Although unevenly distributed, the world has plenty of freshwater. However, mismanagement, limited resources and environmental changes mean that almost one-fifth of the planet’s population still lacks access to safe drinking water and 40 per cent lack access to basic sanitation says the United Nations World Water Development Report 2. The triennial report is the most comprehensive assessment to date of freshwater resources. It was presented to the media in Mexico City on the eve of the Fourth World Water Forum (Mexico City, March 16-22). Entitled “Water, a shared responsibility”, this edition focuses on the importance of governance in managing the world’s water resources and tackling poverty.
Governance systems, it says, “determine who gets what water, when and how, and decide who has the right to water and related services.” Such systems are not limited to ‘government,’ but include local authorities, the private sector and civil society. They also cover a range of issues intimately connected to water, from health and food security, to economic development, land use and the preservation of the natural ecosystems on which our water resources depend.
The report highlights that
• Although significant and steady progress is being made, and that “at the global scale there is plenty of freshwater”, WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme estimates indicate that 1.1 billion people still do not have access to an adequate supply of drinking water and some 2.6 billion do not have access to basic sanitation. These people are among the world’s poorest. Over half of them live in China or India. At this rate of progress, regions such as sub-Saharan Africa will not meet the UN Millenium Development Goal of halving, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water. The MDG target of halving, by 2015, the proportion of people without basic sanitation will not be met globally if present trends persist. According to the report “mismanagement, corruption, lack of appropriate institutions, bureaucratic inertia and a shortage of new investments in building human capacity as well as physical infrastructure” is largely responsible for this situation.
• Poor water quality is a key cause of poor livelihood and health. Globally, diarrhoeral diseases and malaria killed about 3.1 million people in 2002. Ninety percent of these deaths were children under the age of five. An estimated 1.6 million lives could be saved annually by providing access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene.
• Water quality is declining in most regions. Evidence indicates that the diversity of freshwater species and ecosystems is deteriorating rapidly, often faster than terrestrial and marine ecosystems. The report points out that the hydrological cycle, upon which life depends, needs a healthy environment to function.
• Ninety percent of natural disasters are water-related events, and they are on the increase. Many are the result of poor land use. The tragic and developing drought in East Africa, where there has been huge felling of forests for charcoal production and fuel wood, is a poignant example. The report also cites the case of Lake Chad in Africa, which has shrunk by some 90 percent since the 1960s, mainly because of overgrazing, deforestation and large unsustainable irrigation projects. Two out of every five people now live in areas vulnerable to floods and rising sea-levels. The nations most at risk include Bangladesh, China, India, the Netherlands, Pakistan, the Philippines, the United States of America and the small island developing states. The report stresses that changing climate patterns will further exacerbate the situation.
• The world will need 55 percent more food by 2030 This translates into an increasing demand for irrigation, which already claims nearly 70 percent of all freshwater consumed for human use. Food production has greatly increased over the past 50 years, yet 13 percent of the global population (850 million people, mostly in rural areas) still do not have enough to eat.
• Half of humanity will be living in towns and cities by 2007. By 2030, this will have risen to nearly two thirds, resulting in drastic increases in water demand in urban areas. An estimated two billion of these people will be living in squatter settlements and slums. It is the urban poor who suffer the most from lack of clean water and sanitation.
• Over two billion people in developing countries do not have access to reliable forms of energy. Water is a key resource for energy generation, which in turn is vital for economic development. Europe makes use of 75 percent of its hydropower potential. Africa -- where 60 percent of the population has no access to electricity – has developed only 7 percent of its potential.
• In many places of the world, a colossal 30 to 40 percent or more of water goes unaccounted for, through water leakages in pipes and canals and illegal connections.
• Although there are no accurate figures, it is estimated that political corruption costs the water sector millions of dollars every year and undermines water services, especially to the poor. The report cites a survey in India for example, in which 41 percent of the customer respondents had made more than one small bribe in the past six months to falsify metre readings; 30 percent had made payments to expedite repair work and 12 percent had made payments to expedite new water and sanitation connections.
Recognising the vital part freshwater plays in human security and development, the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, adopted by Member States and the World Summit on Sustainable Development (Johannesburg, 2002), called on countries to develop integrated water resources management and water efficiency plans by 2005. The report indicates that only about 12 percent of countries have done so to date, although many have begun the process.
Financial resources for water are also stagnating. According to the report, total Official Developpment Assistance (ODA) to the water sector in recent years has averaged approximately US$3 billion a year with an additional US$1.5 billion allocated to the sector in non-concessional lending, mainly by the World Bank. However, only a small proportion (12 percent) of these funds reach those most in need. And only about ten percent is directed to support development of water policy, planning and programmes.
Added to this, private sector investment in water services is declining. During the 1990s the private sector spent an estimated US$25 billion in water supply and sanitation in developing countries, mostly in Latin America and Asia. However, many big multinational water companies have begun withdrawing from or downsizing their operations in the developing world because of the high political and financial risks.
Although their performance has often failed to meet the expectations of developing country governments and donor countries, the report stresses that it “would be a mistake” to write off the private sector. Financially strained governments with weak regulations, it finds, “are a poor alternative for addressing the issue of poor water resources management and inadequate supplies of water services”.
Water usage increased six-fold during the 20th century, twice the rate of population growth. Our ability to meet the continually increasing global demand, says the report, will depend on good governance and management of available resources.
“Good governance is essential for managing our increasingly-stretched supplies of freshwater and indispensable for tackling poverty,” says UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura. “There is no one blueprint for good governance, which is both complex and dynamic. But we know that it must include adequate institutions – nationally, regionally and locally, strong, effective legal frameworks and sufficient human and financial resources.”
It also requires “essential freedoms, like the freedom of speech and the right to organize,” says the report, which stresses that: “If citizens cannot access basic information on water quality and quantity, it seriously curtails their chances of halting environmentally unsound water projects or to hold relevant government agencies accountable.”
The UN World Water Development Report is the joint effort of 24 UN agencies and entities involved in water resources management*. It is produced on their behalf by the UN World Water Assessment Programme whose secretariat is based at UNESCO, which considers freshwater resources a top priority. Its 15 chapters, each prepared by the various participating agencies, present a detailed analysis of the situation in all of the world’s regions, backed up by the latest available data, maps and graphs, along with 17 case studies and numerous examples of good and bad practice in water governance.
“Water, a shared responsibility”, will be formally presented by the UNESCO Director-General, on behalf of the United Nations, to the Fourth World Water Forum in Mexico City on 22 March, World Water Day.
* United Nations, UNESCO, UNICEF, World Health Organization (WHO), UN Environment Programme (UNEP), UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), UN Development Programme (UNDP), World Meteorological Organization (WMO), UN Habitat, UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), World Bank, International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), UN University (UNU), Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (UNECLAC), UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (UNESCWA)