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The acceleration of progress in meeting basic water needs

Survival and health

When water first rose to international prominence in the 1970s, it was as one of the ‘basic needs’ common to all humanity - food, water, shelter, means of livelihood - whose fulfilmenthad become the stated goal of Water’s special character as critical to social and economic activity has granted it a special status of in belief systems and in public policy international developmentpolicy. The fulfilment humankind’s basic. need for a supply of safe drinking water, as well as for a safe means of disposing of human waste, remains an important part of today’s challenge. There has been some progress towards satisfying these two basic needs, but not enough.

The UN’s ‘International Drinking Water Supplies and Sanitation Decade’ of the 1980s was declared by the UN Water Conference at Mar del Plata in 1977. The Decade focused on the improvement of public health by the expansion of service coverage; its slogan was ‘Water and Sanitation for All’. Despite the increase in attention and resources generated by the Decade, achievements in quantifiable terms fell short of stated targets. Only in the context of rural water supplies did coverage progress manage to outstrip population growth and urbanisation. International commitment was reiterated in 1990 to the goal of ‘Water and Sanitation for All by the Year 2000’, but nobody now expects the goal to be met. One constraint is the lack of adequate internal and external financing for service spread, for which an estimated $50 billion annually would be required. Resources on this scale, whether from internal or external sources, are unlikely to be forthcoming.


Calls for increases in development co-operation for drinking water supply and sanitation systems have been repeated during the 1990s. In the early part of the decade, investments in this area of water-related activity (the only one for which official development assistance - ODA - totals are available) declined as a proportion of ODA, from 8% to 5%. Since ODA as a whole also declined, water and sanitation therefore received a smaller slice of a smaller cake. Since the mid-1990s, support to water and sanitation has increased, albeit modestly, with many European countries raising their contributions. A high proportion of ODA expenditure has traditionally been concentrated in sophisticated urban water supply and sewerage schemes.

Whatever its shortcomings in meeting its quantitative targets, the Water Decade - at least at the theoretical level - changed the face of international development co-operation in domestic water supplies and public health. This was because Water Decade co-operation pointed up previous shortcomings in policy and practice. These included: over-emphasis on costly and sophisticated technology, which produced services beyond the capacity of management bodies to maintain and sustain; lack of any sense of ownership by service stakeholders and users and their consequent neglect; a failure to apply gender analysis and recognise the role of women in water-hauling and their influence over domestic water quality and use; inadequate emphasis on environmental sanitation, and on health education to enable uneducated service users to appreciate the implications of water and waste disposal for family health; and the need for cost-effectiveness in all areas of activity in order to use scarce resources wisely.

Food and livelihoods

The Water Decade changed the face of international development co-operationin domestic water, supplies and publichealth

Although water is also needed to support other basic needs- especially food and livelihoods- issues relating to the use of water for economic production has not been accorded the same level of discussion and scrutiny. Agriculture uses more water than any other area of human activity, absorbing around two-thirds of withdrawals from rivers, lakes and aquifers; around 40% of the world’s harvest is estimated to depend on irrigation. A higher proportion of future gains in food production- 60%- are expected to come from irrigated land, and there is no doubt that future global food supplies cannot be secured without improvements to irrigation efficiency and adequate investment.

However, donor investments in irrigation have been falling over the past two decades. For example, World Bank investment has fallen dramatically, from US$2.2 billion in 1978 to US$750 million in 1993, and the trend appears to be similar in most external support agencies. This is partly a result of disillusion following past support given to large-scale construction of dams, canals, and river diversion works. These have gained a poor reputation because of lower than expected economic returns, controversial resettlement programmes, and negative environmental impacts such as soil salinisation and water­logging. Lack of interest in investment in irrigation also stems from low agricultural prices and complacency about the world food supply. The 1996 World Food Summit demonstrated that this complacency was misplaced; concern for world food security is now growing. Environmentally sound ways need to be found of expanding irrigated agricultural production, especially of food, while reducing water use.

Although less pertinent to the fulfilment of basic needs, the growth of industrial and manufacturing processes which depend on water cannot be left out of the picture. In many parts of the developing world, industrial usage of water is rising rapidly alongside the urbanisation process. Not only does this impose conflicts of interest over water flow volumes between urban users and farming populations; it can also create severe problems of downstream pollution with far-reaching implications for rural livelihoods and public health. The necessary investments in wastewater treatment- which is seriously under­funded- and the need faced by cities to tap freshwater resources from ever further distances are causing costs to rise and the potential forconflicts between agricultural and industrial users to grow. The challenge,therefore, in terms of accelerating the provision of water services to satisfy basic human needs is not simply one of maintaining a high profile for water needs and reversing the political trend which has led to under-resourcing. It includes absorbing the lessons learned from past mistakes, many of which were highlighted by the Water Decade; it also means addressing figures in brackets million hectares.

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