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Last Updated: Saturday, 7 June, 2003, 12:15 GMT 13:15 UK
Why the world needs to act fast
By Richard Jolly
Chair, Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council

Women carrying water in Basra
Dirty water in Iraq caused more deaths than the bombs
It is ironic that Evian, internationally known for its bottles of sparkling clear water, should have hosted last weekend's summit which achieved virtually nothing to deal with the major problems of water round the world.

The French put water on the agenda and pushed for action. But the meeting was hijacked by the post-war politics of Iraq.

An irony, considering in the final count more Iraqis would have died from diseases caused by contaminated water and overflowing sewage systems in the cities of Baghdad and Basra than from bombs and bullets.

Moreover, this year is the UN's International Year of Freshwater.

Its agenda of priorities and targets were set by the World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg last year and by the Third World Water Forum in Kyoto last March.

New approach to water

Each of these forums underlined the risks of water scarcity in the coming decades and the urgent need for action in all countries and at all levels: local, national, regional and global.

The starting point is what is known in the jargon as "integrated water resource management" - IWRM.

This means recognizing water as a key resource with multiple uses - for drinking, agriculture, industry and for maintaining health and cleanliness of communities and cities.

IWRM requires a new approach to policy and planning everywhere, one in which water is used sustainably.

The human cost

Then there are the priorities of the global poor. The 1.2 billion people who lack access to the most basic resource: clean water. And more than double that number lack adequate sanitation.

At any given moment, almost half of the world's poor are sick from unsafe water and sanitation.

Disease in early childhood is one of the main causes of malnutrition, poor physical and mental growth and early death.

Lack of clean water supply and sanitation creates a daily environment of squalor and saps economic growth.

The road ahead

So what can be done? ? The answer is much more and more rapidly than the G8 were apparently willing to recognize.

There are the priorities for action - provided by the goals set in New York at the Millennium Summit in 2000 and reinforced in Johannesburg last September.

These depend on country level action and many countries are preparing or implementing national plans of action.

Contrary to what some critics may say, nearly 70 developing countries, with about half the Third World's population, are on track to halving the number of people without access to clean water by 2015.

However, another 25 countries, with nearly 40% of Third World population, are lagging far behind. And there is no data at all for the remaining countries.

These realities provide a huge challenge for international action and support.

All countries need to be encouraged and supported in preparing their national plans of action - for achieving the goals within a frame of IWRM and for achieving long run sustainability in water use and environmental protection.

Second, poorer countries need financial and sometimes technical support for accelerating action towards the goals - for water but also for sanitation and hygiene.

In fact, lack of adequate sanitation and basic hygiene is often responsible for more ill health than unsafe water.

One key priority is to ensure that every school has hygiene in the curriculum and separate toilet facilities for boys and girls by 2010.

The lack of such facilities at present is a major cause of girls not being in school.

Better management

Finally, the economic constraints must be tackled. The recent Camdessus Report on Financing Water for All sets out new possibilities for increasing the resources available.

Along with more resources, is the requirement for better management and use of present resources.

At present, 80% to 90% of expenditure on water and sanitation goes to urban areas where the richer people live.

To meet the goals, a shift in the proportion of resources going to services for the low income communities in shanty towns and rural communities is the highest priority.

This can be financed in several ways: by encouraging new forms of community contribution, by increasing charges from the better off and internationally, by channelling debt relief and aid into more support for water and sanitation for the poor.

The G8 was a missed opportunity. But action need not wait for global leaders to wake up to the real challenge in the years ahead: Water for People, Water for Life. .

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