Launch of the 2006 Report
Water is a basic human need and a fundamental human right. When we turn the tap on in Berlin we take it for granted that we will be able to drink a glass of clean water or take a shower. For one in six people (or 1.1. billion people) in the world this is not the case; the right to clean accessible and affordable water is denied. This violation translates into around 1.8 million avoidable child deaths each year.
Even as we make efforts to increase access to clean water, we remain too polite about the sanitation problem. 2.6 billion people do not have access to rudimentary forms of sanitation. Our politeness in not talking about the safe and clean management of human excreta and its separation from drinking water is costing us lives through the transmission of diseases such as blinding trachoma. Improved sanitation has a dramatic effect in reducing the risk of dying before the age of one – by almost 60% in Egypt and Peru. The taboo that plagued discussions on HIV/AIDS a decade ago threatens the discussion on sanitation concerns today – and it must be urgently removed. It is time that we dare to talk openly about ‘shit’.
Access to water and sanitation has implications for improving life chances, expanding choice, and the exercise of basic human freedoms. The global water crisis is not one of physical scarcity but rooted in poverty and inequality. This year’s Human Development Report – Beyond Scarcity: Power, Poverty and the Global Water Crisis – looks at two distinct themes which are the foundation for human development: ‘water for life’ and ‘water for livelihoods’.
The crisis in water for life
Access to water is a basic human right. Its gross violation has implications for several other targets that the international community has set itself in the Millennium Development Goals. The human cost manifests in lost opportunities for education and hugely discriminates women. Around 443 million school days are lost each year because children are too weak from diarrhoea and other water-related illnesses. Nearly half of the girls who drop out of primary school in Sub-Saharan Africa do so because of the lack of clean water and sanitation facilities.
If current trends continue we will miss the MDG of halving those without access to water by 234 million people and the sanitation target by 430 million people. How could we accept that 1.8 billion will remain without decent sanitation? In order to meet the MDGs on water and sanitation, at least $10 billion are needed annually to provide low-tech sustainable solutions. More development aid is needed to make that happen in the poorest countries. Aid flows to water and sanitation have been stagnating since the mid-1990s. They need to increase to about $3.6-$4 billion each year to cover the shortfall arising from what can and should be raised from domestic resources.
This issue is not only about social compassion but also about economic wisdom. Sub-Saharan Africa loses 5% of its GDP ($28.4 billion) on an annual basis to the productivity losses associated with water delivery and management – a figure that exceeds total aid flows and debt relief to the region in 2003. If we act now, not only can we save a million lives over the next decade, but also $38 billion of economic gains will be generated.
How do we make water a human right – and mean it? In finding the sources of the problem, several themes emerge in the Report. First, few countries treat water as a political priority. Second, the limited coverage of water utilities in slums and informal settlements means that the poorer one is the more one pays for water. Third, the international community has failed to prioritise water and sanitation in the partnerships that have coalesced around the MDGs.
Underlying these problems is the fact that those most affected by the crisis in water and sanitation – the poor, women, children – are also the ones who have the least voice in asserting their claims to water. In fact, the debate over public or private provision of water diverts attention away from the fact that the poor remain underserved, irrespective of who owns the utility.
Instead there is a need to focus on the legislation, institutions and regulatory capacity to target the inequalities in water and sanitation. The countries of the developed world today did so a century ago, financing water and sanitation infrastructure largely through public investment. Today, many countries have made extraordinary progress by legislating the right to water, such as in South Africa. In Porto Alegre, Brazil, an autonomous and financially independent municipal utility has managed to provide almost universal coverage. In Chile, although water providers are private, subsidies have been used to target low-income households. Elsewhere, in India and Pakistan, communities in slums and villages have shown leadership in mobilizing resources to improve sanitary conditions.
At the national level governments should be encouraged to set clearly defined targets for utility companies to increase access to the poor; the policy environment and objectives should be clearly understood by all concerned and providers should be made accountable for meeting the objectives; a combination of cross-subsidies and mobilizing funds through municipal bonds to finance the upfront costs of connecting households to the water mains and finally a minimum entitlement to water for all citizens should be provided free to those who cannot afford it.
At an international level, governments should be encouraged to support a Global Action Plan to raise the profile of water and sanitation, garner additional resources, improve donor coherence and coordination, support capacity and national planning, and monitor performance of both donor and recipient countries. While some countries contribute a significant proportion of aid to water and sanitation; unfortunately this is not replicated by many countries. Dutch aid to water and sanitation was about 103 million Euros in 2003-2004 We need to raise the profile of water and sanitation in manner akin to what has been done through the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The G8 Presidency offers an opportunity to stress the urgency of such a Global Action Plan in the context of the priority on Africa.
The crisis in water for livelihoods
The world today faces chronic water stress that affects nearly 800 million people on the planet and threatens the collapse of ecological systems, intensifying competition for water, and cross border tensions. The world is not running out of water, but for millions of people access to water resources is coming under stress.
Agriculture is the main user of water, accounting for over 70% of all use. Declining flows in rivers, shrinking lakes and falling water tables are symptoms of unsustainable water use in some regions. Northern China is already under severe water stress – the Yellow River ran dry in its lower reaches throughout the 1990s, resulting in billions of dollars in agricultural losses. As competition for irrigation water intensifies, the inequalities between small and big farmers will come to the fore with greater prominence. South Africa’s Water Act, the Southern African Development Community’s approach to jointly managing water resources, and investments in micro-irrigation in India are just a few examples of the potential that strong political will can realize.
Global warming is already occurring and it will put increasing pressure on water availability patterns throughout the world. Agricultural productivity is expected to suffer in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, adding to the challenge of malnutrition. Rising sea levels threaten saline water intrusion into the drinking water supplies of low-lying countries, whether rich (such as the Netherlands) or poor (such as Bangladesh). Multilateral action to mitigate climate change is one leg of the policy response. The other is a far stronger focus on supporting adaptation strategies.
Two-fifths of humanity lives in river and lake basins shared by two or more countries. These societies either suffer from increasing political conflicts or benefit from cooperation. Shared management of river basins has the potential for yielding large benefits in terms of the quantity, quality and predictability of water flows. The cleanup of the Rhine, in which the Netherlands and Germany had a vital interest, is an example of both how long it takes to cooperate on shared water bodies and the benefits it can generate.
The world’s water crisis is one of a denial of human rights compounded by wrong policy decisions. We know that it is within our technical and financial reach to address the crisis. Power, poverty and inequality are not natural causes of water scarcity. They need to be confronted with a political response. The debate that is being launched with the publication of the Human Development Report, I hope, will spur governments to action.
Now it is political will that is needed most, following the logic of rational thinking and the impulse of social compassion. The Human Development report simply states that human development should not be a privilege to a few but a right to all.
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