13 May 2008
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

PRESS CONFERENCE on water and sanitation issues

 


Water and sanitation -- two of the issues currently being discussed by the Commission on Sustainable Development -- are closely related to international sustainable development goals, correspondents were told at a Headquarters press conference this morning.


Speaking to the press were Kathleen Abdalla, Officer-in-Charge of the Division for Sustainable Development, Department of Economic and Social Affairs; Aslam Chaudhry, Chief of the Water and Natural Resources Branch of the same Division; and water expert, Roberto Lenton.


Ms. Abdalla said that water and sanitation benchmarks had been included in the Millennium Development Goals and later reaffirmed as part of the sustainable development agenda.  If present trends continued, the goal of halving by 2015 the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water would be met.  More remained to be done as far as the sanitation goals were concerned, however.  To meet the water goals, safe drinking water needed to be provided for 82 million people annually.  To meet the sanitation goal, it was necessary to improve access to sanitation services for 120 million people per year, and the implementation of that goal was a cause of concern.


Significant progress had been achieved in some countries, including Brazil, China, India, Pakistan and Egypt, she continued, and innovative solutions were being sought by many countries.  Among other things, the Commission was discussing ways of getting the private sector involved, leveraging private funds and increasing development assistance.


Mr. Chaudhry recalled that water was central to many other issues before the Commission on Sustainable Development, particularly the problems of agriculture, land, rural development, drought and desertification and sustainable development in Africa.  This year, the Commission was assessing progress in the implementation of its 72 decisions that had been adopted on the water and sanitation agenda in 2005.


In addition to the water and sanitation Millennium Development Goals, there was also a goal of preparing integrated water resource plans by 2005, he said.  Yesterday, significant progress had been reported at the Commission.  As part of national reporting to the Commission, reports had been received from 66 countries, describing measures to build institutions, and introduce policies and regulation measures to manage water resources.


Mr. Lenton said that virtually every Millennium Development Goal had a strong water component, and it was necessary to manage water resources effectively in order to contribute to the implementation of those Goals.  That was an important issue discussed in the Commission.  In that context, progress being made towards the implementation of integrated water management plans was, in the end, progress towards the implementation of all the Millennium Development Goals.


To a question about the main obstacles to the implementation of water and sanitation goals, Mr. Chaudhry said that the main constraints related to the availability of financial resources, building infrastructures and capacity at different levels, as well as a lack of coordination at the country level.


Mr. Lenton said that dollars and capacity were at the heart of many problems.  The point had been driven home yesterday, when Mr. Chaudhry was reporting on the national survey, which many countries had been unable to complete, due to capacity constraints.


Ms. Abdalla added that providing water and sanitation to very poor people cost money.  The question was how to deliver them to those who could not afford to pay.


Responding to a question about the Commission’s priorities, Mr. Chaudhry said that climate change had not been high on the agenda in 2005, but yesterday and this morning, there was a clear call on the need to mainstream climate change into the integrated water resources management plan.


Mr. Lenton said that, from the health point of view, water, sanitation and hygiene should be considered together.  Sanitation -- formerly “a junior partner” of water issues -- was becoming much more important, partly as a result of strong international advocacy and the declaration of the International Year of Sanitation this year.


Mr. Chaudhry also cited a “WASH” (water, sanitation and hygiene) programme, which was being implemented in some 70 countries in Asia and Africa.  The project had been instrumental in reducing the burden of diseases in many countries.


Mr. Lenton said that the main need of most of the world’s 2.6 billion people without access to sanitation was simply access to toilets and latrines.  Meeting that basic need came first.  In the countries with stronger economies, the issue of disposing of wastewater came to the forefront.


Asked about the efforts to help Africa, Mr. Chaudhry said that technical cooperation activities within the United Nations system were demand-driven and were usually a partnership between the Government and bilateral and multilateral donors present in a country.  The United Nations Secretariat also provided some advisory services to the countries in need.


Ms. Abdalla said that various international agencies were working together to avoid duplication, better coordinate efforts and target the areas most in need.  UN Water, an inter-agency committee, was providing assistance to countries and coordinating various activities in its field.


Mr. Lenton said that in most areas of sub-Saharan Africa, the issue was not physical, but the economic scarcity of water, which meant that the water was there, but there was no money to get it.  That was the main goal of technical assistance.


Asked if water privatization had been addressed in the Commission, Ms. Abdalla said it had been at the forefront of many discussions in the past and still came up.  The issue related to the question of who was going to pay for water delivery and development of infrastructure.  Service delivery was one area where the private sector could play a role, with private companies hired to perform a service.


Mr. Chaudhry said that, historically, the Commission had been very cautious whenever it came to the discussion of privatization or the involvement of the private sector in the provision of water services.  Over a period of time, the notion had developed that private companies could work hand in hand with the utilities of a developing country.  However, the private sector was currently pulling out of the water sector, because consumers were unable to pay for the services.  There was fear that the involvement of the private sector would drive up the prices.  The situation in the water sector was different from the transportation and communications sectors, where private companies could make money.


Asked about the outcome of the Commission’s work, Ms. Abdalla said that it was premature to speak about any conclusions, but so far there was no sense that the Commission needed to reverse any of its decisions.  The focus of the review was on how those decisions could be better implemented.


Mr. Chaudhry added that the participants were considering how to make existing or future capacity-building programmes more effective.


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For information media • not an official record