Washing away

Eveline Herfkens
says that water and sanitation can provide the path to meeting the Millennium Development Goals

The water and sanitation crisis does not grab headlines, but far more people suffer from it than from the issues that do. Each year water-related diseases claim over 5 million lives, mostly in Africa and Asia. A child dies every 15 seconds from diseases largely caused by poor sanitation and contaminated water; that is more than 2 million preventable child deaths a year. Young girls in Tanzania miss school because they need to help their mothers fetch water from several kilometres away.

In September 2000, world leaders from 189 nations recognized the urgency of freeing their fellow citizens from ‘the abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty’ in the Millennium Declaration. From this emerged the Millennium Development Goals, firmly committing governments to an ambitious set of targets by 2015, including halving the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water. Two years later, the World Summit for Sustainable Development reaffirmed the goals and pledged the world community to expand provision of sanitation to the poor.

The Declaration’s promise to ensure that ‘globalization becomes a positive force for all the world’s people’ remains unfulfilled. Take the stark disparity of water use. People in rich nations on average consume 400-500 litres a day compared with 20 litres in poor countries. Over the years, global demand for water will grow, more lives will be lost, more diseases will spread and the development of poor countries will continue to stagger. Inequalities and powerlessness result when water is controlled by a few to the exclusion of the many.

Today’s world has the resources, technology and knowledge to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. What is preventing us from meeting the goals is world leaders’ lack of firm political will to deliver on their promises. If they reconcile rhetoric with action, achieving the water and sanitation targets is possible; and achieving them would accelerate progress in reaching other human development goals by 2015.
Access to water and sanitation is fundamental to female empowerment and parity in education
The Millennium Development Goals package holds unprecedented promise for sustaining development, eradicating poverty, and improving the human condition and environment. The goals stand apart from other international targets, especially because of their synergy and interdependence. Progress on one goal brings you closer to progress on others. The water and sanitation targets are so inextricably linked with other facets of human development that to prioritize them is to make progress on a range of other fronts.

  • Poverty (Goal 1). One fifth of the world’s population lives in extreme poverty, while 800 million people are chronically hungry. Sufficient clean drinking water and adequate water for other household, agricultural and economic activities can be instrumental in eradicating poverty and hunger.

  • Education and Gender (Goals 2 and 3). Queues for water almost always consist of women or girls. These time-consuming activities prevent women from engaging in productive work and keep girls from attending schools. Expanding access to water and sanitation is fundamental to female empowerment and parity in education.

  • Health (Goals 4, 5 and 6). More than 5 million deaths are caused each year by water-related diseases. Contaminated water is the biggest killer of young children. Realizing the health goals critically depends on increased access to water and proper sanitation.

  • Environment (Goal 7). The target on water and sanitation officially resides in the overall goal of ensuring environmental sustainability. Water is also essential for sustaining the biodiversity of all the world’s ecosystems.

Clearly the water and sanitation targets are a critical entry point for the development community to accelerate progress on the other Millennium Development Goals. But meeting them will depend largely on governance – whether we can all value and better manage scarce water resources at the individual and collective levels through integrated water resources management and improved water service delivery mechanisms, through a participatory approach, at all levels of society.
Clean water can be instrumental in eradicating poverty and hunger

Eradicating poverty
If poor countries are to have any chance of realizing these first seven goals, rich countries must deliver – well in advance of 2015 – on their commitments in Goal 8: Global Partnership for Development. In it rich and poor country leaders recognized their shared role in eradicating poverty worldwide and, for the first time, established a clear division of labour. Developing countries pledged to strengthen governance, institutions and policies. Developed countries committed to increase the quantity of aid and improve its quality, deliver more meaningful debt relief, and expand access to trade and technology for poor countries.

What progress have we made? According to a 2003 World Bank Report to its Development Committee, poor countries’ policies and governance have never been stronger; but the actions of the rich countries do not match their promises. They must adopt concrete deadlines and specific targets for delivering on their commitments under this goal.

  • Aid. More, and more effective, aid is essential if poor countries are to reach a self-sustaining path towards achieving the goals. At least an additional $50 billion per year is needed, according to the UN Zedillo Report and the World Bank. The United Nations Development Programme estimates that the total costs range from $50 billion to $102 billion for meeting the water supply goal and from $23 billion to $42 billion for sanitation between 2001 and 2015. Rich countries need substantially to increase financing, but not at the expense of funding other programmes such as Education for All or HIV/AIDS. Donors must set a date to increase overseas development assistance levels to the 0.7 per cent of their gross national income towards which they promised to work more than 30 years ago. Aid must also be untied from the interests of donor countries, target the poorest countries and respect the national ownership of recipients. Donors must also implement the Rome Declaration on Harmonization that committed them to reduce the transaction costs of aid to poor countries.

  • Debt relief. Many of the poorest countries need to free up resources to finance priority investments such as water and sanitation, but their burden of debt hinders development. Governments that have had debt forgiven under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative used the additional resources to finance progress towards the goals in primary education and health. But faster and deeper debt cancellation is needed if they are to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.

  • Trade. Developing countries must integrate into the world economy, but the playing field is not level: trade policies discriminate against them. A ‘pro-poor’ Doha deal, estimates show, could lift an additional 144 million people out of poverty by 2015 and increase global income by as much as $520 billion. The outcome of the fifth World Trade Organization’s Ministerial Conference in Cancun demonstrated developing countries’ tremendous frustration with a trade system that, for the last 10 to 15 years, has been a boulevard of broken promises. Rich countries must create a more equitable global trading system by expanding market access and eliminating agricultural subsidies that distort the markets on which poor farmers in poor countries depend. Trade ministers must follow through on their commitments in the Doha Declaration to ensure that developing countries are more than just beggars at the feast.

Equitable access
We know that more equitable access to safe water and sanitation are the key to poverty reduction, sustainable development and the future safety of the world. The challenge now is to ensure that the political commitments made at the Millennium Summit and subsequent meetings are implemented. Time is short and if we do not act now, we will jeopardize our chances of meeting the Millennium Development Goals.

Water is everybody’s business and everyone must now focus on implementing these great promises. The mounting water challenges of the 21st century will only be met if all levels of government and society are involved. We are the first generation with the knowledge and resources to eradicate poverty. Let us refuse to miss the opportunity

Eveline Herfkens is the United Nations Secretary-General’s Executive Coordinator for the Millennium Development Goals Campaign.


This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Töpfer | Action for tomorrow | Turning words into action | One hand washes the other | People | Fragile resource | Realizing the dream | Washing away poverty | At a glance: Water and sanitation | Music makes magic – Angélique Kidjo | Targeting sanitation | In a city like Mumbai | Flowing from the bottom up | Books & products | Watering a thirsty land | Peace through parks | Reaching the unheard

Complementary issues:
Culture, Values and the Environment, 1996
The Environment Millennium, 2000
Poverty Health and the Environment, 2001
WSSD, 2002
Freshwater, 2003
Globalization, poverty, trade and the environment, 2003