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World Bank Supports New Global Initiative to Improve Water Services

In a speech today to the Second World Water Forum in The Hague, World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn supported the conference’s launch of a new global initiative to ensure that everyone has water services for health, food, energy, and the environment.

“Lack of access to water is synonymous with poverty throughout the developing world,” said Wolfensohn. “If we don’t meet this challenge, we will not succeed in our broader mission of alleviating poverty for the three billion people who live on less than $2 a day.”

Some countries have made progress. In Cote d’Ivoire and Benin more than 70 percent of people have access to safe water. But elsewhere, access to water is dismal. In Eritrea, only 7 percent of people have such access, in Cambodia the figure is 13 percent, in Mozambique 24 percent, and in Paraguay 39 percent.

The aim of the six-day Second World Water Forum, which closes later today, was to formulate a vision of the specific actions needed to achieve a common set of water-related goals by 2025.

“Good intentions are not enough,” said Wolfensohn. “We must do development differently by grounding it in equity, in justice, in new partnerships as well as solid economics—in the case of water, through full-cost pricing matched by carefully targeted subsidies for the poor.”

Wolfensohn outlined an approach to water management built on participatory institutions, and technological and financial innovation.

"We must give stakeholders a real stake in institutions charged with managing water," he said.

He cited the example of the Hermosillo aquifer in Sonora, Mexico, where the “mining” of water sources has been ended by giving farmers a lead role in decisions about water use. As a result, extractions have declined by 50 percent, bringing off-take and recharge of the aquifer into balance.

“What does the World Bank do with this information?” Wolfensohn asked. “We share it, distilling the lessons learned in places like Hermosillo and using them to inform groundwater management reforms in other parts of the world.”

Institutional reforms are not enough on their own. Technology also has an important part to play in finding more efficient, more environmentally friendly ways of ensuring that there is enough water for people, for food, for energy, and for nature.

Wolfensohn also called for financial innovations. Investment in water will have to double over the next 25 years from today’s $70 billion. In this context, the private sector must play a much larger role in the provision and financing of water services. The World Bank currently lends about $3 billion a year in water. Its total portfolio stands at $20 billion.

“Most water utilities in developing countries are still financed and run by governments,” said Wolfensohn. “But in most cases [they] provide terrible service. And who suffers most? It is the poor who must buy water from vendors at many times the price paid by better-off people who have service.”

“The challenges remain holistic management, inclusive governance arrangements, and a recognition that water is an economic resource. We must now move from analysis and vision to action if we are to meet the twin objectives of poverty reduction and environmental sustainability,” said Wolfensohn.

Helpful links: For more on the World Water Forum, go to www.worldwaterforum.org/.

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