficient system of waste and pollution. Each year, sewage overflows in the United States spill enough effluent to cover the state of Pennsylvania with muck one inch (2.5 centimeters) deep.

At the global level, the share of “non-revenue water”—water lost to leakage, theft, inaccurate metering, or use in city functions like firefighting—is considerable: some cities lose more than half of their supply as non-revenue water, compared to less than 10 percent in the best-performing cities. In 2010, the average non-revenue water share was about 27 percent across more than 1,800 utilities serving half a billion people.

Investments in aging U.S. stormwater and sewer infrastructure could be a large boost to employment. The green jobs advocacy group Green for All analyzed U.S. government data on capital needs for pipes, pipe repair, combined sewer overflow fixes, and stormwater management and concluded that a total investment of $188 billion is needed. Spread over five years, this investment would generate $266 billion in economic activity and create nearly 1.9 million jobs.

This employment would consist of direct jobs in industries such as the construction and utility sectors that undertake water project work, indirect jobs in firms that manufacture equipment and machinery for the water work, and induced jobs created when newly hired workers and firms spend their paychecks throughout the economy. In 2011, Mark Zandi, Chief Economist of Moody’s Analytics, estimated that every dollar of infrastructure investment in the United States would lead to $1.44 in economic stimulus.

Priming the Pump Through Public Programs

Some countries use public works programs to advance both water-based employment and environmental remediation. South Africa’s Extended Public Works Programme (EPWP) has set up numerous job-creating programs to advance environmental protection in the water, energy, land conservation, and fire management sectors. EPWP’s “Working for Water” scheme involves initiatives to improve water management through the removal of invasive alien vegetation, creating about 20,000 full-time equivalent jobs as of 2014, and its “Working for Wetlands” program created nearly 13,000 jobs in rehabilitating 906 wetlands that cover more than 70,000 hectares. Water-focused programs account for more than half of EPWP’s various “Working for…” initiatives. Total water-related jobs under the program are expected to grow more than 10-fold between 2012 and 2025.

In other countries, social housing is the platform for expanding sustainable water management and creating jobs. Brazil’s Minha Casa, Minha Vida (“My Home, My Life”) program mandates that solar water heaters and rainwater collection systems be standard features of low-income housing in many areas. The program set a goal of equipping 300,000 houses with solar water heaters. The International Labour Organization, which advised the Brazilian government on the program, estimated that nearly 18,000 additional jobs could be created in the solar installation industry and that residents’ electricity bills could be slashed by 40 percent.

In Tunisia, the Solar Programme (PROSOL) provides more than 50,000 families with solar hot water services. Some 1,000 enterprises are now involved in the solar installation business, providing a substantial number of jobs.

In India, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act provides at least 100 days of work annually to adults in rural areas who agree to volunteer for manual work in environmental protection and conservation, such as soil and water conservation, drought proofing (including reforestation), flood protection, small-scale irrigation and horticulture, and land development. In 2012/13, the program benefited 50 million rural households, up from 21 million in 2006–07. The program is credited with increasing water availability and irrigation, which has boosted both agricultural output and incomes among small-scale farmers.

Linking Water and Jobs

Even without government programs, water and jobs can be linked, especially for the poorest farmers. Farmers in India who use micro irrigation and treadle pumps—small, inexpensive pedal-operated pumps that allow water to be applied when crops need it—have experienced increased yields, output, and incomes. Rural families end up with better diets and surplus harvests that can be sold in markets, while manufacturers of the irrigation and pump kits must hire additional workers as demand for their products grows.

In some cases, the job-creating strategy is to better manage the demand for water rather than to expand the supply. A study by Friends of the Earth–Middle East compared the number of jobs created in water conservation activities against the number of jobs created in the desalination sector in Israel. Desalination tends to be a more capital-intensive industry, whereas water conservation can be more labor-intensive. The report found that water conservation efforts generate as many as 16.5 jobs per cubic meter of water saved, whereas desalination generates only 2.84 jobs per million cubic meters of new water supply.

Building more-sustainable economies quickly requires finding solutions that offer multiple benefits. Linking water and employment is a good example of this. It can also get the ball rolling on meeting the water and employment dimensions of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. Policymakers and business people worldwide would do well to link the two wherever possible.


Keep an eye on our Worldwatch blog and newsletters to learn more about sustainable cities through our newest State of the World report, Can a City Be Sustainable? 

Gary Gardner is co-director of the Worldwatch Institute’s  State of the World: Can a City Be Sustainable? He has written on a broad range of sustainability issues, from cropland loss and water scarcity to malnutrition and bicycle use.

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