Tackling water poverty

Clare Short shows how managing water sustainably is essential to eliminating poverty, and how it enables people to live healthier and more productive lives.

The water crisis is a critical issue for governments and societies worldwide. But poor people face this crisis on a daily basis. The sustainable management of water is crucial to efforts to eliminate poverty. Poor people’s lives are closely linked to their access to water and its multiple uses and functions.

The Department for International Development (DFID) recently published a water strategy paper, Addressing the Water Crisis. This takes as its starting point the connections between lack of access to water and associated natural resources, poverty entrapment and increased risk of disease, and reduced livelihood opportunities at a local level. It also highlights the broader constraints this poses to agricultural and industrial growth.

At the heart of this crisis is an increasing imbalance between the availability and demand for fresh water. In this increasingly tense contest from the local to the regional, it is the poorest people who invariably lose out.

We do well to recognize the lessons of history. In Victorian times cities in the United Kingdom were associated with squalor and poverty, child labour and disease. Disease frequently confounded the attempts of poor people to lift themselves out of poverty, with the ill health of a child or breadwinner reducing them to poverty once again. Safe water and sanitation helped transform their lives.

This situation continues to blight the lives of large numbers of people today. One sixth of the world’s population (1.1 billion people) remain without access to improved sources of water, and two fifths (2.4 billion people) lack hygienic sanitation. The exposure to disease this causes contributes to 2.2 million children dying every year. But improved sanitation, safe hygiene practices and clean water can make the world a safer and healthier place for all its children.

Water ‘poverty’ affects all poor people, but particularly women. This I have seen on my many visits to Africa and Asia. The poor elderly woman in a remote village in Nepal has to devote a large amount of her time and energy to fetching water. In Malawi the young mother has to choose between a journey with her sick child to the health clinic, and remaining at home and collecting water for her other small children. The consequences are huge in human development terms. In India girls stand in line waiting for water to arrive at the stand-post, rather than attending school. Girls are frequently kept out of school because there are no sanitation facilities to provide privacy and dignity.

But the importance of water in poor people’s lives goes far beyond the significant health-related outcomes to broader issues of livelihoods and well-being. In particular, poor management of water resources has led to degradation of the environment and loss of natural resources on which the livelihoods of so many of the rural poor depend.

Our work in water provides important opportunities for social transformation through lessening or abolishing the loads borne by women and giving women equal power in the provision of water for family welfare.
Equitable allocation of water resources provides an important opportunity for social and environmental justice
Urban population growth is placing increasing pressure on existing systems. A recent DFID-funded study by the International Institute for Environment and Development shows the levels of per capita water use in East African cities almost halved between 1970 and 2000. Over the same period, average collection time for each trip increased from 9 minutes to 21 minutes. This time is taken from education, child care, cooking, fetching wood, paid labour and other livelihood activities that are part of poor people’s survival strategies. Some 25 per cent now rely on small-scale providers, often paying a significant proportion of family income each month. Civil society organizations are playing an increasingly important role representing poor people’s interests through advocacy, as well as direct provision of water.

Broader water resources issues are also highly relevant to poverty elimination. To witness the full fragility of the human-water relationship one needs do little more than peer out of an airline window over the Nile valley. At 12,000 metres the thin green line – a basis for much of early human civilization – is the difference between prosperity and poverty for thousands of farmers, and the water supply for millions of urban dwellers.

Opportunity for justice
Managing water in an environment of such scarcity is a huge task. Poor households’ survival options are very limited at times, and in places, of water scarcity. Highly vulnerable to economic and climatic shocks and with negligible access to finance, the drain on household livelihoods of poor water supplies is considerable. The burden is complex, immense and exhausting.

Equitable allocation of water resources provides an important opportunity for social and environmental justice. This is the approach being taken by the Department of Water and Forestry in South Africa, with which DFID works closely. We are also supporting the Government of China to develop pro-poor water resources policies.

With water scarcity can also come conflict. At the local level disputes over water are played out daily. They may not grab the headlines, but local tensions and violence over access to water may be just as damaging and costly in terms of the impact on the livelihoods of the poor and the environment.

At a state level where the international stakes are much higher, the weight of conflict prevention measures is that much greater. It was the serious disagreements provoked by the growing threat of demands on the Nile waters that spurred the efforts of riparian governments and the World Bank to enter into a process leading to the Nile Basin Initiative. This substantial effort has very recently borne practical fruit in the form of the Nile Basin Action Plan – supported by a range of donors, including DFID. An excuse for conflict has been turned into a basis for cooperation, providing a hugely important example to other regions facing competition over water.

International targets
In seeking to develop solutions to the problems outlined, DFID attaches major importance to water in the struggle to eliminate poverty. We are focused on the international targets that will see the number of people without access to safe water and adequate sanitation halved by 2015, and national integrated water resources management plans in the process of implementation by 2025.

Our work in water is guided by the principles of putting people at the centre, responding to demand and recognizing the inherent economic value of water with costs attached to its provision.

Sustainable and affordable access is essential. Governments, civil society, the private sector and communities themselves all have vital roles to play. DFID’s particular priorities, in responding to the challenge, are to support activities that transform institutions – improving capacity and coordination at all levels, and bringing about greater transparency, accountability and political commitment, as well as increased involvement of the private sector and civil society. We seek to promote best practice in addressing water-related poverty, encouraging governments to adopt integrated and sustainable approaches, and improved emergency responses. We also recognize the importance of generating and sharing knowledge.

The priority for us all now is to move from global recognition of the problem – and a vision of how things should change – to local actions. We understand the problem and the dangers and we know how to move forward. We now need concerted implementation by all parts of the international development system

Clare Short is Secretary of State for International Development, United Kingdom.


This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Answering poor health | Tackling water poverty | Everything connects | Up the gross natural product | Stopping AIDS | Whose city is it anyway? | Nutrition | At a glance: Poverty | Competition | World Bank Special: ‘Double burden’ | It’s not just, pollution | Smoke and fires | Breaking the cycle of poison | Pharmacies for life | Viewpoint: Change – or decay | The environment: why we must not give up | World Atlas of Coral Reefs | GTOS: An eyeglass on our planet

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Fresh water, 1998, including
John Chilton: Dry or drowning?
Issue on Water, 1996, including
Ismail Serageldin: Beating the water crisis
Anders Wijkman: The stuff of life
Jorge Illueca and Walter Rast: Precious, finite and irreplaceable
Tony Blair: Opportunity, not obstacle (Climate & Action) 1998
John Prescott: Gain, not pain (The environment millennium) 2000

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Population and natural resources