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Earth Summit:  Delegates Wrestle With Clean Water Issues

Delegates to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg Wednesday, wrestled with reducing the backlog in access to clean water and sanitation for people in developing countries.

The United Nations says more than one billion people have no access to clean water, almost 2.5 billion have no sanitation, and more than two million people die each year from conditions associated with a lack of clean water and sanitation.

But Margaret Catley-Carlson, chairperson of a private environmental group the Global Water Partnership, says these issues remain low in priority for most governments as well as international organizations.

"Why is water management not more of a priority?" she asked. "Why is it low in national budgets, why is it low in the bilateral programs of donors, why is it low in the borrowing requirements and the borrowing portfolios of developing countries? Why do many countries not even have processes for an apex ministry, or something to pull together the various sectors of water use?"

Ms. Catley-Carlson told delegates at the Earth Summit that countries must work towards integrated water resource management systems to dramatically reduce the number of people without access to clean water and sanitation.

Goals and targets have become the stumbling block holding up an agreement on the plan of implementation which will be adopted by the heads of state and government and their representatives at the conclusion of the summit. The United Nations hopes the summit will agree to reduce by one half the number of people without access to water and sanitation by the year 2015.

But the United States says it will not agree to targets which are not binding on signatories. Instead, John Turner, Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans, Science, and the Environment, says that countries should rather commit to strategic bilateral or multilateral agreements that it considers more effective.

"Without the commitment of strategic implementations and new resources we do feel our discussions, planning and targets become no more than lofty rhetoric," he said. "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 U.S. can and will do more."

The United States has announced a proposal to spend $970 million by the year 2005 in three major initiatives, including nearly $400 million to improve watershed management.

But other delegates argue that targets can be set and also be attained. Ms. Catley-Carlson says that South Africa has set an example of what is possible.

"There are exceptions. South Africa, not only has mentioned water in the constitution, but has made important water investments, not just for water and sanitation needs, but to reduce demand management, i.e. promote better municipal management," she said. "It has also given allocations for the poor in a program designed to achieve cost recovery. And it has many achievements in this area, deriving from the constitutional obligations, which were taken on when this country changed so radically."

South Africa has already exceeded its target of halving its backlog in access to clean water. Since 1994 10 million South Africans have been connected to potable water supplies, with seven million still needing access. The program is partly funded by consumers who use a lot of water such as wealthy white families who have swimming pools and large gardens.