Staying on Target

Despite many challenges, the international community is striving to implement the UN's goals of providing clean water and adequate sanitation to people worldwide by specific deadlines

Over the course of the past year, the international water agenda raised water quality issues to the forefront, with the need for clean water becoming central to securing the future of human and ecosystem health. This priority has been culminating since the year 2000, as the international community has built a series of objectives and commitments in the name of global sustainable development. Interestingly, while most of the context is hunger and poverty alleviation, the biggest challenge has been to create an awareness that economic health and environmental health are mutually reinforcing, rather than competing goals.

Many countries are having trouble implementing the vast array of United Nations (UN) commitments, even though they were part of the decision-making process. It seems the gap between policy and implementation is growing wider. Many of the outstanding multilateral commitments date back to the 1992 Earth Summit at Rio, and the revolutionary Agenda 21. By the time the UN convened the 2nd Earth Summit in Johannesburg in 2002, also known as the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), states were preoccupied with the need for action over rhetoric. So together they produced the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation. The Plan has over 30 tables and targets, backed up with a 10-year program for sustainable development and consumption, a clean fuel initiative and other partnership activities.

While the outcome of the Johannesburg Summit was encouraging, the breadth of the plan clearly underscored that a huge disparity still exists between commitments made and action taken to implement them. The main UN forum for discussing these issues is the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD). The CSD brings countries together to consider ways to integrate the three dimensions of sustainable development -- economic growth, social development and environmental protection. At its eleventh session last spring, the CSD chose the theme of "water, sanitation, and human settlements" as a guide for their collective work. At the time, Dr. Klaus Töpfer, under-secretary general to the UN, and executive director of the UN Environment Programme said that, "the international community must decide on a reliable framework to bring all available resources together in new efforts at implementation." At the CSD's upcoming twelfth session, which will take place April 14 - 30, 2004, members will be brought together for a status report.

Meanwhile, the international community continues to push water as the priority for the UN. By the end of last year, close of the 2003 International Year of Freshwater gave rise to the newly declared International Decade for Action, "Water for Life," from 2005 to 2015. The decade is to be kicked-off on World Water Day, which will be March 22, 2005. While the banner-waving continues, others behind the scene are trying to put together all the components of what needs to be done.

What Exactly Needs to be Done?
A high percentages of people worldwide do not have access to improved water supplies and adequate sanitation. It has been estimated that every day an additional 200,000 people must be provided with access to water and sanitation in order to meet the UN goals by the target dates. What has currently been implemented, mainly at the national level, has been nothing compared to those figures and covers just a tiny fraction of what is needed to meet the agreed upon goals.

An Overview of the UNEP GEMS/Water Programme

One of the greatest knowledge gaps that exists at the global level is that governments often do not understand the state of their people's water drinking water supply, and this information is often unavailable. The problem is less about quantity than it is about the implicit quality factors. Often, "water security" discussions are focused almost exclusively on amounts of water and allocation of water in parties with vested interests. It's implied that the water being accessed would be clean and pure. This assumption is important. Are we talking about just access to water, or access to good quality water? If water quality requirements are overlooked, then the scientific knowledge base needed to drive implementation schemes will be flawed. This is something that the group UN-Water is charged with overcoming in their task of conducting the comprehensive World Water Assessment Programme. Determining various indicators for measuring water-related variables is high on their list of priorities. The outcomes of UN-Water also influence implementation programs.

However, most implementation activities can neither be simple nor quick to achieve because of large water quality monitoring gaps. For example, only 104 governments currently participate in the Global Environment Monitoring System for Water of the UN (GEMS/Water). The visible data gaps, shown in white, are a reflection of countries' inability to establish systematic monitoring and reporting activities. Not surprisingly, most of the gaps are in developing countries -- Africa, Small Island States, Central Asia and Latin America. For these gaps to be filled, the barriers to entry must be better explained.

Barriers to Adequate Water Quality Research
Simply put, a vicious circle starts with the assertion that many developing countries lack basic capacity in data collection and management. The lack of essential information means that a government's knowledge base is weak from a scientific point of view. This, in turn, means that policy and decisions, which should rely on sound science to be effective (a condition that is widely held), will be poor and inadequate, as will any legal mechanisms that are put in place. Ineffective decisions will in turn mean that water-related science will not be a priority in policy-makers' minds, and they won't be included to allocate investment capital and resources to water-related science. Completing the circle, the lack of investment will hamper local data and information systems, and their possible growth. For the vicious circle to turn virtuous, understanding the investment requirements is essential. 

