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Drinking Water Tops UN Environment Head’s Christmas Wish List by Klaus Toepfer - 23 Dec 2003

Over this Christmas period, an extra 300,000 people a day will need access to safe drinking water if the United Nation Millennium Development Goals are to be achieved.

The arithmetic is awesome and simple. One in six people, or one billion souls, are currently deprived of this most basic of human needs. The goals call for reducing “by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water” by 2015.

Over roughly ten years, that is one billion people, or 100 million annually. The goal does not take into account the hundreds of millions of extra human beings that will be born during the next decade.

So it is a challenge not only now, during these days of hope in the Christian calendar, but for the coming days and years. 2003 was the International Year of Freshwater and the annual World Water Day, organized by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). The question is, did the year and the day make a jot of difference.

Just a few weeks ago, African ministers responsible for water supplies met in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Political will to tackle the water crisis on this most vulnerable of continents has been lacking for many years.

This, I believe is no longer the case. The ministers committed themselves to establishing National Task Forces aimed at not only meeting the Millennium Development Goals but delivering safe drinking water and sanitation for all 300 million Africans in need by 2025.

I believe that the new Regional Water Facility, established this year in Tunis with a plan to raise $650 million for low cost loans and grants, will play an important role.

The European Commission, building on commitments made at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg, South Africa has this year been active.

For example it announced 50 million Euros to help Chad carry out its new Water and Drainage Strategy. This will help provide reliable drinking water supplies for over 2,200 villages, new or improved supplies in over 70 towns and 280 “water supply points” for nomadic herdsmen and women.

Meanwhile water sector reforms are now also being assessed or are underway in 16 African countries including Uganda and Kenya following moves in South Africa.

2003 has been a year where the world has more than ever come to understand that cooperation over water is something like a peace policy for the 21st century.

At the 3rd World Water Forum in Kyoto, Japan in March, UNEP and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations launched the Atlas of International Freshwater Agreements.

It shows that, despite tensions over water resources, only 37 incidents of acute conflict have occurred since 1948 of which around 30 were in the Middle East.

In Maputo, Mozambique, water ministers from the Southern African Development Community concluded key legal agreements on equitably sharing water resources covering the Limpopo river basin, Lake Nyasa and the Maputo River.

The Kyoto Forum also put the spotlight on innovative solutions including rainwater harvesting. 17 Chinese provinces are using it to provide drinking water to 15 million people and backup irrigation for 1.2 million hectares of land.

UNEP has signed an agreement with Tonji University in China to transfer rainwater harvesting across the developing world.

Environment ministers, meeting in Korea in March next year (2004) at the UNEP Global Ministerial Environment Forum (GMEF), will carry this issue forward by presenting success and failure stories from their own countries.

2003 has also been marked by some of the best and most authoritative water assessments ever compiled.

There was the UN World Water Development Report and one by UNEP on groundwater.

In the past, the lack of hard facts, especially in developing countries on the condition of underground aquifers upon which billions depend for supplies, has precluded action.

A monitoring and early warning project in seven West African, cities including Abidjan, Niamey and Dakar, is now helping to pin-point 'pollution hot spots' and threats to aquifers, with the scheme extending to three countries in Eastern Africa which are Ethiopia, Kenya and Zambia.

Possibly the best present of all at this festive time is the growing evidence that the numbers of people without access to safe drinking water may be less alarming than once thought.

A new report, using World Urbanization Prospects: 2001 Revision by the UN Population Division, and based on a new up dated data, particularly from Africa, indicates that more people are receiving reasonable levels of safe drinking waters than had previously been supposed.

In other words, far more was achieved from investments by organizations like the World Bank during the 1990s than possibly was realized when the Goals were established.

This is no argument for taking our collective feet off the pedal. Even if it is 250,000 or 200,000 individuals daily who need our help, it is still too many. But it should strengthen our optimism that the targets on drinking water can be met – a unique historic achievement, an unrivalled humanitarian milestone.