By Kevin Watkins
Nobody reading this started the day with a two-mile hike to collect the family's daily water supply from a stream. None of us will suffer the indignity of using a plastic bag for a toilet. And our children don't die for want of a glass of clean water.
Perhaps that's why we have such a narrow view of what constitutes a "water crisis". Dwindling reservoirs and a few ministerial exhortations to flush the toilet less often, and we've got a national emergency on our hands. Hold the front page, there could be a hosepipe ban in the home counties.
In the next 24 hours diarrhoea caused by unclean water and poor sanitation will claim the lives of 4,000 children. The annual death toll from this relentless catastrophe is larger than the population of Birmingham. Dirty water poses a greater threat to human life than war or terrorism. Yet it barely registers on the radar of public debate in rich countries.
At any one time, close to half the population of the developing world is suffering from water-related diseases. These rob people of their health, destroy their livelihoods, and undermine education potential. The statistics behind the crisis make for grim reading. In the midst of an increasingly prosperous global economy, 2.6 billion people still have no access to even the most rudimentary latrine. Over one billion have no source of drinking water.
In Britain, the average person uses 160 litres of clean water each day. In rural Mozambique or Ethiopia, people use what women and young girls can carry back from rivers and lakes: around 5-10 litres a day for each person. The iconic image of a woman carrying water belies a more brutal reality. You try carrying a 20-litre bucket of water for four miles in the baking sun.
global sanitation gap is even more overwhelming. Those who have seen
The Constant Gardner will recall the Kenyan slum visited by Rachel
Weisz's character. The slum was Kibera. With a population of 750,000 it
is one of the largest informal settlements in Africa and accounts for
one-quarter of people living in Nairobi. Over 90% lack access to a
latrine, giving rise to a phenomenon that didn't figure in the movie:
the "flying toilet". Lacking any alternative, people defecate into
plastic bags that are thrown into the street, with terrifying
consequences for public health.
Kibera is a microcosm of what happens across the developing world. Rapid urbanisation and a crumbling water and sanitation infrastructure in cities like Jakarta, Manila and Lagos have left millions of poor people in overcrowded slums facing a constant threat from water infected with human excrement.
To add insult, the poor pay more for their water than the rich. In Kibera, you pay three times more than in Manhattan or London, and 10 times more than in high-income suburbs of Nairobi. Similar patterns are repeated across the cities of the developing world. The reason: water utilities pump subsidised water to well-off customers, but seldom reach the poor. Most slum dwellers face a choice between buying water from high-cost private traders, or taking a long trip to the nearest stream.
Meeting the UN's millennium development goal of halving the proportion of the world without access to clean water would cost $4bn a year for 10 years. That amount represents just a month's spending on bottled mineral water in Europe and the US. For less than people in rich countries now spend on a designer product that produces no tangible health gains, we would roll back one of the main causes of preventable childhood death. And for every $1 invested, another $3-$4 would be generated through savings on health spending and increased productivity. So why have rich countries been cutting aid to water and sanitation for the last five years?
Water is not just a commodity. It is a source of life, dignity and equality of opportunity. That is why human need, regardless of ability to pay, must be the guiding regulatory principle, and why governments bear ultimate responsibility for provision. South Africa has shown the way by requiring all providers, public and private, to supply a minimum amount of water free of charge. In Senegal and Manila too, new partnerships are extending access for the poor through small surcharges on the wealthy. Redistribution may be out of fashion, but converting public water subsidies for the rich into public investments for the poor accelerates progress and overcomes the glaring equity gaps that scar many countries.
In Britain, the water and sanitation crisis of the 19th century gave rise to powerful political coalitions that brought together municipalities, industrialists and social reformers. Civic duty, economic self-interest and morality combined to make water and sanitation a national cause. Today, new social movements and partnerships between governments and civil society are beginning to make inroads into the crisis. But we also need global leadership in rich countries that pushes water and sanitation higher up the aid agenda.
Perhaps in Britain we should take fewer baths and be sparing in our use of hosepipes. But none of us should tolerate a world in which over 1 million children are, in a perversely literal sense, dying for a glass of water and a toilet.
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