New focus on water crisis

Posted: 19 April 2004

People afflicted with water related illnesses fill more than half of the world's hospital beds, and up to four million people die each year from waterborne diseases, facts that have motivated the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development to focus its annual session on water, sanitation and human settlements.

Child being treated for Cholera, Bangladesh. Photo: Medicins Sans Frontieres
Child being treated for Cholera, Bangladesh. Photo: Medicins Sans Frontieres
A child being treated on a cholera cot at a clinic in Bangladesh.© Medecins Sans Frontiers/Doctors Without Borders

Norwegian Environment Minister Børge Brende, who chairs the Commission, told a news conference at UN Headquarters in New York that the cost of the diseases represents an economic loss of $16 billion a year.

The 12th session of the Commission on Sustainable Development opened Wednesday 14th April and is scheduled to run through April 30. It will undertake the first critical assessment of policies and programs instituted by world governments following the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg.

The Commission aims to focus on action needed to ensure safe water, sanitation and human settlements - the first cluster of issues under its multi-year work plan.

More than 80 government ministers, as well as the heads of UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations are attending. They have big problems to address in the areas of water and sanitation:

  • More than one billion people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water, and weak institutions and management are pressuring Earth's freshwater supplies.

  • Having agreed to halve by 2015 the proportion of people lacking access to basic sanitation, governments will look at ways to infuse the process with substantial additional funding, and systems suited to local environments. In the 1990s, improved sanitation reached an additional one billion people. Two billion more people will need access to improved sanitation to achieve the target.

Clean water would help eradicate poverty, reduce unsustainable consumption and production, protect and manage the natural resource base for economic and social development, maintain sustainability in a globalising world, further African and other regional initiatives, and support gender equality and education, Brende acknowledged.

Estimates of safe water supplies suggest that 50 per cent of developing countries are not yet ready to meet the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target of halving the number of people lacking access to safe drinking water by 2015, he said.

Women waiting to fill their water jars at Alem Kitmama, Ethiopia. Photo: WHO/P. Virot
Women waiting to fill their water jars at Alem Kitmama, Ethiopia. Photo: WHO/P. Virot
Women waiting to fill their water jars at Alem Kitmama, northeast of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.© WHO/P. Virot

Meeting that target would mean providing access for an additional 1.6 billion people over the next 11 years.

Another two billion people need to have improved sanitation by 2015 to meet the Millennium Development Goal, at an additional cost of $63 million per year, or a total of $11 billion, Brende said.

Aid gap

Meanwhile, international agencies have warned that many governments are failing in their commitment to help improve access to drinking water.

Six agencies, including Water Aid, Green Cross International and Oxfam, say the global situation is getting worse rather than better, despite the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development global pledge to halve by 2015 the number of people lacking access to drinking water and basic sanitation.

As ministers gather in New York to attend the first follow-up meeting since that summit, the six international agencies say the latest data indicates the effort is failing badly.

Rich and poor criticised

They say most of the world's 22 main industrial countries did not increase as promised their financial provisions for improving global water supplies; the result is that overall aid has declined.

And the aid that is provided, the report warns, is often done so on political grounds rather than based on need.

The US, for instance gives most of its water development aid to Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian territories and very little to Africa.

But equally the report criticises poor countries like Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Indonesia and Guinea for, it says, giving little or no priority at all to water supply development.

Countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan and China face the prospect of acute water shortages by 2025.

Sources: Water, Sanitation, Housing Engage Sustainablity Commission , published by Environment News Service, 16th April 2004.Countries 'missing water targets' by David Bamford, BBC News On-line, 19/04/2004.

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