Clean Water Access Far Short of Millennium Goal
By Haider Rizvi*
Two years after the World Summit on Sustainable Development, progress in access to water and sanitation is alarmingly slow, say experts. It would take double the current expenditures of 16 billion dollars a year to halve the population lacking access to clean water by 2015.
NEW YORK - Governments around the world have failed to keep their promises for providing clean water and appropriate sanitation for poor populations, pledges made two years ago at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), in Johannesburg.
The conclusion reached by many officials and experts attending the two-week session of the Commission on Sustainable Development at the United Nations headquarters in New York is that many governments have failed to match their words with actions.
"The situation is grim," said Berge Brende, Norway's environment minister, during one of the meetings aimed at assessing how the world has tackled the issues related to water, sanitation, and human settlement since the WSSD, also known as "Rio+10", in 2002.
Brende, who chairs the U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development, estimates that every year three to five million people die from water-related diseases in poor regions of the world.
According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), more than a billion people continue to live and work in abject poverty with no access to clean and safe drinking water.
The Johannesburg Summit had pledged additional resources, transfer of technology and rebuilding of environmental infrastructure for the world's poor nations -- three vital steps for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that aim at halving the number of people without access to sanitation and safe water by the year 2015.
U.N. officials say progress towards achieving the MDGs has been alarmingly slow, mainly due to lack of financial resources. "The world needs to more than double its spending if it is to achieve the Millennium targets," says José Antonio Ocampo, U.N. undersecretary-general for economic and social affairs.
Currently, the world is spending about 16 billion dollars on related projects, an amount that experts on sustainable development say is not sufficient to reverse the situation of lack of access to fresh water and to sanitation services.
Noting that most poor nations are short on technological and financial resources to achieve the MDGs on their own, experts attending the Commission sessions insisted that the world's wealthy nations must contribute more towards addressing the water and sanitation issues.
"It's so expensive to provide these services," says Martha Karua, Kenya's minister of water management resources. "We need to encourage development partners to do something."
But recent trends show that most Western nations are not willing to do much. In fact, some of them have already cut their development aid budgets, saying that poor nations are responsible for poverty and environmental degradation because they have failed to root out corruption.
Some in the industrialized world suggest that privatization could lead to effective water management and distribution, a view that many civil society groups and government leaders from the developing world have refused to embrace.
According to a recent 20-nation survey conducted by GlobeScan Research, a Canada-based group, most people have begun to doubt that privatization would lead to better water and sanitation conditions.
GlobeScan says most people in 11 out of 20 countries surveyed wanted less water privatization, adding that Latin Americans were particularly "negative" towards giving up state control of the sector.
"The results are sobering, but not surprising," says Doug Miller, president of GlobeScan. "Mismanaged privatization processes in a number of countries, plus the breach of public trust resulting from recent corporate scandals means the privatization bubble may be running out of support at the very time when the private sector is gearing up for major expansion."
The European Union adopted a proposal to allocate over one billion dollars to improve access to water and sanitation for the Africa, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) bloc of 77 countries, former European colonies. Forty of them, which the U.N. has categorized as "least developed nations", are heavily dependent on EU aid.
Skeptical about the proposal, a consortium of civil society groups led by the Africa-Europe Faith and Justice Network, is pressing the EU to ensure that its new initiative would not further water privatization in developing countries.
Environmental activists said they welcomed the water initiative, but stressed that the EU must "prioritize capacity building above infrastructure or promoting private investment."
Those opposed to privatization argue that water should not be treated as an economic good and that solutions to the water problems should be sought from the perspective of human rights, and not from the standpoint economic gains
"Access to clean water is a right according to our constitution," Daniel Pascual, Guatemalan agrarian leader told delegates of the U.N. meeting via remote telecast from his country.
"Water is part of mother nature. We are part of it," he said.
GlobeScan's survey shows that Pascual is not alone in his thoughts on the issue of water.
When asked if the access to clean drinking water should be a basic human right, 84 percent of the poll respondents said "Yes," according to Miller.
Those at the forefront of the international efforts for sustainable development recognize there are conflicting views on the distribution and management of water.
"The world needs to move away from ideological position," says Ian Johnson, World Bank vice president for sustainable development. "It's going to be combination of all (private and public). It's a shared responsibility at the end of the day."
* Haider Rizvi is a Tierramérica contributor.