Despite the war in Iraq, the international agenda must be balanced with attention to environmental protection, social progress and economic growth, especially as they concern water, sanitation and settlements, in the struggle to improve human welfare, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said today.
"The natural resource base is under siege. Unsustainable patterns of consumption and production are still the norm. Progress in slowing deforestation and biodiversity loss has been glacial. The AIDS epidemic is an enormous and still growing burden," he said as he opened the high-level meeting of the Commission on Sustainable Development.
High-level political attention has been diverted from sustainable development "by the recent emphasis given to terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and the war in Iraq," he said.
"However understandable that focus might be, we cannot lose any more time, or ground, in the wider struggle for human well-being. Just as we need balanced development, so do we need a balanced international agenda," he said.
Issues of water use and access to sanitation show the linkages that make the work of the international community complex but filled with potential, Mr. Annan said.
"Water is intimately linked with education and gender equality. Girls who have to spend time gathering water for the family tend not to be in school," he said. "And where schools have sanitation, attendance is higher, especially among girls."
Millions of children get ill and die every year from water-borne diseases and for lack of basic sanitation and hygiene. Poor water management degrades and squanders a precious resource, thereby impoverishing rural areas and driving people to cities, more often than not to the slums, Mr. Annan said.
Issues of water use also offer opportunities for cooperation within and across borders, but can also generate tensions and even conflict, he said.
Meanwhile, the Commission on Sustainable Development must act as a watchdog on development issues, "alert to threats and fearless in sounding alarms," he said.
Governments have pledged to provide 1.5 billion people with access to improved drinking water and 1.9 billion people with basic sanitation facilities by 2015, under the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), adopted at a UN summit in 2000.
Prof. Jeffrey Sachs, Special Adviser to Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the MDGs, told the Commission that low-income countries would need such help as technical advice, removal of trade barriers, accelerated debt cancellation and increasing - even doubling - official development assistance (ODA), where necessary, to meet the goals.
The Millennium Development Project, which he heads, recommended boosting annual flows from the World Bank's International Development Association (IDA) to $20 billion, with flows to the very poorest countries going in the form of grants, he said.
"Even in the poorest countries there is still time to achieve the MDGs, but the window of opportunity is closing rapidly because of inadequate progress to date," Mr. Sachs said.
In the developing world, 90 per cent of waste water is discharged untreated, Norwegian Environment Minister Børge Brende, the Commission's chairman, told his fellow ministers. Deaths caused by waterborne diseases represent an annual global economic loss exceeding a staggering $186 billion.
"The case for meeting the targets on water, sanitation and human settlements is obvious. No water, no life; no sanitation, no dignity; no shelter, no security," he said. "Let's make it clear that we have embarked on a decade of kept promises."