In-depth: Running Dry: the humanitarian impact of the global water crisis

GLOBAL: Poverty and lack of water access: Inextricably linked

Worldwide, 1.1 billion people do not have access to clean water, and 2.6 billion people do not have access to basic sanitation. In addition, 2 million children die annually due to preventable water borne diseases
NAIROBI, 22 September 2006 (IRIN) - Abida Bibi, 22, lost her baby to the water crisis in the Punjabi town of Gujranwala in Pakistan. “My infant son died last year after suffering acute diarrhoea. He was four months old. I can never forget the agony he suffered,” she said.

Abida and her husband Jamal are two of the 1.1 billion people on the planet who live in an area with acute water scarcity and, as a result, improper sanitation. According to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), approximately 250,000 children in Pakistan die each year from waterborne diseases that could have been prevented.

Abida and Jamal’s two-year-old daughter has been ill for two months with dysentery. “We have no money to treat her,” Abida said. “It will be a miracle if she survives this summer. It is what poor people have to live with.”

Freshwater resources around the world are dwindling, and inadequate access to water is especially severe in the developing world, which lacks the infrastructure and coping mechanisms of industrialised nations.

In addition to the 1.1 billion people around the world who lack access to safe water, 2.6 billion people lack basic sanitation. Every 15 seconds, a child dies of a preventable waterborne disease, amounting to 2 million children annually. The World Bank has estimated that by 2035, three billion people who currently live in severe-water-scarcity areas - especially in Africa, the Middle East or South Asia - will have no access to safe water, period. This is a staggering prognosis by any standard.

Increasingly, experts, including those at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), have emphasised that improving water supply and sanitation are key to reducing many aspects of poverty. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) also sees water management as a vital component to eradicating poverty and sustaining economic growth. At the World Water Week symposium in Stockholm in 2002, Klaus Töpfer, who until 2006 was the longstanding chief of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), said, “Without adequate clean water, there can be no escape from poverty.”

In Latin America, approximately 76 million people - 15 percent of the total population - do not have access to safe water, and around 116 million people do not have access to sanitation, said Kathy Sierra, the World Bank’s vice-president for infrastructure and leader of its delegation to the Third World Water Forum in Japan in 2003. Like many other experts in attendance, Sierra said lack of water infrastructure and sanitation hinder development. Approximately there are 549 million people live in this region and the average income for a family of four is US$8,000 per year.

Water, poverty, and war are intertwined together. War can also affect a county’s water supply, and the situation in Iraq is a good example. Although the country benefits from two major sources of water - the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers - a large number of Iraqis do not have access to water. Clean water supplies were a problem in the country even before the outbreak of the recent war, and the conflict has only exacerbated the situation. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported that communities in Iraq are facing two problems in relation to water: People have either no access to water at all, or access only to dirty water. In August 2003, the main pipe supplying water to Baghdad was bombed, flooding on streets and leaving five million residents of the city without water. Adequate sewage management is another concern. Human, animal and industrial waste flow back into the rivers, contaminating the water and endangering lives and the ecosystem.

Disputes over clean water and sanitation are an issue in Johannesburg, South Africa. Many houses in the shantytowns have no water taps or toilets. People who live in these areas must share taps with dozens of others. Aida Matebone, who lives in one of the shantytowns in Johannesburg, revealed in a BBC interview in 2003, “It’s difficult for me to come [to the taps] to wash, and come here to pour water for drinking, because it’s very far.” Speaking of a common situation for millions of urban families in South Africa, she added: “There’s not enough water. […] You have to give some other people the chance. This week, they have to wash; then you next week - which means the cleanliness of the people is so difficult, and health is at risk.”


Photo: WHO/UNICEF
In September 2000, The United Nations set the Millennium Development Goals which aim to eradicate poverty in all its forms around the globe by 2015. Target 10 seeks to halve the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015
Shanin Nagar, a slum in the northwest India, has no roads, electricity, water lines or septic tanks. The people who live there - especially the women and young girls - must walk several kilometres to fetch water. The city council has tried to improve the situation and bring water to Shanin Nagar, but it charges 4,000 Indian rupees or US$87 per household for road maintenance, and water and electricity connection. “We don’t have that much money,” said Nazma Bai, a resident of the slum.

Social workers in the area have tried to help residents improve their hygiene practices, but they are incapable of building the necessary infrastructure themselves. The social workers and residents said the city council should provide water pipes, public latrines for free or lower the price.

