The UN World Water Development Report says “hardly any” goals have been met in providing water and sanitation for billions in developing nationsfor nations.
At intervals, political leaders get together and make promises they know they cannot possibly keep. The UN Millennium summit meeting in New York, in September 2000, aimed to halve the proportion of people without access to safe water by 2015. Last year’s World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg (South Africa) added a similar target for sewers.
To meet those targets would mean connecting nearly 300,000 people every day to a supply of clean water and 500,000 to a sanitation system.
“This is simply not going to happen under anything remotely like current conditions,” says Margaret Catley-Carlson, chairwoman of the Global Water Partnership, a body set up in 1996 by the World Bank, the UN Development Programme and the Swedish International Development Agency.
By 2015, nearly three billion people – 40 percent of the projected world population – are expected to live in countries that find it difficult or impossible to mobilize enough water to satisfy the food, industrial and domestic needs of their citizens.
And by then, tens of millions of people will have died from water-borne diseases, including an average of 6,000 children every day, according to the inter-agency working group set up by the UN to prepare for last year’s summit in Johannesburg, at which water was defined as a priority field for action.
The leaders of the G8 industrialized nations who met in the French spa town of Evian-les-Bains in June put water at the top of their agenda. Unfortunately, at the current rate of investment, the sanitation target will not be met in Africa and it will take more than 100 years to reach the water target, according to the British charity, Water Aid. It estimates that the G8 countries dedicate only about five percent of their total overseas aid budgets to water projects, which is somewhat less than they spend on ice cream or pet food.
Worse, the depletion and contamination of underground resources because of inefficient irrigation and drainage will mean a loss of up to 10 percent of the world’s cereal production by 2025, according to a joint report by the International Food Policy Research Institute and the International Water Management Institute. That is the equivalent of annually losing the entire cereal crop of India, or the combined annual harvest of sub-Saharan Africa, West Asia and North Africa.
It is not that governments do not know about these dangers. A string of international conferences over the past 25 years has focused on water issues and set targets but “hardly any” have been met, according to the recently published United Nations World Water Development Report - Water for People, Water for Life.
“Attitude and behaviour problems lie at the heart of the crisis,” says the report, published as a key contribution to the International Year of Freshwater, which is being led by UNESCO and the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs.
Following the publication of the report, an initiative of the UN’s World Water Assessment Programme, no government leader should be able to claim ignorance of the crisis. Twenty-three UN agencies contributed to the report, which is packed with sobering statistics and is full of suggestions about how to deal with the crisis.
Lack of access to clean water and sanitation are widely seen as a violation of human rights and an affront to human dignity. The report emphasises the tragic impact the crisis has on “the everyday lives of poor people, who are blighted by the burden of water-related disease, living in degraded and often dangerous environments, struggling to get an education for their children and to earn a living, and get enough to eat.” It is also a question of equity. A child born in the developed world consumes 30 to 50 times the water resources consumed by a child in the poor countries.
“The crisis is experienced also by the natural environment,” it says, “which is groaning under the mountain of wastes dumped on it daily, and from overuse and misuse, with seemingly little care for the future consequences and future generations.”