Humanity's lot is improving, but that of the world's poorest people is not. That is the conclusion of the latest "Human Development Report", published yesterday by the United Nations Development Programme. The report is a call to action, a plea for the world to help the millions who still have no access to clean water or decent sanitation and it must be answered. But it also shows how a great threat - global warming - could reverse the progress of recent decades.
Inadequate water and sanitation are a big cause of human suffering. Their effects are direct: 1.8m children die every year from diarrhoea and other diseases linked to hygiene. But there are indirect effects as well: tens of millions of women and children spend much of their day collecting water and miss out on employment and education as a result.
The way water is distributed makes it more expensive the poorer you are. Slum dwellers cannot afford to connect to mains water even if it is available, so they get their water from resellers, who truck it in or set up standpipes. But the resellers, who buy large volumes, pay industrial tariffs that can be four or five times the price for domestic users. Add in transport costs and the poor end up paying 10 times as much per litre as the rich.
The report has some sensible recommendations. Rather than subsidise prices, as many developing countries do, water utilities should subsidise connections to the network. They should license water resellers and charge them lower prices. Their investment priority should be to get some kind of mains water to the slums.
Lack of water and sanitation, however, are not problems that can be solved in isolation. They are a cause of poverty but also a result of it. The UNDP calls on governments to spend more on water. But economic growth will create more to spend, while better governance is the way to improve water regulation. Developing water supplies should not be to the detriment of development as a whole.
One of the greatest threats to development is from unmitigated global warming and water is one of the channels through which the damage would be done. Parts of southern and western Africa may receive 30 per cent less usable rainwater and produce less food as a result. India, meanwhile, will have more rain overall, but less in semi-arid central areas. All over the world, it is the poorest who will have less water as a result of climate change.
That puts academic debate about the costs and benefits of cutting carbon emissions into context. If nothing is done, then millions of already poor people, who did nothing to cause the climate to change, will have less water to drink and grow food. History will judge us poorly if we do not improve their water supply. But if, through inaction, we make it worse, we will be judged harshly indeed.