In Uganda, the government is struggling to alleviate poverty through improved sanitation and the eradication of waterborne diseases. The government spends US$20 million per year to overcome the problem. Water and Sanitation Program Africa Region (WSP-AF), the World Bank’s longest external partnership programme, reported that 440 children in Uganda die every week of waterborne diseases. Some 40,000,000 workdays are lost annually due to sanitation-related illnesses. WSP-AF has also reported that 90 percent of wastewater in Africa is untreated, further degrading the environment and endangering peoples lives.

Poor sanitation and hygiene is also a national crisis in Ethiopia. Currently, only 39.4 percent of the country’s population has access to water, and only 28.9 percent has access to basic sanitation. As a result, 250,000 children die from water-related diseases annually.

Water, poverty and the Millennium Development Goals

In 2000, the UN set eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to uphold the principles of human dignity, quality, equity, and to build a more peaceful and prosperous world. These goals, which are intended to be achieved by 2015, range from eradicating extreme poverty to promoting gender equality, halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and ensuring environment stability. The goals are broken down into 14 targets.

Target number 10 is to cut in half the number of people without access to safe drinking water and sanitation. The UN World Health Organization (WHO), together with the UN children’s agency (UNICEF) run a joint monitoring programme to measure and evaluate progress. WHO has reported that meeting Target 10 would cost as low as US$8 billion annually. The agency also said that with more investment on the project, they could apply more advanced technology to improve quality and quantity of water supply and sanitation. “It is not investing for water’s sake, but for poverty’s sake,” WHO added in its report.

WHO also emphasized that improvement in the water supply and sanitation sector would also increase the likelihood of achieving the rest of the MDGs. Improved water provision immediately improves health, especially in poor communities. Hours that were spent trekking to a water source could be invested in other activities that lift people out of poverty. They can use their time to study or pursue income-generating activities, which would enable them to eat better and live a healthier life. WHO added that improvement in sanitation would also help eliminate the health risks from a contaminated environment.

The agricultural sector would also benefit from improved water supply. Irrigation schemes would increase agricultural harvests and the income of the rural poor. Investments in the water sector also pay dividends in terms of gender equality and education, as women and girls have more time and energy to attend school, enabling them to eventually earn money to support their families.

Research conducted by the United Kingdom-based nonprofit organisation WaterAid showed that there is a significant connection between access to water and poverty reduction. Improved water and sanitation increases productivity, which then improves a country’s economy.

Obstacles and collaboration

Improving water supply and sanitation to reduce poverty clearly requires a huge commitment from governments and investors in the water sector. Reform in water management, infrastructure, investment and governance are considered by experts to be essential aspects of reducing poverty. In the WHO 2005 report ‘Setting the Scene: Water, Poverty and the MDGs”, the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said that political and institutional bodies often hinder the progress of MDGs. It is said that barriers are often come from governments rather than physical or economic sectors. Therefore, a large number of agencies are collaborating to help stakeholders, especially governments, better understand the link between water and poverty.

The ADB and the Poverty Environment Partnership (PEP), an informal network of development agencies from UNDP and UNEP, have worked together to create the Water and Poverty Initiative, which has set up a framework to understand the relationship.

There are four elements of poverty reduction in the PEP framework: enhanced livelihood security through the use of water for income-producing activity; reduced health risks and mortality rates through improved sanitation, reduced vulnerability to water-related environmental hazards and disasters; and pro-poor economic growth through the active participation of all stakeholders


Photo: Shadley Lombard/UNEP
Water, sanitation and poverty are inextricably connected.” Without adequate clean water, there can be no escape from poverty.”
Water vulnerability and risks

The UN-Water is a new mechanism from the UN which was introduced in 2003. This organization is monitoring countries’ progress on water related issue and help countries to achieve water and sanitation targets and goals by 2015. The UN-Water reported in 2005 that water-related hazards endanger the lives of millions of people and the environment and might hinder social economy activities. The MDGs emphasises the importance of the link between risk reduction and sustainable development.

Ironically, while the lack of clean water and, in the extreme, drought cause great suffering in today’s world, the excess of water, in terms of floods and tsunamis or water contamination, also harms millions of people every year.

According to the UN-Water on the “Water Hazard Risks” report in 2005, water-related hazards are the main incident in several natural disasters. The report also stated that from 1991 to 2000, around 665,000 people died in 2,557 natural disasters, 90 percent of which were water-related. Floods in China caused by El Niño in 1991-1992 and 1997-1998 affected over 200 million people. Ninety-five percent of all deaths by disaster occurred in developing countries. Developed countries were affected by natural disasters, but the impact was not as high in terms of loss of life.

