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Tackling sustainable development, earnestly

Published by Newsweek on 1999-03-01

There once was an earnest Swede who, armed with his freshly minted graduate degree in development studies and a nice consultancy from an UN agency, traveled to a drought-afflicted African country on what's known in multilateral circles as a "mission": he was going to help villagers install water pumps. In a "model" village, he was feted at a colorful ceremony during which water pumps--manufactured in Sweden, of course--were turned over to the local headman. Then the developmentalist went home. Several months later, he returned to the African village to check up on his mission's success. Sure enough, the gleaming pumps had been installed exactly where he'd recommended. But the villagers were still drawing their water from a distant well, and women were still fetching it in leaky tin buckets. "What's the problem?" the expert asked. The villager headman shrugged and said, "Many pumps, no water."

That may be an apocryphal story but it captures the essence of the donor community's staggeringly failed efforts to provide the most basic of provisions to poor societies. Last week--when World Water Day was observed--there were startling reminders that despite more than $3 trillion in development expenditure over the last five decades of the post-colonial era, the global cohort of poverty is bigger than ever: A third of the world's population of 6 billion earn less than the equivalent of a dollar a day. And nearly a billion people in 50 countries live with severe water shortages every day of their lives. Germany's Klaus Toepfer, head of the UN Environment Programme, told Newsweek last week that women and girls in developing countries spend more than 10 million person-years in aggregate each year fetching water from distant--And frequently polluted--sources.

Moreover, said the World Bank, 3.3 billion people in the 127 countries of the developing world suffer from water-related diseases such as diarrhea, schistosomiasis, dengue fever, infection by intestinal worms,

malaria, river blindness (onchocerciasis) and trachoma (which alone causes almost six million cases of blindness annually). And the deaths from water-related diseases? Almost 6 million each year. Here are more statistics -compiled by the United Nations University in Tokyo--concerning the gathering global water crisis:

_ Every 8 seconds, a child dies from a water-related disease; _ More than 50 percent of people in developing countries suffer from one or more water-related diseases; _ 80 percent of diseases in the developing world are caused by contaminated water; _ 50 percent of people on earth lack adequate sanitation; _ 20 percent of freshwater fish species have been pushed to the edge of extinction from contaminated water.

Unfortunately, such statistics don't seem to be persuasive enough for the leadership in both donor and developing countries to act expeditiously, or meaningfully, on water management issues. In the ongoing major dialogues in the multilateral, and even bilateral communities--which together provide about $45 billion annually in grants to what used to be called the third world--water scarcely figures in the vocabulary of sustainable economic development. "Everyone lives downstream," was last week's catchy slogan marking World Water Day, but few in the tightly-knit world of development aid actually do much about the state of the stream itself in poor nations

UNEP's Toepfer points out that, ironically, most available fresh water is found in rich nations--which have barely one-fifth of the world's population. "Nearly all of the 3 billion increase in global population expected by 2025 will be in developing countries, where water is often already scarce, or comes in monsoons, hurricanes and floods, draining off the land quickly," he said, "but it's the industrialized nations that possess water wealth that isn't transferable." Hans van Ginkel, Rector of UN University, adds: "Driven by a rising global standard of living and increasing food production, water demand is increasing at twice the population growth rate." In many countries, water shortages stem from inefficient use, degradation of the available water by pollution and the unsustainable use of underground water in aquifers, van Ginkel said last week.

The glaring inattention to water issues seems especially puzzling in light of the fact that the estimated cost to provide safe water in rural areas is $50 per person and about $100 per person in cities, according to UN estimates. In a report released last week, the UN estimates the overall price to bring low-cost safe water and sanitation to all those who need it in rural and low-income urban areas at around $25 billion annually over the next decade. Current world investment in water-related development projects is $8 billion per year, or a shortfall of $17 billion-- an amount roughly equal to annual pet food purchases in Europe and the United States, notes Toepfer.

The hapless Swedish developmentist who neglected to ascertain whether there was indeed water available in his African village may not have been entirely naive. Developing countries do indeed need low-cost technologies such as handpumps, gravity-fed and rainwater collection systems. But these devices cannot be installed unless aid agencies coordinate their efforts better (the Swede had neglected to consult local hydrologists). Sophisticated indoor plumbing may not be practical for existing hovels in poverty-stricken neighborhoods; resources could be more effectively channeled into building new homes for growing populations. That is why, as development mandarins fashion their strategies for the new millennium, water-management issues must be considered in tandem with housing, health and social development.

As much of the developing world becomes urbanized, its water crisis will deepen. Large cities which already bursting at the seams--such as Mexico City, Lagos, Dhaka and Cairo--rely on largely groundwater but aquifers take decades to recharge while the population growth in such cities is exponential. By next year, 20 cities in the developing world will have populations exceeding 10 million. (In 1950, says the UN, fewer than 100 cities in the whole world had populations higher than 1 million.) And as urban demands for water increase, supply for the developing world's already water-starved agricultural areas--which now require up to 80 percent of all fresh water in the world--will be further affected, thereby creating a potentially monumental food-security crisis.

All of this suggests that in an increasingly interdependent, globalized world, a more coherent, workable strategy for economic and social development is urgently needed. Hydrologists say that the world's water supply is finite- less than a million cubic kilometers which, according to the UN, was sufficient in the year 1700 but not for today's global population which is growing at the unsustainable rate of 100 million people annually. UNEP's Klaus Toepfer wasn't engaging in hyperbole last week when he told Newsweek: "My fear is that we're headed for a period of water wars between nations. Can we afford that in a world of globalization and tribalization where conflicts over natural resources and the numbers of environmental refugees are already growing?" Chilling words, scary scenario.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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