Diarrhoeal disease is one of the biggest killers of children – Rio needs to focus on water
Finally Rio+20 is upon us. 20 years on from the rich promises of the World Conference on Environment and Development in Rio, ministers will gather to ‘renew commitment’ and ‘review progress’. The hype around the conference is palpable, but these negotiations are notoriously complex and fraught with competing agendas.
There are so many issues at stake that it is hard to say what the big issues will be or where progress might be made. But what actually matters? And what can we really hope to come from the conference? The big question for me is how are decisions that are made there going to relate to the real world and the harsh daily reality of poverty for billions? Because let’s not forget that Rio+20 is about poverty eradication AND environmental protection.
One of the most critical issues that will be discussed at Rio is water. The concept of ‘water security’ – having enough water to meet needs – is drawing ever increasing attention from governments, civil society and the private sector. Water is a finite resource (although not in the same way as oil, as it is endlessly recycled through the planet). So water debates circle around the issues generated by scarcity – transboundary conflict, water wars, water footprinting. These are interesting issues, but what we at WaterAid always ask is what really matters in people’s lives?
Water is the most basic human need, and a universally agreed human right (as further confirmed by the UK), and cuts across virtually all elements of life, development and the environment, but there is a persistent divorce between the global debates on water and the local realities in developing countries – which often defy the stereotypes and assertions that we comfortably throw around in conference halls.
Our starting point should be ‘what does ‘water security’ mean in the real world, in the lives of the poorest people’? For a start, diarrhoeal disease is one of the biggest killers of children around the world – responsible for more deaths than AIDS, malaria and measles combined. Spending hours collecting water prevents many children, particularly girls from getting an education, and stops women from generating their own income. This is not because the clean water is not there, but because the services to deliver clean water are not there. A crude analogy is that we have lots of water in the UK, but we need taps and pipes to make use of it. In low income countries, water availability is not the problem – it is the lack of basic services.
There are two core issues behind the lack of water services. Firstly, despite a multitude of pronouncements, governments have not made water a political priority. A groundbreaking study estimated that to meet their MDG targets, countries in sub-Saharan Africa need to spend 3.5% of their GDP on water and sanitation. Most of the least developed countries spend less than 0.5%. Of the billions of dollars of aid, only around 5% is spent on water – and most of that is not targeted at the poorest. Secondly, this underinvestment means that there aren’t enough people with the right skills and resources to actually deliver water services to everyone.
These two issues are not exactly ‘sexy’ or headline grabbing, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are as important, if not more so, for people’s lives than the notion of running out of water and impending doom about water wars.
Fortunately, the challenges are also solvable, and could save 2.5 million lives a year. The Sanitation and Water for All Partnership of developing and developed countries works together to prioritise sanitation and water and help governments spend money better to accelerate sanitation and water for all.
Nature’s damning report card on Rio ‘92 is a sobering reminder that it takes more than international agreements to change reality. If we are genuine in wanting to solve the complex sustainable development challenges of water, then the starting point has to be people and their daily realities – decision-makers at Rio need to realise that water isn’t just an environmental issue and focus on what needs to change to improve the lives of the poorest people in the world. The growing attention to water is welcome and long overdue, but without putting people in the frame and turning text into action, this attention will amount to nothing but sating our own preoccupations. More than Rio itself, it will be the aftermath, the ‘what-happens-next’ that will really determine its success. That is the space I will be watching.Tagged in: climate change, diarrhoea, environment, global warming, Rio, Rio+20, water, wateraid
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