Pollution and natural hazards

The UN-Water revealed in its report on water-hazard risks in 2005 that it is vital to understand the relationship between natural hazards, the development process and poverty in order to reduce vulnerability when planning for development. Environmental experts have explained that natural disasters like floods and droughts are linked to excess or insufficient rainfall and river flows, among other phenomenon. A number of experts believe that human intervention plays a role in the occurrence and severity of natural disasters such as water and soil pollution.

In 2005, millions of people in China were left without water after a major leak from a chemical factory polluted their rivers. The water supply in the city of Harbin, the capital of the Heilongjiang Province in the northeast China, contained high levels of benzene, a poisonous chemical, as a result of the explosion at the chemical plant. The lives of 3.4 million people were in danger.

Arsenic contamination in drinking water in Bangladesh has been a major concern for the last 13 years. The first arsenic-contaminated water was discovered in 1993 in the southern part of Bangladesh. According to the last estimation from the government in 2000, there is arsenic contamination in 42 regions out of 64 in the country. WHO predicted that in the future, one out of 10 people in southern Bangladesh could die from cancer that had been triggered by exposure to arsenic. “Tens of millions of people are at risk,” said the World Bank’s local chief.

Below are some causes of water vulnerability:
• Poverty
Poor people live from low-income budget, live in poor housing, and public services and use the vulnerable environment to survive. Not only this situation increases these people to be exposed to contaminate and vulnerable environment, but it also triggers natural disasters like floods, droughts and landslides to happen.

As a result, in the long term this condition undermines sustainable development. Infrastructure will not be able to withstand the hazards, loss in human lives and properties, and it would affect the national wealth and security in the country.

• Unplanned Urbanization
Increasing population meaning more and more people are in need to occupy lands to build their houses. Migration to urban areas also endangers the environment as people are forced to occupy lands which are not meant to be inhabited. Such situation happened in Asia, as urban areas expand its territories and build houses out of mangrove forests. It is not only damage the environment and the ecosystem but also endanger the people who live in the areas as they are exposed to natural hazards such as floods.


Photo: IRIN
Many homes in shantytowns across South Africa do not have proper access to clean water or sanitation. People need to share water taps with dozens of others. “This week, they have to wash; then you next week - which means the cleanliness of the people is so difficult, and health is at risk.”
• Environmental Degradation
Human intervention can cause rapid environmental degradation which if not contained can trigger natural hazards. For instance in 2004, floods in Haiti were the result of lack land management. The country exploited charcoal as a domestic fuel and consequent deforestation. This condition enhances the country’s vulnerability towards floods and mudslides.

• Fragmented Institutional Structures
Coordination from central to local governments is essential to prevent natural disasters. To prevent water-related hazard, government need more component than just water sector. Government needs a careful planning and detailed sectoral approaches to reduce the water-related vulnerability.

As experts have mentioned, humans play a role in the occurrence of pollution and natural disasters such as floods and droughts. Therefore, in order to reduce pollution and natural hazards, it is essential for governments to understand the relationship between nature and development. Coordination and cooperation from central to local governments is also needed when planning and building infrastructures.

Access to water and sanitation are fundamental precursors in the fight to alleviate poverty around the globe. Governments not only need to focus on water and sanitation, but also need to understand water vulnerability, and natural risks. Indeed, human intervention in the environment has caused many natural disasters and pollution. Therefore, the reduction level of pollution levels is of singular importance if this trend is to be reverted in the future.

According to WHO report in 2002, 83 percent of the world’s population or approximately 5,2 billion people have access to safe drinking water. Although the statistic showed remarkable improvement from 1990 to 2002, however there are still 1.1 billion people in the world who still live without improved drinking water sources, who suffer for lack of clean or sufficient drinking water. In sub-Saharan Africa, 42 percent of the population lacks clean water. The number of people without improved drinking water sources in China is equal to number of people who are unserved in the whole African continent. In China there are 39 millions people who are without safe water access.

There are still 2.6 billion people in the world without improved sanitation facilities. Only 36 percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa have access to proper sanitation facilities. Approximately 1.5 billion people live without improved sanitation in China and India.

According to Alexander Likhotal, president of Green Cross International, an organisation that provides analysis and expertise in environmental and economic issues, cooperation and effective water management within countries must be improved if the Millennium Development Goals are to be achieved. “Without water and sanitation, you cannot achieve the alleviation of poverty in the world,” he said. “Without water, you cannot achieve human dignity.”

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