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Water, the 'Blue Gold' - 2002-09-05

Everyone in the world should have access to safe, clean water. But according to statistics from the United Nations, more than one billion people lack such access. Water and its availability was a major topic at the World Summit on Sustainable Development just concluded in Johannesburg. Ania Zalewski writes in this Dateline report that delegates said the glass was more half empty than half full.

As the saying goes, "water, water, everywhere." Well, how much water is there? The total water supply of the world is estimated at 326 million cubic miles. A cubic mile of water equals more than one trillion gallons! So, experts say, there is plenty of water on our planet. But according to the U.S. Geological Survey, only three tenths of one percent of all the world's water is usable for human use. Perhaps that's why water is increasingly being called 'blue gold'.

Dr. Peter Gleick, Director of the Pacific Institute, a private environmental research center in Oakland, California says that this is a real tragedy. "There are 2.4 billion people, 40 percent of the world's population without access to adequate sanitation services," he said. "And that failure to meet basic human needs for water leads to all sorts of terrible things. Water-related diseases, loss of job time, loss of educational opportunity. It's a real development tragedy."

Even though water has emerged as a critical issue, it still remains a low priority for most governments. That's the view of Margaret Catley-Carlson, chair of the Global Water Partnership. She questions the priorities on water issues determined by international governments. "Why is water management not more of a priority," she asks. "Why is it low in national budgets? Why is it low in bilateral programs of donors? Why is it low in the borrowing requirements and the borrowing portfolios in developing countries?"

Other experts argue that there is an abundance of water in the world. The problem is global delivery systems need improvement. The Cato Institute's Senior Fellow in Environmental Studies, Patrick J. Michaels, says that water problems are closely related to poverty. "If you look at rich countries, generally they don't have a lot of difficulties with their water," he says. "Yes, there are local technologies that can clean that up, I think that we are in substantial agreement that this is an issue that is going to appear more and more in the future, and will probably be best managed by nations working with their localities rather than top down programs. I think that these top down, large intervention programs are what the United States feels probably won't work."

At the Johannesburg Summit, the United States declared it would not sign water agreements that are specific and binding on signatories. Washington did however announce a proposal to spend $970 million by the year 2005 on three major initiatives, including one that spends nearly $400 million to improve watershed management. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans, Science, and the Environment, John Turner stressed the American proposals at the Summit. "I am proud that the United States will join others in continuing as a world leader in providing assistance in improving access to water and sanitation, the United States can and will do more," said John Turner.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed the summit on Wednesday and said that the United States wants to help in development and stewardship of the world's environment. But he added that the stewardship must be responsible and any economic management must be sound. American environmental activists at the summit, joined by those from Australia, according to press reports, repeatedly booed and jeered the secretary's comments. "The United States is taking action to meet environmental challenges, including global climate change. We are committed we are committed", he says.

13 people were ejected from the summit and the session's chair, South African Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma called the response, "totally unacceptable." The summit did pledge to cut in half the proportion of people with access to sanitation by 2015, and received commitments from the European Union for a "Water for Life" initiative, and more than $5 million in grants and loans by the Asia Development Bank.

Many of these commitments will be put into programs administered by non-profit groups and NGOs, or non-governmental organizations. The primary target remains Africa as Paul Sobiech, head of Water for People, based in Colorado, explains. "If you walk through any of the settlement areas around larger cities, take for example Nairobi - you'll find human waste, almost every step that you take," says Mr. Sobiech. "You couple that out with the solid waste problem where there is no municipal pick up and there you have just a public health waste disaster waiting to happen."

Environmental groups are proposing a two-step solution, notes Paul Sobiech, depending upon whether the problem is in a rural or urban location. "We have several initiatives; in the rural settings we have rather traditional community development approach that integrates water sanitation and health or hygiene education and we operate through local groups," he explains. "And in the urban settings while our rural work is much more around bricks, water pipes and tabs, in the urban setting it's much more education, advocacy and sort of building competency of these local groups so they have voice in their decisions."

Another alternative to water problems gaining popularity around the world is privatization. Two French companies: Suez and Vivendi Environment, supply water to 230 million people around the globe, including U.S. cities like the southeastern hub of Atlanta and urban centers in the Third World. While privatization is touted by some as a solution to Third World water needs, others oppose it, saying it pushes the price of water beyond what poor people can afford. Peter Gleick admits that privatization has a potential to grow enormously because of the desperate need for water in the developing world, but says that water is too important to be left in purely private hands. "We are quite concerned that certain aspects of water truly are public goods - the protection of access to water for the poorest population and protection of the environment and protection of water quality - those are public responsibilities," he says. "So we are somewhat worried that if we rush to privatization of water systems without being very careful - some bad things may happen."

Carmen Revenga, Senior Associate with World Resources Institute, says that even in some African countries, privatization in the form of private-public partnerships, or PPPs, are becoming popular. "The idea that a lot of governments are pushing, and what a lot of NGOs say, is that you can have what they call a private-public partnership, or PPPs, which means that the supply of water is privatized," she says. "It some cases it has actually proven to provide better service and more reliable service to poor communities. And they actually end up paying less for the water. Because before, they would pay street vendors that would charge them up to five times more for the water."

Other suggestions like conservation, irrigation, or desalination have also been proposed for developing nations. Desalination is expensive and usually works for countries which are close to a sea or ocean. Massive construction projects, which aid in irrigation and water delivery, like China's Three Gorges Dam, set off a global debate about its environmental and political impacts. Peter Gleick maintains that small scale, local projects seem to work best and are most effective in solving water problem. "We are also learning that smaller projects, at the community level are often much more effective at meeting human needs for water and that small scale village kinds of projects are effective - the people understand them, they know how to operate them, they have more responsibility for them and they have far fewer of these very massive environmental and social implications that some of these big projects bring with them," says Peter Gleick.

While solutions to water problems were debated at the Earth summit, the participants in Johannesburg agreed that action needs to be taken. Some statistics suggest that since the Summit began, more than 10,000 children may have died from water-borne diseases.

No matter whether delegates said the international well is dry, full, or somewhere inbetween, in the past week at Johannesburg, the world learned the worth of water.