Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am delighted to participate in and address this august High Level Conference on Water and Global Health.
I would like to extend a personal thank you to Dr. Elaine Valdov and her team for the tremendous effort they have put in to ensure an impressive line up of individuals, each of whom is committed to seeking solutions that benefit all nations and peoples.
I sincerely hope that my intervention today will stimulate discussion on the issue of universal access to safe drinking water for populations in the developing world, and in particular for those in the Least Developing Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Islands Developing States.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Water is the source of life and the link that binds all living beings on this planet. It is connected directly to all our United Nations goals: improved maternal and child health and life expectancy, women’s empowerment, food security, sustainable development and climate change adaptation and mitigation. Recognition of these links led to the declaration of 2005-2015 as the International Decade for Action ‘Water for Life’.
We should also note that in 2002, the United Nations affirmed the right to water as indispensable for leading a life in human dignity and a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights.
Given its significance it is no wonder the United Nations established Millennium Development Goal 7 and, in particular, target 10, which calls for the reduction by half, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.
I am pleased to report some promising progress. Just last month, a joint monitoring report by the World Health Organization and UNICEF highlighted that 87 percent of the world’s population or approximately 5.9 billion people are now using safe drinking-water sources. In other words, the world is on track to meet or even exceed the drinking-water target of the MDGs.
This is indeed an encouraging development especially given the vital importance of water and sanitation to human health and well-being and their role as an engine of development.
The question now lies in how to accelerate progress towards achieving the MDG targets and most importantly how to leap a step further to ultimately achieve the vision of universal access.
Sadly for the world’s poorest citizens, the right to safe water and adequate sanitation remains elusive. A brief look at the statistics shows that 884 million people still do not use improved sources of drinking water. Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for over a third of that number, and is lagging behind in progress towards the MDG target with only 60 percent of the population using improved sources of drinking water.
For families without a drinking water source, it is usually women who go to the source to collect drinking water. Current data shows that more than a quarter of the population in several sub-Saharan countries take longer than 30 minutes to make one water collection round trip.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Water-related diseases are the most common cause of illness and death among the poor.
Half the people in the developing world suffer from one or more of the main diseases associated with inadequate provision of water supply and sanitation services. Every 20 seconds a child dies from a water-related disease - 1.8 million children younger than five years each year. This alarming figure is from a new report by the UN Environment Programme, which says millions of tonnes of solid waste are being flushed into water systems every day, spreading disease.
I firmly believe that the importance of safe drinking water and basic sanitation to the preservation of human health, particularly among children, cannot be overstated.
Indeed, this is a silent humanitarian crisis that each day takes thousands of lives, robs the poorest of their health, thwarts progress toward gender equality, and hamstrings economic development.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Realizing the health-related MDGs, particularly those targeting child mortality and major diseases, will require a dramatic increase in access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation services for poor women, men, and children in developing countries. It will also require changes in behaviour and attitudes, particularly with regard to hygiene, a critical but often overlooked element in discussions usually dominated by questions of access and service provision.
Almost one tenth of the global disease burden could be prevented by improving water supply, sanitation, hygiene and management of water resources. Cost effective, resilient and sustainable solutions have proven to alleviate the disease burden. Action is required to ensure these are implemented and sustained worldwide and especially to the benefit of the most affected population, children in developing countries.
Undoubtedly, ensuring poor people’s access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation and encouraging personal, domestic and community hygiene will improve the quality of life of millions of individuals.
Better managing water resources to reduce the transmission of vector borne diseases such as viral diseases carried by mosquitoes, and to make water bodies safe for recreational and other users can save many lives and has extensive direct and indirect economic benefits, from the micro-level of households to the macro-perspective of national economies.
Water challenges will increase significantly in the coming years. Continuing population growth and rising incomes will lead to greater water consumption, as well as more waste. These challenges are compounded by the effects of climate change in the poorest countries especially in LDCs and Small Island Developing States. The urban population in developing countries will grow dramatically, generating demand well beyond the capacity of already inadequate water supply and sanitation infrastructure and services.
By 2050, at least one in four people are likely to live in a country affected by chronic or recurring shortages of freshwater. This may seriously constrain the availability of water for all purpose particularly for agriculture, which currently accounts for 70 percent of all water consumed. One of the main questions I believe we should be asking is how can we best articulate the political significance of water and sanitation?
Decision making in environment and health in general, and in water, sanitation and hygiene in particular, involves the participation of many actors and different sectors. In particular, governments and other stakeholders must move the sanitation crisis to the top of the agenda.
There is a strong need that within the context of national poverty reduction strategies based on the MDGs, countries will elaborate coherent water resources development and management plans that will support the achievement of the Goals.
Furthermore, dramatically expanding coverage of water supply and sanitation services can promote human health, economic development, gender equality, and environmental sustainability and thus deserves the vigorous response of national governments and the international community. Improving basic services for the world’s poor is also an imperative for a global community committed to principles of equity, fairness, and social responsibility.
Without greater attention to the sound management and development of water resources, it will be difficult to meet the MDGs and sustain the gains already made against poverty, hunger, and environmental degradation.
It is also important to recall that the mobilisation of global public opinion can lead to action at national and international levels. Networking technologies can create linkages and promote awareness of global issues surrounding water.
On a local level and within the community, incentives can be created for private actions and behaviours at the household level that lead to a public good in terms of sanitation and hygiene.
Finally global targets need to be translated into realistic, operational, politically acceptable targets at the national and sub-national levels. These specific targets can be used to empower and involve society at the lowest appropriate level. Attention has to be focused on the countries, populations and groups within society that are most vulnerable and where the problems are the worst, which are often those in remote, rural or peri-urban areas.
I am strongly convinced that long term decision making in water by all actors and at every level should lead to sustainable use of the world’s water resources, sustainable development of societies, and improved, dignified livelihoods for individuals.