The quest for clean water

In the West we take good water for granted. Elsewhere, that's not possible. Matthew Brace outlines the scale of the problem
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You may have noticed recently an orange flyer come drifting through your letter box asking you to Give Water, Give Life.

This is part of an on-going appeal by WaterAid, a charity that was launched shortly after the start of the United Nations' International Drinking and Water Supply and Sanitation Decade in January 1981.

WaterAid was set up with the help of the water industry, a remarkable feat at the time, and it still plays a part. Each of the water companies of England and Wales and the existing, non-privatised water authorities in Scotland have voluntary committees that meet regularly to discuss charitable work.

The water bill appeal raised pounds 850,000 for the charity in the financial year 1997-98 which was channelled into projects in the developing world.

Such funds are needed now possibly more than ever as water rises up the political agenda. In the past year there has been a number of major international conferences addressing dirty water and poor sanitation and next year the UK hosts a UN conference looking at how to cope with waterborne diseases.

An assessment last April from the UN Commission on the Sustainable Development (UN-CSD), a body established at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 to debate how to manage the world's resources sustainably, made for grim reading. It said there was clear evidence the world faced a worsening series of local and regional water quantity and quality problems and predicted that by the year 2025 two-thirds of the world could be under stress conditions.

The director of the UN Environment and Development UK Committee, Felix Dodds, said: "People had not realised how bad the situation was. Nearly two-thirds of the world in that state in just a few years - I would say that was quite drastic."

The UN-CSD plans to launch a freshwater initiative later this year to address the quantity and quality of water, its equitable and efficient distribution, the interaction of water use between domestic, agricultural and indus- trial sectors, the control and demand of water resources, and international co-operation.

Mr Dodds said international dialogue for dealing with trans-boundary water sources is a crucial issue. The Nile, the world's longest river, does not have cross-boundary agreements and there has been a dispute between Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt over damming. Another storm is brewing on the Euphrates which starts in the mountains of Turkey and runs south across Syria and through Iraq to the Persian Gulf.

Mr Dodds believes water wars - like oil wars - are not an impossibility. In fact Nato held a meeting on this issue in the former Soviet bloc just recently.

Meanwhile WaterAid gets on with the job of providing clean drinking water and efficient sanitation to countries of the Third World and stemming the estimated three million deaths per year of children under five from diarrhoea caused by a diet of dirty water.

Heard that mission statement before? Well, it is true there are numerous charities working for good in the world's poorer regions whether it be on water, food, health or education, but few seem as focused as WaterAid.

With 1.4 billion people (about one quarter of the world's population) currently without access to clean water and two billion without access to sanitation, the charity specifically does not take on what it cannot deliver. It does not get involved in irrigation, power production, the management of rivers or emergency relief work, therefore leaving more time and resources to concentrate on using low-cost technology to deliver clean water and sanitation.

Taking the Chinese philosophy that you have three options when teaching someone to fish - walk past them on the bank and leave them to work it out for themselves, show them how but let them take the rod and learn their own technique, or simply fish for them - WaterAid follows the middle way. They provide the know-how and empower local communities to manage their own water and be self-sufficient and then let them get on with it. That is why any day now the charity is due to pull out of Kenya where it has been working for several years. It has done its work and now is conscious of leaving local people to build their self-esteem by providing their own supplies.

At the charity's offices, appropriately situated on the south bank of the Thames in central London, press and public relations manager Nick Fairclough was eager to talk about Nepal from where he had just returned.

"Nepal is littered with taps and tap-stands put in by charities and Nepalese national and local authorities in the past but with no provision for maintenance. A great emphasis of our work is to maintain these facilities through local village communities," he said. "We help create indigenous non-governmental organisations and nurture them to stand on their own two feet. Works committees of local people contribute to the labour of setting up water schemes, digging the trenches and carrying the materials.

"We helped to set up Nepal Water for Health (Newah) in 1992. It is now the largest such organisation in the country, employing 100 Nepali people from health workers to technicians providing support to 50 village groups building their own water projects."

On his recent visit to Nepal, Prince Charles, WaterAid's president, stopped off at a project that cost just pounds 9,000 and yet is providing roughly 500 people with clean water.

There is also a large education programme in schools designed to explain to children and parents the importance of hygiene.

Anyone who has travelled in the developing world cannot have failed to notice the lack of fresh water. In Bombay's slums, ironically frequently washed by tropical downpours, I have seen families extracting water from gutter streams running with raw sewage, and in Kashmir in the foothills of the Himalayas, I have eaten rice washed in water from a town lake that doubles as a public toilet.

A strong stomach and a rucksack full of pills saved me from being ill but I am a relatively affluent westerner. For the people who live in these parts of the world help is not always available and water-borne illnesses are often deadly and at the very least seriously debilitating.

If fewer people are sick through dirty water diseases they will be more economically productive because they will be able to work and earn and they will not have to spend so much money on medicines.

In many parts of the developing world people - nearly always women and children - spend between five and six hours a day collecting water. Projects like those of WaterAid free up huge amounts of time for these people which means kids can go to school.

Nepal is just one of 14 countries that are benefiting from WaterAid projects in Africa and Asia funded by the charity's annual income for 1996-97 of pounds 7.2m, of which pounds 2.3m came from the Government and the European Union.

An estimated 4.5 million people have so far been helped and a further two million are likely to benefit from projects still to come to fruition.

However, with the world's water crisis looking increasingly serious, WaterAid has its work cut out.