the dream

Poul Nielson
describes practical steps towards halving the proportion of the world’s people lacking safe water and sanitation

A glass of fresh water from the tap – a luxury? The reality is that for some 1.1 billion people access to safe drinking water is something they can only dream about. Some 2.4 billion people worldwide similarly do not have access to adequate sanitation. Yet access to safe drinking water and sanitation is not just a luxury. It often makes the difference between life and death. Half of the world’s hospital beds are occupied by victims of waterborne diseases. And an estimated 6,000 children die each day from diseases caused by poor sanitation and hygiene. Add to this the increasing pressure on the world’s freshwater supply over the last 50 years, and the continuous degradation of water quality in many regions around the world, and there can be no doubt that the challenge before us is formidable. But since the global community came together and set itself a common agenda with the Millennium Development Goals, as endorsed and expanded at the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, the challenge has also been clearly spelt out: to halve by 2015 the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.

Collective effort
Meeting this challenge will require a collective effort. The European Union (EU) therefore launched a water initiative at Johannesburg to bring together all stakeholders to ensure efficient delivery of the Millennium Development Goal commitments. Within its framework the European Community, member states, civil society, financial institutions and the private sector are working together to:

  • reinforce political commitment to improve access to clean water and sanitation in the context of poverty reduction;

  • strengthen water governance arrangements by promoting public-private partnerships, and building up institutional capacity at regional, national and local levels;

  • improve coordination and cooperation in implementing water-related activities, through introducing sector-wide approaches, multi-stakeholder processes and promotion of South-South cooperation;

  • encourage regional and sub-regional cooperation on water management issues, including on a river basin scale; generate additional funding, through developing new, flexible and innovative funding mechanisms that will attract new partners.

Over the last 12 months partners have been busy translating the many good intentions of Johannesburg into a real drive forward, and the initiative is beginning to show its first results. Efforts have been concentrated, in the initial phases, on setting up the structures within which results will be created. This involves in-depth needs assessments – country by country, region by region – spelling out the strategies and actions needed to fill the gaps identified and making sure that the necessary guidance and technical support are made available to keep the process on track. A multi-stakeholder forum has been established as a space for debate and exchange of ideas. Finally, working groups have been set up at regional level between European and partner countries – in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia, the Mediterranean, Latin America and Africa – to ensure momentum.
Safe water and sanitation often makes the difference between life and death
In Africa the process is being driven forward within the framework of a newly established EU-Africa strategic partnership on water affairs and sanitation that also emerged from Johannesburg. This involves close collaboration between the EU and the African Ministerial Council on Water and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development. Its first activities have included elaborating needs assessments on providing water and sanitation and integrated water resources management in Africa both at national and transboundary levels.

Reinforced coordination is now well on track. And a coherent, cost-effective approach to planning and delivering water-related programmes is emerging. The usefulness of these efforts should not be underestimated. They are essential in maximizing the effect of available resources. However, we must also acknowledge that coordination alone will not deliver clean water and sanitation to those who need them. Availability of funding remains as ever a precondition for action. Within the framework of the ninth European Development Fund, EUR555 million ($633 million) have already been allocated to water in 14 African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) states. But the European Commission recognizes that significant amounts of additional funds will have to be invested in water and sanitation if we are credibly to maintain the ambition of delivering on the Millennium Development Goals.
Many will be the rewards if we manage to deliver real improvements in people’s access to water and sanitation around the world

A concrete proposal
Earlier this year we therefore proposed establishing an EU water facility of EUR1 billion ($1.14 billion) from the European Development Fund to promote access to clean water and sanitation for the people of the ACP countries. The initiative is being followed up by a concrete proposal, presented to the EU Council at the beginning of 2004. The main objective of the facility will be to serve as a catalyst – promoting new initiatives and new information, building research and management capacity in ACP countries, and providing the flexible source of funding which is often the missing link in financing sustainable water-related programmes.

The facility will be based on three key principles:

  • Governance: It will offer a helping hand to those ACP countries that display real commitment to the development of sound national water policies. Funds from the facility will be invested in measures to build or strengthen institutional and regulatory frameworks which are seen as a precondition for recipient countries’ ability to attract more funds.

  • Ownership: The facility will be a demand-driven instrument supporting the realization of existing initiatives such as the EU-Africa strategic partnership. At country level, the focus will be on realizing recipient countries’ poverty reduction strategies that fully integrate water and sanitation as priority areas.

  • Innovation and flexibility. The facility should generate maximum leverage by offering creative combinations of grants with other financial sources to fund basic infrastructure. This could be the necessary seed capital to get projects off the ground and ensure the development of the enabling environment needed for investment. And it should be a tool in forging the public-private partnerships needed to increase funding.

Many will be the rewards – such as in poverty reduction, sustainable development and conflict prevention – if we manage to deliver real improvements in people’s access to water and sanitation around the world. Many, too, will be the costs if we fail. We have undertaken clear commitments. Now it is time for these to be reflected in developing countries’ policies and budgets, and in the response from the international community in generating the necessary funds. The Commission stands by its commitments. With the water initiative, the water facility and other efforts seeing the light of day, there is a real chance that we will be able substantially to reduce the number of people for whom a glass of clean tap water remains a dream

Poul Nielson is EU Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid, and Chief Executive Officer for the EuropeAid Co-operation Office.

PHOTOGRAPH: K. C. Limarga/UNEP/Topham

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:
Water, 1996
Freshwater, 1998
The Environment Millennium, 2000
Poverty Health and the Environment, 2001
WSSD, 2002
Freshwater, 2003