Access to Water– A Dream?


It was not long ago that Portuguese novelist and Nobel laureate, José Saramago questioned the rationale of spending millions of dollars on missions to find out whether there was water on the moon when billions of people on the earth had no access to water for drinking, sanitation and irrigation. His stand is fully vindicated by the just released Human Development Report 2006 of the UNDP, which is focused on the global water crisis.

Today more than a billion people do not get clean water to drink and around 2.6 billion in developing countries lack access to sanitation. Unclean water has turned out as the second biggest killer of children. On an average, all over the world 5000 children die daily of diarrhoea. Unclean water poor sanitation have turned out to be the second biggest killer of children. “Deaths from diarrhoea in 2004 were some six times greater than the average annual deaths in armed conflicts for the 1990s.” Every year 443 million school days are lost only from water-related illness. At any given time almost half of the population of developing countries suffers from ill health due to water and sanitation deficits. The worst sufferers are women and girls. They have to spend hours to collect water. In many parts of the world they have to traverse  long distance to fetch water. Consequently, girls are unable to go to school. Moreover, a lack of water results in almost complete absence of toilet facilities for the poor in developing countries. Women are the worst sufferers, they face indignities and insecurity when they go out to relieve themselves. Tragedy is that this situation prevails even though “The world has the technology, the finance and human capacity to remove the blight of water insecurity from millions of lives.”

Water, throughout human history, has been needed for survival. To quote the Report, “Water for life in the household and water for livelihoods through production are two of the foundations for human development.” Even then billions of people lack them. This is not because of absolute insufficiency of physical availability of water or so-called rapid growth in the population of developing countries a la Malthus. The Report categorically rejects this view. “It argues that the roots of this crisis in water can be traced to poverty, inequality and unequal power relationships, as well as flawed water management policies that exacerbate scarcity.”

Even though the media and the governments throughout the world, day in and day out, talk of all sorts of human rights and their real or imaginary violations, there is no mention of access to water for life as a basic human need and a fundamental human right. Even in a country like India where the access to water for drinking, cooking, sanitation and irrigation is becoming a more and more serious problem with every passing day, it has not attracted the attention of the media nor have Parliament and state legislatures found sufficient time to discuss it. While there is a continuous discussion of achieving a double digit annual rate of economic growth, hardly any note has taken of the fact that “the ill health associated with deficits in water and sanitation undermines productivity and economic growth, reinforcing the deep inequalities that characterize current patterns of globalization and trapping vulnerable households in cycles of poverty.”

In spite of differences in the nature of the problem from country to country, there is a common pattern that obtains everywhere in the developing world. It has several aspects. First, seldom any developing country accords water and sanitation political priority, as is clear from limited budgetary allocations. Second, everywhere the poorer people have to pay more for water because they do not have sufficient access to public water supply. In the urban areas in India and elsewhere, the slums and informal settlements where poor people live have to depend on  private sources of water supply, which is expensive. Last, international community has failed to accord proper priority to access to water in developing countries. The Report rightly points out, “underlying each of these problems is the fact that the people suffering the most from the water and sanitation crisis – poor people in general and poor women in particular – often lack the political voice needed to assert their claims to water.”

Notwithstanding the enormity of the problem, it is not beyond solution because there is no dearth of sufficient financial resources, technology and human capacity to tackle it. There is, however, one thing missing. In the words of the Report, “What has been lacking is a concerted drive to extend across water and sanitation for all through well designed and properly financed national plans, backed by a global plan of action to galvanize political will and mobilize resources.”

The Report notes that the most vulnerable people of the world whose number runs into many millions are at the heart of this ongoing crisis. This crisis threatens their very survival for want of clean drinking water, lack of sanitation and destruction of livelihoods. It is needless to say that “this is holding back human progress, consigning large segments of humanity to lives of poverty, vulnerability and insecurity. This crisis claims more lives through disease than any war claims through guns. It also reinforces the obscene inequalities in life chances that divide rich and poor nations… and that divide within countries on the basis of wealth, gender and other makers for disadvantage.”

Average household water requirements account for a very small proportion of water use, usually less than 5 per cent of the total, but this average hides tremendous inequality in access to water for drinking and cooking and for sanitation. “In high-income areas of cities in Asia, Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa people enjoy access to several hundred litres of water a day delivered into their homes at low prices by public utilities. Meanwhile, slum dwellers and poor households in rural areas of the same countries have access to much less than the 20 litres of water a day per person required to meet the most basic human needs. Women and young girls carry a double burden of disadvantage, since they are the ones who sacrifice their time and their education to collect water.”

The minimum requirement of water has been computed at 20 litres a day and most of the 1.1 billion people categorised as lacking access to clean water use only around 5 litres a day, i.e., one-tenth of the average amount used daily in rich countries to flush toilets. The Report underlines the    glaring inequalities in the use of water in the  following words: “On average, people in Europe use more than 200 litres – in the United States more than 400 litres. When a European person flushes a toilet or an American person showers, he or she is using more water than is available  to hundreds of millions of individuals living in urban slums or arid areas of the developing world. Dripping taps in rich countries lose more water than is available each day to more than 1 billion people.”

Leaders like George W. Bush and Tony Blair have been talking all the time of their crusade for democracy, freedom, human rights and wellbeing of the people all over the world, but they have seldom expressed any desire to initiate any serious efforts to help hundreds of millions of people in developing world get water to drink, wash and clean and irrigate their farms. There is no shortage of funds because plenty of them are wasted on unnecessary wars, maintenance of military bases and discharging the duty of self-appointed policeman of the world.

       Girish Mishra,
       E-mail: [email protected]          

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