UN declares clean water

16 November 2006

by Bill Bowder

EVERYONE in the world should have to a minimum of 20 litres of drinking-water a day as a human right, a UN report recommends. “It is not rocket science,” says the document Beyond Scarcity: Power, poverty and the global water crisis, the latest Human Development Report from the UN Development Programme (UNDP).

The increasingly widespread water crisis has mainly hit poor people, it says. “Declaring water a human right will represent a powerful moral claim, and will act as a source of empowerment and mobilisation, creating expectations, and enabling poor people to expand their entitlements through legal channels.”

The result should be a great leap forward in public health, the report argues. Access to clear water has cut death rates by 23 per cent in Uganda and by 30 per cent in Cameroon. Access to proper sanitation has more than halved infant deaths in Egypt and Peru.

Millions of people, however, still have no proper lavatories. Meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of halving the numbers of those without proper sanitation by 2015 would cost $10 billion. Even under the present MDG targets, 800,000 million people would still not have clean water in 2015, when a rocket is scheduled to take off for Jupiter’s moons to see whether their underground seas could support life.

“The irony of humanity spending billions of dollars in exploring the potential for life on other planets would be powerful — and tragic — if at the same time we allow the destruction of life and human capabilities on planet Earth for the want of far less demanding technologies: the infrastructure to deliver water and sanitation to all. Providing a glass of clear water and a toilet may be challenging, but it is not rocket science,” the report says.

The report sets out how 1.1 billion people (one in six of the world’s population) cannot find clean water. More than one third (2.4 billion people) do not have basic sanitation. As a result, two million people, mainly children, die unnecessarily each year. Millions more are too weak from dysentery to go to school.

The report says: “The use and abuse of precious water resources have intensified dramatically over the past decades, reaching a point where water shortages, water-quality degradation, and aquatic-ecosystem destruction are threatening prospects of human development and political stability.”

Governments should enforce “a minimum entitlement of water for all citizens, provided free to those who cannot afford to pay”, said Kemal Dervis, the main author of the report, at its launch last week.

The UNDP has “scaled up” its activities to help make the changes needed across the world to deliver the MDGs. Last year, it spent $1.4 billion — nearly half of its entire budget — on helping countries to govern themselves more effectively. It also allocated $744 million to reducing poverty, and $326 million to energy and the environment.


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