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U.N. Lagging on Water and Sanitation Development Goals

UNITED NATIONS, Sep 2 2010 (IPS) - The United Nations stands accused of marginalising water and sanitation in its much-touted Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) aimed at improving the lives of billions of people in the developing world.

But will this shortcoming be rectified at the MDG summit of world leaders scheduled to take place in New York, September 20-22?

Anders Berntell, executive director of the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), told IPS water has definitely not yet received proper attention in the draft outcome document to be adopted at the U.N. summit.

He pointed out that good management of water resources and provision of drinking water and sanitation are prerequisites for fulfilling all the different MDGs – including the reduction of extreme poverty and hunger by 50 percent by the year 2015.

“Without water, we can never fight hunger; without toilets in schools, girls will continue to drop out before finalising their education; and without adequate sanitation and hygiene, diseases will continue to spread, resulting in increasing child mortality and bad maternal health,” Berntell said.

Water - A Basic Human Right

The U.N. General Assembly last month adopted, for the first time, a resolution recognising water as a basic human right.

Asked whether this will make a significant difference in resolving the world’s continuing water crisis, Berntell of SIWI told IPS: "The decision by the General Assembly to recognise water as a basic human right is a positive sign that goes in the right direction."

There are however two aspects that need to be considered in this context, he explained.

The first one is that it is not a legally binding obligation to the 192 member states. Only a decision under the Convention on Human Rights can make it legally binding to those states that have ratified the convention.

"This process is under way, under the leadership of the U.N. independent expert on the human right to water and sanitation, and we are very much looking forward to that decision," said Berntell.

The second is that irrespective of whether or not water and sanitation is considered a human right, "what matters at the end of the day is if decision- makers at all levels of society, from the global down to the local level, are willing to put their priorities right and make it happen"

O’Sullivan of End Water Poverty said the human rights stream of work in securing "sanitation and water for all" is gaining momentum.

The declaration of water and sanitation as a human right will be a useful tool for civil society in advocating for improved services for the poor, and will apply more pressure on governments to make sure they provide this to their citizens.

"But a resolution alone is not enough - governments need to provide the finance and the political will to translate a declaration into sanitation and water for all," she declared.

There are far too many beds in hospitals occupied with persons suffering from water-borne diseases, he added.

“Water should therefore be recognised as one of the most important cross- cutting issues to be addressed at the summit, with the recognition that increased financing at all levels of our society is urgently needed,” said Berntell whose Institute will host a major weeklong international water conference in the Swedish capital of Stockholm, Sep. 5-11.

The annual World Water Week, commemorating its 20th anniversary this year, is expected to be attended by more than 2,500 experts, practitioners, decision-makers and business innovators, who will discuss the escalating global water crisis.

The current water crisis is bigger than the crises brought on by HIV/AIDS, malaria, tsunamis, earthquakes “and all the wars put together in a given year,” warns Aaron Wolf, programme director in Water Conflict Management and Transformation at the Oregon State University.

He told a recent U.N. news briefing that poverty alleviation is an explicit strategy for dealing with the insecurities of the world.

In that sense, water was “an explicit security concern.”

According to the United Nations, over 800 million people worldwide have no access to safe drinking water while a hefty 2.5 billion people lack access to adequate sanitation.

Serena O’Sullivan, of the London-based End Water Poverty, told IPS the international community needs to do more to meet the MDGs, and needs to do it better – including by investing in sanitation as part of a comprehensive approach to tackling poverty, hunger and ill-health.

She said sanitation, in particular, has been absolutely neglected by the international community and the MDG process. “The U.N. Summit provides a unique opportunity to act, and End Water Poverty will be there to ensure our messages are heard.”

“We’ve worked with other global networks to produce a key policy briefing ‘Breaking Barriers’ which calls for a new approach in tackling the MDGs,” O’Sullivan said, adding, “If we want to eradicate poverty, we simply can’t ignore water and sanitation poverty.”

The evidence speaks for itself. Poorest countries lose 5.0 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) to the crisis – with people spending time collecting water or suffering from diarrhoeal illnesses – thereby forcing them to keep away from work and school. It also heavily overburdens fragile health systems.

In Sub Saharan Africa, half of all hospital beds are taken up with people sick from unclean water or unsafe sanitation.

Speaking at the U.N.’s High-Level Interactive Dialogue on Water last March, Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro said “access to clean water and adequate sanitation are a pre-requisite for lifting people out of poverty.”

She pointed out that seven out of 10 people without improved sanitation live in rural areas.

But the number of people in urban areas without improved sanitation is increasing as urban populations grow.

“Although 1.3 billion people have gained access to improved sanitation since 1990,” Migiro said, “the world is likely to miss the MDG sanitation target by a billion people.”

The MDGs include a 50 percent reduction in extreme poverty and hunger; universal primary education; promotion of gender equality; reduction of child mortality by two-thirds; cutbacks in maternal mortality by three-quarters; combating the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; ensuring environmental sustainability; and developing a North-South global partnership for development.

A summit meeting of 189 world leaders in Sep. 2000 pledged to meet all of these goals by the year 2015.

But their implementation has been thwarted by several factors, including the global financial and food crises, the impact of climate change and the decline in development aid by Western donors.

The upcoming MDG summit meeting is expected to take stock of the successes and failures in meeting the goals, and also find ways and means of accelerating progress toward them in the next five years, towards the 2015 deadline.

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