Water and sanitation takes giant step forward

Mobilising political support and financial resources key to meeting clean water and sanitation targets for 2015.

Pamela Wolfe, Managing Editor

Global attention focused on water and sanitation issues at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, last September when more than 100 government leaders agreed to reduce by half the number of people not connected to clean drinking water or without sanitation by 2015. Hopefully, this attention will mobilise governments, organisations, community groups and the private sector to meet these attainable goals. If not, the United Nations Year of Fresh-water in 2003 will ensure that water and sanitation remain in the global spotlight.

The likelihood of providing safe drinking water to 550 million people and proper sanitation to 1.2 billion people within the next 13 years is questionable given the traditional lack of political will and financial resources targeted towards water and sanitation. To fulfil their pledged goals, these heads of state must keep water and sanitation as a high priority, mobilise political and community support, and secure financial resources.

Disappointingly, the summit failed to reach specific targets on improving irrigation efficiency by 2005, developing integrated water resource management plans or reducing leakage in urban water supply distribution networks. Politically difficult issues, such as international river disputes over water rights and transboundary pollution, failed to even make it through pre-summit negotiations in Bali last June.

Yet, most importantly, water and sanitation issues did take an enormous step forward on the global agenda - a fact that makes the 2015 target deadline within reach. Water and sanitation was hardly mentioned ten years ago at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, says Anders Berntell, chief director of the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI). Since then, the water situation in a majority of countries has worsened. "Today 1.2 billion people still lack access to safe water; 2.5 billion live without proper sanitation," according to the Stockholm Statement, prepared at the Stockholm Water Symposium two weeks before the summit.

To meet the sanitation target, more than 400,000 people must be connected to a sewerage or septic system, latrine or other sanitation system every day from now until 2015. Clean water targets require that 300,000 people every day gain regular access to water supply.

Some critics decry the summit agreement for its lack of official targets, strategies and financial commitments. Latrines, compost toilets or multi-million dollar sewer projects? Desalination, rainwater harvesting, water wells or water treatment plants? Reduce leakage and/or develop new water resources? Loans, partnerships, international grants or private investment?

Some water specialists differ in opinion. Water supply and sanitation problems differ so widely that the ways and means of solving them cannot be specified and agreed upon at a global summit. "Official commitments, not supported by enthusiastic follow-up action by activists outside and within governments, go nowhere. On the contrary, ideas that were not part of official commitments can be carried forward by dedicated people; it's just a little more difficult," says Margaret Catley-Carlson, chairperson of the Global Water Partnership. "The summit is only the start of the process, not the conclusion," she added.

United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan's pre-summit call for action on an international rivers agreement resulted in no official agreement, but organisations such as the European Union, Global Environmental Fund and the World Bank already promote an integrated approach to water management to solving regional water problems, Berntell explained.

The WaterDome, a parallel event held during the World Summit, offered visitors a chance to explore and share ideas on specific solutions, financing, and technology, and even launch new water initiatives. South Africa, Mozambique and Swaziland signed a treaty of regional cooperation for use of the Incomati and Maputo rivers. African water ministers set up the permanent African Ministers Council on Water (AMCOW) to supply water to all Africans. The European Union followed up with the EU Water Initiative, a financial commitment of g1.4 billion for projects to bring water to 120 million people.

So beyond the official agreements of the World Summit, progress is possible. However, government leaders must capitalise on the momentum of this global event to mobilise the political will and financial resources necessary to help the water community transform these goals into reality.

Pamela Wolfe, Managing Editor

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