How Much Will It Cost?
The costs of meeting the 2015 target dates developed by the UN depends upon assumptions about the type and level of service. This in turn is affected by the strategy to reduce the service deficit -- the countries, the urban-rural balance of the target group and the half of the unserved population addressed first. Using the most basic standards of service and technology, the 2015 goals could be attained at an extra annual investment cost of about $10 billion. But providing full water and sewerage connections and primary wastewater treatment to the urban populations would raise the annual cost of the 2015 goal to $17 billion for water and $32 billion for sanitation and sewerage.1, 2

UN's Environmental Sustainability Timetable

While most people in the West take infrastructure for granted, it remains an elusive luxury in many parts of the world. Almost 1.4 billion people in developing countries lack access to clean water, and about two billion live without basic sanitation. Many of these people live in places that correspond to the scientific knowledge gaps illustrated in the map (Figure 1). But, water security infrastructure is not simply about construction projects. It is about protecting water resources from pollution and conserving their natural state.

In terms of the investment requirements for water quality monitoring at regional and global scales, the figures are not known. Another gap in knowledge.

Big Price Tag for Water Quality Treatment
The World Bank currently supervises 97 water and sanitation projects with net IBRD/IDA commitment amounts totaling $5.9 billion. This constitutes about 6 percent of the World Bank's total commitment and 15 percent of the World Bank's total infrastructure commitment.3

In addition to environmental assessments and safeguard policies, the World Bank's environment strategy focuses on climate change, forests, water resources and biodiversity. According to their Web site, the Bank's portfolio of environmentally related projects amounts to about $13 billion in US dollars.4 These amounts do not include those of the various regional and other international investment banks.

Water services, such as irrigation for agriculture, are deficient in many respects, and could become worse in the future. "In developing countries irrigated agriculture accounts for 40 percent of all crop production and 60 percent of cereals. Over the next 30 years it is estimated that arable irrigated land would need to increase by 22 percent and water withdrawals by 14 percent, to meet the demands of a larger world population."5 These data imply major efforts to improve the productivity of land and efficient use of water. Major reforms will be required to reduce the incidence of famines and ongoing malnutrition (recall that the Millennium Development Goals include the target of halving by 2015 the proportion of people who suffer from hunger).

It becomes evident that the key to turning the "vicious circle" of capacity building into a virtuous one is a question of political will. In other words, directing much-needed funds to science as opposed to other areas is one of priority-setting. The apparent low priority that some governments give to water sector issues could be due to several factors, such as:

  • Confusion between social, environmental and commercial aims;
  • Political interference;
  • Poor management structures and imprecise objectives for water undertakings;
  • Inadequate general legal framework;
  • Lack of transparency in the award of contracts;
  • Non-existent, or weak and inexperienced regulators;
  • Resistance to cost-recovering tariffs.

This is certainly not true of the United States. Instead, it is really a scenario for developing countries. Yet, U.S. environmental firms represent one sector that is well-positioned to fill the gaps. There are, and likely will be in the future, significant opportunities for public-private partnerships, particularly in three areas: new technology, capacity building and space-based data.

Disclaimer: This article does not represent the views of GEMS/Water nor the United Nations

1. Luc Averous, "Financing Water Infrastructure: World Water Panel," Lehman Brothers, October 2002.
2. From Camdessus report, "Financing Water for Alll," March 2003.
3. World Bank Group "Project Lending" page --
4. World Bank --
5. FAO, "Agriculture: towards 2015 and 2030," 2002.

An Overview of the UNEP GEMS/Water Programme
The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) GEMS/Water Programme is a multi-faceted water science center oriented toward knowledge development on inland water quality issues throughout the world. Organizational goals are to improve water quality monitoring and assessment capabilities in participating countries and to determine the status and trends of regional and global water quality.

GEMS/Water was created in 1978 and is located in Burlington, Canada.

UN's Environmental Sustainability Timetable
The UN General Assembly stated that it is determined to achieve internationally agreed development goals on water and sanitation, including those contained in the Millennium Declaration, which set a goal to ensure environmental sustainability with a target of halving the proportion of people who are unable to reach or to afford safe drinking water and the proportion of people without access to basic sanitation by the year 2015.

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/2004 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

Sabrina Barker is a senior policy advisor with the United Nations GEMS/Water Programme and has 15 years' experience in international socioeconomic development. Her background is in international relations and biology. Currently, she is working on international relations and political economy of water resources and ecology. Barker can be reached through or by phone at (819) 953.0912.