The other water crisis: one million jobs are missing, yearly

The other water crisis: one million jobs are missing, yearly

One million new water professionals, like these engineers working on a broken water main for the Syracuse Water Department in New York state, are needed ever year to plug the jobs gap in the sector.

(AP/Mike Groll)

Experts are sounding the alarm over a growing jobs crisis in the global water sector.

While there is much talk about the increasing water scarcity that will affect 1.8 billion people by 2025, and the need to support Goal Six of the Sustainable Development Goals which calls for the “availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”, there is another issue: there aren’t enough skilled workers to keep the water sector running efficiently.

According to UN Water, 1.5 billion people – more than 40 per cent of the world’s total active workforce – work in water-related sectors, while nearly all jobs are water dependent.

Speaking at the at the World Water Week conference, which was held in Stockholm, Sweden from 28 August to 2 September, Ger Bergkemp, executive director of the International Water Association (IWA), said the number of water professionals is failing to keep pace with the world’s ever increasing water needs.

“The global population of seven billion needs waste water facilities, translating to approximately 7,000 people requiring new waste water facilities on daily basis. This means that one million new professionals are needed yearly to bridge the gap,” he said.

Jobs in the sector range from engineers to microbiologists to plumbers, waste management professionals and software developers. But despite the visible jobs deficit, “meaningful planning is not easy,” said Bergkemp, due to a lack of appropriate data and coordinated efforts.

One of the reasons for the deficit is uncompetitive salaries and a lack of opportunities. Millie Adams from the Canadian-based Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology (CAWST), for example, said her organisation invests millions in capacity building in countries all over the world, including Afghanistan, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Honduras and Laos. Unfortunately, many of the workers who undergo training end up abandoning the water sector for better paying jobs elsewhere.

In addition, there is also the problem of new entrants to the sector being equipped with the wrong skills. “There seem to be a mismatch between the training offered and the kind of personnel the sector needs,” Bergkemp noted.


Impact of the shortfall

The impact of this capacity shortfall is wide-ranging, although primarily it affects the sustainable provision of water and sanitation service delivery globally.

In terms of solutions, experts agree that employment generation and increased investment in the protection and rehabilitation of water and sanitation resources is the starting point.

Speaking at World Water Week, Christopher Lindsay, the head of government relations at the US-based International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO), also called for the enforcement of technical standards as a vehicle for workforce development. “Standards are key to ensuring better training,” he said.

Cecilia Sharp, UNICEF’s senior advisor on water and sanitation, called for vocational training, noting that the lack of capacity to develop water resources is undermining the sector. “An estimated 30 percent of water pumps in Africa are not functioning,” she stated as an example. “We should invest heavily in vocational training to ensure the constant availability of skilled people.”

Young people were acknowledged as key actors in unlocking the skills gap. Bongani Dladla, a civil engineer at South Africa’s stated-owned Umgeni Water, lamented that as many older workers retire, young people entering the sector are left without mentors.

But he celebrated Umgeni Water for its focus on mentoring, technical training, professional registration and continuous education. “[All this] ensures that we can capture bright students interested in pursuing water-related careers and grant them wide exposure. Tomorrow’s excellence must be cultivated today,” he said.

Kalanithy Vairavamoorthy, the practice leader for applied research and knowledge transfer at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) observed that the training offered in universities, particularly in developing countries, must be updated to keep abreast with the rapid technological advancements in the water sector.

“Innovative education and learning systems and process are required,” he said while urging governments and stakeholders to develop national human resource strategies.


Privatisation not the solution

The experts, however, agree unanimously that the privatisation of the water sector is not a panacea to its human resources challenge as it leads to a deterioration in service delivery, higher water prices, corruption and environmental problems.

Speaking to Equal Times, David Boys, deputy general secretary of the global union federation Public Services International (PSI), a body which has been campaigning against the privatisation of water for years, agreed that poor salaries and working conditions are to blame for the exodus of professionals from the water sector.

“Private firms in the water sector could do better in wages but unfortunately, they opt for profit maximisation. Whenever they take up public utilities, they usually sack all workers and reemploy 30 per cent of the former staff,” he observes.

To tackle the challenges facing the water sector globally, most evidently in the Global South, Boys is calling on governments to curb corruption and tighten the noose on tax evasion to eliminate the massive loss of revenues, which could be used to maintain and expand water resources.

“Whistle blowers should be the protected in order for war against corruption to succeed,” he said.

Boys also stressed the need for transparency, accountability and community participation in the management of water utilities.”It is not just enough for citizens to vote for local authority leaders. They should ensure local councils are run transparently,” he said.