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  FEATURE STORY

European Union Backs Development of New Partnership Initiative on Water


{short description of image}   29 May, BALI, INDONESIA--European Union Environment Ministers have endorsed the development of a new partnership that aims to reduce by half the number of people lacking access to clean water and proper sanitation by 2015 in parts of Africa and in Central Asia.

The 15-country European Union, which already spends close to 1.5 billion euros a year on water projects, mostly in Africa, sees the World Summit on Sustainable Development as an opportunity to enter into partnerships with governments, non-governmental organizations and the private sector to pull together widely disparate and uncoordinated programmes and turn them into a coherent and unified platform to tackle water problems.

At present, there are over one billion people who lack access to fresh water, and twice that who lack access to proper sanitation facilities. While there is an internationally agreed upon target for improving access to clean water by 2015, there is not, at present, a target for improving sanitation. Even if the present negotiations on the outcome document for the Summit does not provide a target for sanitation, the European Union will still work toward meeting the 2015 target, EU officials say.

Palle Lindgaard-Jørgensen of the Danish Environmental Protection Agency said the EU was fully committed to the target on sanitation. " Our efforts have to be driven by targets. We are setting it for ourselves."

The move by the European Union ministers provides a significant boost to effort to move the water issue up on the list of political priorities. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has identified water as one of the five main areas where the Johannesburg Summit should concentrate to achieve measurable results.

"We see water is not on the agenda of political leaders," according to Friedrich Barth, an EU water specialist. Building roads, he said, is seen as necessary, but the role of water in economic development, in health, and in promoting peace and securing is overlooked.

"This initiative seeks to push the water up on the political agenda at Johannesburg," he said. "You have to realize, if you don't make progress on water, you don't make progress on sustainable development."

Barth said the initiative would help implement the document presently under consideration at the Bali PrepCom, and which will be adopted in Johannesburg this August.

The details of the new initiatives still have to be worked out between now and Johannesburg, but according to Barth, the main objective is to coordinate all the different water-related activities that are now ongoing. All the building blocks for the partnerships are in place, he said, with support from the EU environment ministers, the recognition of a water crisis by African water ministers at a recent meeting in Abuja, Nigeria, and the many non-governmental organizations presently working on projects.

But a priority for the initiative would be to help establish strong governance. "The water problem is not a crisis over having it," Barth said. Rather, he said, "it is a crisis over management and national legislation."

The development of a framework could help improve water management at the regional and local levels. Proper management of transboundary rivers, of which there are 60 in Africa, could lay the groundwork for regional cooperation

The initiative also sees a role for the private sector to help develop infrastructure and for investment in resources, but Barth emphasized that there was no agenda for privatization of water resources in the target countries. "The EU believes in public ownership of water resources," he said.

But the private sector will not go into a country where there is a risk, Barth said, and it was therefore necessary to establish good governance practices. The initiative, possibly with the help of official development assistance, could provide guarantees to cover some of the risk, he said, but emphasized that the governance issue was key. "They won't go in if they can't protect their investment."

"If there is a strong government, there can be strong regulation," Barth said. "Then it doesn't matter if the service is provided by the public or private sector. That's how it is back home."

Details concerning financial resources also have to be resolved, but Barth said there are considerable resources already in the pipeline that can aid the partnerships, and the new commitments made at the International Conference on Financing for Development in Monterrey could be made available. "There's a lot of money out there, but we need the commitment."

Discussions on the proposed initiative will be held in Bali at the ministerial level between the EU and African and Central Asian countries next week, and it is envisioned that Heads of State will jointly launch the initiative in Johannesburg.



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24 August 2006