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Need for Action on Water and Sanitation Agenda Pressed

29 January– When an outbreak of cholera hit East Africa in 1997, thousands of people died, fisheries collapsed, exports had no markets, and tourists stopped coming.

"A modest investment could have avoided this tragedy," according to Anna Tibaijuka, Executive Director of the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat).

Tibaijuka was one of several experts speaking at a panel discussion aimed at making water and sanitation issues a higher priority on the political agenda. The discussion was held as a side event to the Preparatory Committee meeting for the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

There are about 2.5 billion people living without proper sanitation, and according to the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council, about 6,000 people a day die from water-borne diseases that are easily prevented.

More than a third of these deaths, Sir Richard Jolly, Chairman of the WSSCC, told a press conference, could be prevented by the simple act of washing hands with soap. "And it doesn't even have to be soap," he said, adding that ash, or even dirt, would help.

WASH-Water, Sanitation & Hygiene for All-is the new campaign launched by the WSSCC to promote and achieve goals for better sanitation and clean water. Jolly said the aim is to establish 2015 as the goal for halving the proportion of people without access to proper sanitation and to set 2025 as the target for universal access, similar to the targets for water supply agreed in the UN Millennium Declaration.

With the slogan "Water is life, sanitation is health," Ugandan Water Minister Maria Lubega said her country has set even tighter targets to bring freshwater and sanitation to all people. According to Ugandan law, she said, the government has an obligation to provide water and sanitation for all, and the country hopes to serve 65 per cent of the people by 2006 and 100 per cent by 2015.

"Water is totally essential for development," according to Margaret Catley-Carlson, Chair of the Global Water Partnership. "If we don't get the management of water right, we won't get the other elements of sustainable development right."

"As Mark Twain said, 'Water moves uphill'-it goes towards power," Catley-Carlson added, to make the point that providing water for the poor will need special attention. If people are stricken by water-borne diseases, she said, lost time and productivity at work leaves a very visible economic impact.

The lack of proper toilets creates an especially difficult situation for many poor women, Catley-Carlson noted, and causes great loss of dignity. "The status and situation of women is different." Where schools lack facilities for girls, she said, and "where the modesty of girls is not respected," many parents keep their daughters home.

More resources will be needed, all participants in the discussion agreed. Although the present target is to halve the proportion of people without clean drinking water by 2015, Catley-Carlson cautioned that in that same period, the world's population will grow by 2.5 billion, mostly in areas that are presently underserved.

Tibaijuka said that attempts to bring water to everyone do not mean that water should be a free good. "Taking care of the poor is not the same as free water." She noted that right now, women spend considerable time fetching water. "The poor are willing to pay and they do pay. We have to map out who is getting subsidized."

She recalled that in colonial times, her village in Tanzania had an automatic water pump that cost one cent for twenty litres. However, after independence the government, with good intentions, decided to provide the water free of charge. The result was that the machine broke within two years, because the small fee had previously gone for maintenance and upkeep.

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24 August 2006