By Mikhail Gorbachev, Chairman, GCI
and Dr Jan Kulczyk, Member of the Board, GCI
Two years ago, in April 2005, at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, Green Cross International (GCI) appealed to the Commission on Sustainable Development. Addressing the 123 ministers gathered for that session, we stressed the need to take urgent steps to meet the Millennium Development Goals, commitments pledged by world leaders at the United Nations in 2000.
We focused on providing safe drinking water and basic sanitation to all people, because more than five million children are dying every year for want of these most critical of services. If we could speak to the same audience today, we would simply say that all of us should be ashamed.
The 2006 Human Development Report stated that – if we continue with business as usual – the MDG safe water target will be missed by 234 million people, and the sanitation target will be missed by 430 million people. Behind these figures are the faces of sick children, desperate mothers, and men looking for a minimum of subsistence, of dignity. Their suffering shines a spotlight on our humanity, or indeed inhumanity.
Is it justifiable for humankind to accept this état de fait? Certainly not. Failure to achieve the MDGs would damage the credibility of the UN, the entire system of global governance, and governments of rich and poor countries alike.
Although access to safe drinking water has been recognized as a universal human right since 2002, as established by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, it is far from being realized. Appropriate ways and means to extend this basic human right to all people are yet to be clearly defined and deployed, and the majority of countries are yet to confirm this right in their national legislation.
It is not too late to act. Achieving the water and sanitation MDG is eminently doable, and at a reasonable price: it will cost only around £10 billion per year over the next ten years. This is less than half of what rich countries spend each year on mineral water. It is not charity, but an investment in humanity that will reap global economic benefits of at least £20 billion annually and unleash massive increases in productivity.
The UK Government has recently formally recognized that for the first time that access to safe drinking water is a human right. International Development Secretary, Hilary Benn, has called for a Global Action Plan to solve the water crisis, and pledged to double UK support to water and sanitation in Africa by 2008.
Doubling international aid to water is absolutely essential, but in order to secure the flow of finance for water and sanitation infrastructure in poor countries it is important to improve local governance, to train the local decision makers.
Anna Tibaijuka, Executive Director of UN Habitat, once said that even if enough funding was channeled to Africa, it would be impossible to use it effectively. Capacity building to improve governance and management must therefore be a priority.
During the 4th Would Water Forum in 2006, Antoine Frérot, CEO of Veolia Water, proposed the creation of an International Observatory of Good Water Practices, which would be available to water managers and decision makers everywhere. This is an excellent idea and I encourage the business community to support this Observatory with its resources and experience.
In rich countries, the state has invested in water infrastructure over the centuries and progressively asked consumers to cover the cost of water services. Many developing countries are so indebted that the state is unable to invest in infrastructure without the support of the international community. We cannot expect poor people to pay for water infrastructure; eventually, most people could pay a reasonable, affordable charge for their water – but only once the services actually exist.
New financial mechanisms urgently need to be put in place. Decentralized financing and cooperation must be enhanced, including targeted development loans guaranteed by local authorities from the North.
GCI strongly commends the strong stance being taken by the European Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimos on environmental responsibility, including the recently proposed directive that obliges EU states to treat serious offences against the environment as criminal acts.
To repeat: there is still time to act. The battle for clean and safe water for all must not be lost.