Water crisis is now 'one of the greatest causes of mass suffering'

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Governments are losing the fight to tackle the world's water crisis, now one of the greatest causes of mass suffering, a leading aid agency alleged yesterday.

The situation, which sees 1.1 billion people with no access to safe water and 2.6 billion people without basic sanitation, is steadily getting worse, in spite of a major pledge by the international community to improve it, according to the UK relief and development agency Tearfund.

The UN's Millennium Development Goal (MDG) to "halve by 2015 the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation" is in danger of becoming no more than a pipe dream, the agency said in a report released for World Water Day, which falls today.

As the report was issued the seriousness of the water crisis was re-emphasised with new figures suggesting that five million people in Kenya are now facing food shortages as as result of failed rains. The drought in northern and north-eastern Kenya has also affected areas of Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Tanzania and Burundi, leaving more than 11.5 million people in need of food aid in the next six months.

The Tearfund report says that international aid, from the European Union especially, is failing to keep pace with the worsening water stress hitting a growing numbers of countries.

"Governments are failing to tackle a crisis in which a child dies from dehydration from diarrhoea every 14 seconds. Half the world's hospital beds are taken up by people with water-borne diseases," the report says.

"Over the past decade, aid for water and sanitation from EU member governments has been falling, despite 6,000 children dying every day from diseases associated with lack of access to safe drinking water.

"Since the MDG was agreed, EU aid to water and sanitation has declined and a smaller percentage of it now goes to sub-Saharan Africa. In 1997, EU Member States gave an average of $126m (£72m) to address the global water crisis. Today, they give on average $94m."

The report alleges that the EU Water Initiative, launched in 2002 to coordinate and improve the EU response to the crisis, "has not changed any policy or practice to help one single person have access to water and sanitation."

It adds that money needed to meet the water and sanitation MDG - $15bn - is "a small proportion of the $100bn that is spent each year on bottled water, mainly as a fashion accessory."

The report says that the UK and other governments have failed to prioritise aid for water and sanitation in the way they have for health and education, even though diarrhoeal diseases cause 443 million school days to be lost each year.

Is says that between 2000 and 2004 the UK government gave an average of $327m a year to health, compared to $86m to water and sanitation. Furthermore, more aid for water and sanitation in poor countries is given as loans than as grants - pushing heavily indebted countries deeper into debt.

In 2002, governments at the World Summit on Sustainable Development recommitted to have plans for managing water resources in place by 2005.

Tearfund says: "This date has passed and only 12 per cent of countries have met the target. Add climate change and global warming into the equation, and even developed countries start to feel the heat."

The agency calls on rich country governments to commit to doubling aid to water and sanitation by 2010, focusing 70 per cent of this aid on the poorest countries and giving particular emphasis to sanitation and hygiene promotion. It says all aid for water and sanitation in the poorest countries should be given as grants not loans.

Another major report issued yesterday, the UN-led Global International Waters Assessment, said that the overuse of water for farming is the biggest environmental threat to the world's freshwater resources, and damage is likely to worsen until 2020.

The report said that more dams and deeper wells were not the answer. It said, for instance, that dams on the Volga River had reduced the spawning grounds for Caspian sturgeon, and 90 per cent of the water in Namibia's Eastern National Water Carrier canal was lost because of evaporation.

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