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Water: The means to end poverty

By Barbara Frost17 May 2012

It is difficult to change people’s perceptions of international development, especially when TV reports from the Horn of Africa and Niger seem to hark back to the famines and droughts of the 1980s. Despite three decades of increased funding and global campaigns, such as Make Poverty History, people are asking: What has changed?

Since 1990, 2 billion people have gained access to an improved water source for drinking and other basic needs, while 1.8 billion more people now have adequate sanitation. But while these achievements have had a dramatic and transformative impact on those living in extreme poverty, there is a strong need to recognize how far the world has traveled and what needs to be done.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced May 10 that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron will co-chair a high-level panel that will shape post-2015 development goals. This panel faces a sizable challenge but it also has the opportunity to spearhead the drive to accelerate global development — including making universal access to water and sanitation a discernible reality.

A key issue that has been gathering momentum is how to measure human progress beyond the gross domestic product. Stepping back from the economic rhetoric of the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission, it’s clear we need to include water in our measure of a country’s progress. Water is fundamental to human progress. As UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake said at the recent Sanitation and Water for All meeting in Washington, D.C., “safe drinking water and dignified sanitation and hygiene, are at the heart of achieving the Millennium Development Goals.” Right across the board from nutrition, maternal health, child mortality and gender equality, water plays a critical factor in progress toward these development goals and human well-being.

So where does Rio+20 fit into this agenda? For starters, Rio+20 provides a platform for world leaders to reiterate the importance of water and sanitation in creating sustainable communities and to ending poverty. It allows them the space to reiterate the fundamental right to safe drinking water and decent sanitation as basic services that should be available to all. And it allows them to commit to a timetable and road map that will mean tangible progress for those who desperately need our leaders to take a stand and keep their promises. If world leaders can prioritize, commit resources, and sign up to a vision and timescale, then we will have something to celebrate.

But amid the macro debates about universal access to water and sanitation, we mustn’t lose sight of the reality that water plays a critically important role in food security, economic growth, resource scarcity and, of course, climate change. But where is the joined-up approach?

Ultimately, we need to shift our focus to solutions that will have a genuine impact on people’s lives. Targets are important symbols that give hope and demonstrate commitment, but it is the mechanisms to achieving those targets that are crucial. Heads of state and finance ministers need to recognize water and sanitation as fundamental to human development and sustainability, and place a much greater priority on these “orphan services.” This political will needs to be backed up by addressing the major capacity and funding gaps to have impact at scale. Lasting progress for everyone is the prize and key to accelerating economic and social development.

The Sanitation and Water for All partnership is making inroads toward this aim. At the April meeting, more than 40 governments agreed to commitments that, if delivered, will increase access to water and sanitation to more than 85 million people in Africa alone by 2014.

Ghana and Liberia are the first two countries to enter into the more intensive National Planning for Results Initiative — aimed at driving practical progress through governments working in partnership with international donors and civil society — to render credible plans to deliver water and sanitation. Both countries have now established compacts that directly address the gaps and also outline ways to tackle the capacity shortfalls in bringing about improved access. This will take time, but the foundations are in place.

Water is both the problem and the route to success. It’s often not the sexiest of solutions, but global frameworks such as SWA that focus on nationally owned action offer a model that can make a real impact on people’s lives. Johnson Sirleaf, Yudhoyono and Cameron have a key role to play to set a post-2015 agenda that really matters to people’s daily lives. Rio+20 is a good place to start building on such initiatives.

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About the author

Barbara frost profile
Barbara Frost

Barbara Frost is the chief executive of WaterAid, a U.K.-based organization working to provide safe drinking water, and improve hygiene and sanitation in 27 countries. Prior to WaterAid, Barbara was chief executive of Action on Disability and Development. She previously worked for various international NGOs such as ActionAid, Save the Children and Oxfam Australia.


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