UN Report: Water Role Crucial to Development

Water demand is increasing, and some countries are already reaching the limits of their water resources. Competition for water is intensifying – whether between countries, urban and rural areas, or different sectors of activity. This may make water an increasingly politicized issue, according to a new report from the United Nations.

Published every three years, the United Nations World Water Development Report 3 offers a comprehensive assessment of the planet’s freshwater resources. This latest edition, "Water in a Changing World," emphasizes the role of water in development and economic growth.

“With increasing shortages, good governance is more than ever essential for water management. Combating poverty also depends on our ability to invest in this resource,” says the Director-General of UNESCO, Koïchiro Matsuura, who was scheduled to present the report on behalf of the United Nations at the Fifth World Water Forum in Istanbul on March 16.

Policies already exist to reduce water demand and loss, and improve water management. Furthermore, many countries have already passed legislation for the protection and sound management of their water resources. But, says the report, these reforms have yet to have any noticeable effect, because action is too often confined to the water sector alone while the key decisions about water are taken outside the water sector. For decisions to be effective, they need to involve decision makers from all sectors, including agriculture, energy, trade and finance, as they all have a decisive impact on water management. The report also emphasizes the importance of partnerships between governments the private sector and civil society.

A major issue observed by the report’s authors is that access to basic water-related services (safe drinking water, sanitation, and food production) remains inadequate in much of the developing world. The “business as usual” scenario means an estimated 5 billion people (67 percent of the world population) may still be without improved sanitation in 2030.

In this context, the prospect of achieving the Millennium Development Goals for water and sanitation by 2015 is both promising and alarming. While current trends suggest that over 90 percent of the world population will have access to improved sources of drinking water by then, progress in basic sanitation remains inadequate.

The world is on track to meet the drinking water target of the Millennium Development Goals, apart from Sub-Saharan Africa which is seriously lagging behind with about 340 million people lacking access to safe drinking water. However, it is far from achieving the sanitation target. Half a billion people lack access to adequate sanitation in Africa alone and many other regions are also trailing behind. Current efforts will need to be doubled to achieve the goals set by the United Nations.

The link between poverty and water resources is obvious: the number of people living on less than US$1.25 a day coincides approximately with the number of those without access to safe drinking water.

This situation has a major impact on health. Almost 80 percent of diseases in developing countries are associated with water, causing some three million early deaths. For example, 5,000 children die every day from diarrhea, or one every 17 seconds. In all, about one-tenth of all illnesses worldwide could be avoided by improving water supply, sanitation, hygiene, and management of water resources.

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