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UN: Water, Sanitation Crisis Killing Millions of Children

A new United Nations report says a growing water and sanitation crisis around the world is costing the lives of about two million children a year.

The report's lead author, Kevin Watkins, summed up the world's water crisis during an interview with VOA.

"The inability of governments to provide children with a glass of clean water is going to cost two million lives," Watkins said. "Now that, to me, is a fairly powerful indictment of what governments are doing and what the international community is doing."

Watkins says most of these deaths are caused by diarrhea and dysentery, the result of water polluted by human waste.

Watkins says the lack of access to clean water is also a powerful driver of inequality, with the wealthy, who are connected to utilities, paying the least per liter, and the poor, who buy water from local providers, paying the most.

The United Nations Development Programme report, called "Beyond Scarcity: Power, Poverty and the Global Water Crisis," calls on governments to increase spending on water and sanitation and to make clean water a human right. The report also urges the international community to double its annual contributions for water and sanitation.

The study blames the current crisis on governments and the international community.

"Many governments in the developing world simply do not take this problem seriously," said author of the report, Kevin Watkins. "If you look at the state of planning in water and sanitation, it is frankly abysmal in many countries."

Watkins adds there is very little international support or aid for the water crisis. He says the issue is not on the agenda of the Group of Eight countries and, in fact, never made it onto last year's communiqué at the Gleneagles summit of the world's richest nations.

According to the report, the reason behind the world's water crisis is not, as many argue, a shortage of water. Watkins says overpopulation and a growing demand for water are not the whole story.

"Water is a precious resource, it is a finite resource. The problem is that governments in the world do not treat it as a precious resource and the do not treat it as a finite resource," he said.

While the UNDP report is being welcomed by many groups concerned about the global water crisis, there is criticism.

Paul Hetherington is a spokesperson for WaterAid, a non-governmental and advocacy group in Britain. He says part of the problem is with the United Nations itself.

"In the situation of water, you have got 23 different U.N. agencies who all work in the water [and] sanitation sphere," Hetherington said. "But not one of them has an overarching responsibility. Not one of them monitors or evaluates what is being done. And very often, important issues are slipping under the table. And, of course, there is no United Nations body there standing up and naming and shaming governments, donors and recipients who are not performing on water and sanitation."

Hetherington adds that every year the United Nations writes in-depth reports on different topics, leaving little room for follow up.

This year's report says the solutions to the water crisis are easy and already well known. The UNDP's Watkins says governments need to invest in their water systems, putting grids and pipes in place as well as filtration systems. To do this, the report lays out a three point plan of action.

"Part one is that governments need to make water a human right and they need to mean it," he said. "And mean it in the sense of putting it in national legislation which provide citizens with an entitlement to 20 liters of water a day as a right of citizenship. Secondly, we call on governments to spend at least one percent of GDP on water and sanitation. If you compare this with military expenditure, countries like India, Pakistan, Ethiopia are spending 10 to 15 times more on military hardware than they are spending on water and sanitation."

Finally, Watkins' report says increased international aid is crucial to reach the Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of people without water and sanitation by the year 2015.

To accomplish all this, the report is calling for a global action plan under the leadership of the Group of Eight countries to mobilize resources and development for water and sanitation projects similar to the global fund for HIV and AIDS.