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Making Water Work for Development

The Third World Water Forum wraps up this weekend in Kyoto. Earlier this week, Peter Woicke of the World Bank’s IFC, contributed this op-ed to the Intenrational Herald Tribune.

March 21, 2003—More people are likely to suffer and die this year, and this decade, from the lack of clean water than from all armed conflicts combined.

This should be widely regarded as one of the great tragedies of our time—and one of the great shames. But that is not the case, despite the many grim statistics.

Worldwide a child dies from a preventable waterborne illness about once every 10 seconds. More than 1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water. Roughly 2.4 billion people—that is, roughly 1 of every 3 people on the planet—lack access to adequate sanitation.

Yet these are not headline issues. They have not generated mass protest marches. The failure of the world community to address this crisis is all the more troubling because it is not grounded in conflicting ideologies or the absence of scientific know-how. This failure stems from more mundane problems, such as a lack of political will and focus.

This week, water will once again briefly take center stage as the third World Water Forum gets underway in Japan. And there is plenty of work to be done. World population has tripled in the last century. Meanwhile, water use has increased sixfold, drying up rivers and ravaging about half the world’s wetlands.

Unfortunately, as the problem has worsened, the debate has drifted. Many of the most vocal water advocates have focused on enshrining water as a universal human right and battling the perceived evils of privatization. However, there is a need to roughly double the rate of investment, to about $30 billion per year, for water and sanitation alone from a combination of public and private investors over the next decade. So more emphasis should be put squarely on raising awareness and increasing funding.

Access to safe water is and should be regarded as a human right. But most of the progress in addressing this challenge will be achieved through more practical and less ideological means.

Investments in infrastructure for water storage are critical, especially in countries where climatic variability is high. Such investments have multiple benefits. They provide water for consumption, industrial use, flood control, irrigation, and electricity generation.

Enacting policy reforms at the national and subnational level, with help from knowledge institutions like the World Bank Group and others, can help poor countries strengthen the capacity of their institutions to regulate and manage water resources.

There should also be more focus on removing impediments to public and private water investment. Hybrids of public and private financing, some of which have been pioneered only recently, should be a higher priority, particularly at the regional and municipal level, where much of the responsibility for water and sanitation now resides. These local entities, however, still face limitations in raising finance and often lack professional capacity.

If water issues are not aggressively addressed, they may well wind up causing more wars in this century any other natural resource. But that need not be the case.

Experience has shown that cooperative programs for development and management of water resources have played an important role in regional integration and stability in Eastern Europe (the Baltic Sea), Southeast Asia (Thailand and Laos), and South Asia (the Indus Basin), for example. African nations, whose economic development has been hobbled by conflicts and water scarcity, are a particularly compelling example. The ten countries of the Nile Basin are working together to generate and share benefits from the waters of the Nile.

It should not take conflict to mobilize our efforts. Even under some of the optimistic forecasts, as many as 76 million people will die from preventable water-related illnesses between now and 2020. This rate of loss rivals the rate of battlefield casualties during World War II.

Some might choose to dismiss these figures as hyperbole or wildly improbable scenarios. Unfortunately, they are real. They are probable. And they should alarm all of us.

When the world community convenes in Kyoto this week, we should all be prepared to ask whether posterity will be kind in judging the efforts of our generation should such trends continue.

If our answer is no, then we should no longer let the commonplace and pervasive nature of this tragedy obscure its true dimensions.

To learn more about the World Water Forum, go to http://www.world.water-forum3.com

 




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