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Why Does Two-Thirds of the World's Population Still Not Have Access to Safe Drinking Water?

The funds needed for water resources are miniscule compared those given to reduce carbon emissions and deal with the global financial crisis.
 
 
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Despite promises made by world leaders nearly a decade ago, a new United Nations report has concluded it is still "business as usual" for 5 billion people -- about two-thirds of the world population -- who do not have access to safe drinking water, adequate sanitation or enough food to eat.

That's the grim assessment of "Water in a Changing World", the U.N.'s third triennial water development report since 2000. It was presented this spring at the World Water Forum in Istanbul, Turkey, as several hundred protesters demonstrated against large dam construction and the privatization of water supplies in the developing world.

The report called on governments and the private sector urgently to increase their investment in water resources, noting that the funds needed for water resources are miniscule compared to the funds already pledged and obtained to reduce carbon emissions and deal with the global financial crisis.

Although more than 90 percent of the world's population is expected to have access to safe drinking water by 2015, progress in basic sanitation lags far behind, the report said. Most of the sewage in developing countries is discharged without treatment, and an estimated 5,000 children die every day from diarrhea, a disease that often can be prevented by washing one's hands with soap. That's about 10 children dying in the time it will take to read this article.

Nor are the problems confined to the developing world. In the United States, the report said, it will require an investment of more than $1 trillion dollars over the next 20 years to bring aging water supply systems and sewer infrastructure up to current standards.

"This is a call for action now, before it is too late," Engin Koncagul, a coordinator for the U.N.'s water assessment program, said at a recent water forum in Santa Barbara, Calif. Many countries spend more on the military than they do on water resources and public health, he said.

"Spending on water infrastructure must be a high priority for leaders in government," Koncagul said. "We must invest in developing countries. After decades of inaction, we can always make a change, as long as there is good will."

Environmentalist and human rights advocacy groups such as International Rivers, a nonprofit organization based in Berkeley, Calif., sent representatives to Istanbul to protest what they view as the bias among water bureaucrats in the government and private sector in favor of large dams and centralized irrigation systems -- projects they say aren't cost-effective and won't bridge the water divide between rich and poor.

"You would get more bang for the buck addressing the leaks in existing water infrastructure," said Peter Bosshard, a policy director for International Rivers who helped organize the Alternative Water Forum, an event attended by 1,000 people in Istanbul.

"And if you want to strengthen the ability of Africa's poor farmers to deal with water scarcity, to do the most with water that's available, you have to adopt decentralized approaches," Bosshard said. "Centralized irrigation is not an option for the poor in many parts of the world."

Two International Rivers staff members were arrested at the March 16 opening of the World Water Forum and deported the next day for displaying a banner that read, "No Risky Dams."

The U.N. report noted that large dams and hydroelectric plants leave a "heavy footprint on the natural environment" and often displace large numbers of people, but, it said, many countries are increasingly turning to such projects to increase their water storage capacity as the climate becomes more irregular, and to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels.

 
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