HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Global progress on clean water and sanitation

Improving access to safe drinking water and good sanitation is an international priority, and progress is unfolding due to cooperation sparked by the sustainable development movement.

In September 2000 United Nations Millennium Declaration was approved, committing signatories a new global partnership to reduce extreme poverty and setting out eight goals to be achieved by the year 2015. Known as the Millennium Development Goals, they range from achieving universal primary education to combating diseases like HIV/AIDS and malaria.

Millennium Goal #7 commits countries to “ensure environmental sustainability.” One of the major targets within this goal is to reduce by half “the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation” by the year 2015. In the past, economic development often relied on resource depleting or polluting industries to expand economies and create jobs in developing countries. The result was often more income for workers, but declines in health and standards of living due to water pollution, poor sanitation and other environmental problems. Millennium Goal #7 was designed to change this trend, redirecting countries to economic development that is sustainable, and focuses more communities' quality of life.

With less than five years to go until the 2015 deadline, how far has the international community come in achieving the clean water goals of Goal #7?

According the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP), the agency charged with monitoring the progress on the goals, several countries have made major strides, due to commitment from their governments as part of millennium goal strategies, and grants made through funding sources like the World Bank’s Global Environmental Facility (GEF). Examples are numerous, as shown in a UNDP monitoring map: from 2000 to 2006, the proportion of the population with access to clean water increased from 93% to 97% in Turkey, 44% to 51% in Angola, 79% to 84% in El Salvador, 68% to 72% in Mongolia. In other places the improvements are minor; in Afghanistan this access increased from 21% to 22%, and in the Congo from 45% to 46%. Obviously, these values do not approach the “increase by 50%” goal, but clearly progress is occurring.

Today, partnerships and projects are focusing on rapidly developing countries. On January 11, the World Bank and the government of India announced its “green growth” strategy, which includes projects to make water supply and wastewater systems more efficient. On April 13, 2011, India will host a major international water conference. China, whose urban population is expected to grow by 350 million in the next 20 years, is working with the U.N. and has committed to a low-carbon, sustainable urban growth plan. On January 19, the World Trade Organization (WTO) met to discuss a WTO agreement that would include tariff reductions on waste management and water treatment products. Essentially, the strategies emerged from United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992 where an “integrated water resources management (IWRM) framework” was highlighted based on the perception of water as an integral part of the ecosystem, a natural resource and a social and economic good. It was stressed that priority has to be given to the satisfying basic needs and safeguarding ecosystems. Subsequently, at the 2002 World Summit for Sustainable Development countries pledged to develop IWRM and water efficiency plans. These provide a backbone for new policies.

The improvements and initiatives demonstrate that the world can make progress when nations cooperate. Certainly, challenges continue. For example, on January 13, the IUCN issued a report on Eastern Himalaya freshwater systems, indicating that development of water resources in the region is expanding at a rapid rate, and ecosystems and communities are at risk. The Millennium Goal implementation provides one way to identify and take real steps to address these problems.

The United Nations is keeping this issue on the public agenda through by declaring the years 2005 - 2015 as the "Water for Life" decade. Information on the latest publications on water and sanitation from the UN agencies and programmes is available here.  On January 18, in a press release, the new President of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) announced that one of his priorities would be accelerating the review, coordination and implementation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). This is good news, because it helps keep world focused on these goals.

Posted by Mary Munson

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