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DEVELOPMENT: Water as a Right and Key to Social Stability

Thalif Deen

STOCKHOLM, Aug 15 2007 (IPS) - A top United Nations official has learned through personal experience what it is like to live without safe drinking water during her visits home to the Tanzanian capital.

UN Under-Secretary-General Anna Tibaijuka, executive director of the Nairobi-based UN-Habitat, says that whenever she goes home on vacation, she is deprived of one of her basic rights for human survival in her water-deficient housing compound in Dar-es-Salaam.

“Yes, there is no water in that slum”, she said, pointing out the perennial problems facing many of the fast-growing cities in Africa and the rest of the developing world where drinking water is not freely available on tap.

She told IPS she has to buy water in her own home town, a typical water-stressed city growing at four percent per annum with its population doubling every 15 years.

Tibaijuka said the explosive growth of urban centres over the last 30 years, which continues unabated in most of the developing world, is rapidly depleting once plentiful water resources.

“Several metropolitan cities are knee-deep in problems”, she said, citing the example of Mexico City, which has sunk some eleven metres over the past 70 years.

The cause? Withdrawal of water from the city’s groundwater sources, or aquifer, far below.

The United Nations says more than one billion people do not have access to safe drinking water worldwide, while more than two billion have no access to proper sanitation facilities.

Tibaijuka said it is poorer groups who bear most of the ill-health and other costs of environmental problems.

“They are least able to afford good quality housing in neighbourhoods with piped water and adequate provision for sanitation, garbage collection, paved roads and drains.”

Addressing the 17th annual World Water Week in the Swedish capital of Stockholm, Tibaijuka told a meeting of more than 2,000 water professionals, technicians, scientists and policy makers, that water is going to be the dominant world issue far into the current century.

“The supply of water may threaten the social stability of the world,” she warned.

“We urgently need to find new approaches which better utilise our abundant human resources, our precious natural resources and our scarce financial resources,” she added.

A study by the Manila-based Asian Development Bank (ADB) released here says a minimum investment of 8.0 billion dollars annually would assure that every country in that region could halve the proportion of people without access to water supply and improved sanitation.

Arjun Thapan, the author of the study, says that once that target is reached, the 8.0 billion dollar annual investment will yield a 54 billion dollar annual return.

“It is the height of economic irrationality to not invest in these vital services,” he said.

The report, titled “Asia Water Watch 2015”, stresses that the impact of this resource is so diffuse that every dollar invested in people gaining access to water and sanitation returns six dollars in health, livelihood and educational benefits.

“It is never just water for water’s sake, but water for poverty’s sake. Clean water and improved sanitation can save the poor time, improve their health and provide them income opportunities,” the study noted.

Despite such clear justifications for investing in water, ADB says Asian governments have not stepped up investments in their water sector.

Recognising the magnitude of Asia’s “water woes”, ADB says it is committed to increasing financing to the water sector and achieving the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, which include a call for a 50-percent reduction of the number people lacking access to safe and adequate water, by the year 2015.

ADB will also establish a Water Financing Partnership Facility which intends to mobilise about 100 million dollars in co-financing and investments from development partners in the North.

Meanwhile, according to UN figures, more than 117 million people have suffered from some 300 natural disasters, most of them water-related, this year alone.

These catastrophes include devastating droughts in China and Africa, and massive flooding in Asia and Africa – all of them costing nearly 15 billion dollars in damages.

These natural disasters are also attributed primarily to the devastating effects of climate change.

Speaking on behalf of the 130 developing nations of the Group of 77, Pakistan’s Minister for Environment Makhdoom Faisal Saleh Hayat told a meeting of the General Assembly last month that climate change poses serious risks and challenges, particularly to developing countries.

Therefore, he said, the present crisis demands urgent global action and response.

“We are concerned about the fact that adverse effects of climate change and the associated phenomena, including sea level rise and the increase in frequency and intensity of hurricanes, cyclones, floods and other weather patterns, as well as deglaciation, drought and desertification, threaten the sustainable development, livelihoods and the very existence of many developing countries,” said Faisal Saleh Hayat.

The minister added that in order to enable developing countries to pursue sustainable development and to address the challenges posed by climate change, rich nations should provide adequate, new and additional financing to support developing countries in their efforts to adapt to climate change and the response measures designed to address climate change.

He also called for the transfer of technology to developing countries, including through improved financial instruments and mechanisms.

And most important of all, he said, industrial nations should implement their commitments made at various UN summits and conferences – since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio – relating to economic and social development and environmental sustainability.

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