On World Water Day, one billion people still lack a clean supply

UN is urging countries to keep promises of aid, reports David Usborne
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The world has been put on notice to expect a higher incidence of catastrophic flooding and droughts as global warming affects rainfall patterns, while, at the same time, more than a billion people in developing countries are facing dramatic shortages of clean water for drinking and bathing.

The world has been put on notice to expect a higher incidence of catastrophic flooding and droughts as global warming affects rainfall patterns, while, at the same time, more than a billion people in developing countries are facing dramatic shortages of clean water for drinking and bathing.

The warnings came as the United Nations marked this year's Water Day by launching a 10-year campaign to combat shortages of clean water around the globe, dubbed the "Water for Life Decade". The organisation said that 1.1 billion people still lack sufficient clean water.

"People who can turn on a tap and have clean water to drink often take it for granted," Dr Lee Jong-Wook, the head of the UN's World Health Organisation, said. "And yet more than one billion of our fellow human beings have little choice but to use potentially harmful sources of water."

In a timely demonstration of the dangers of drought, the King of Thailand, Bhumipol Adulyadej, has just attended a cloud-seeding operation, which involves shooting chemicals into the sky to spur rainfall, as 71 out of the country's 76 provinces contend with the effects of a protracted lack of rain.

Meanwhile, Chinese authorities said their water prices were likely to rise 20 per cent because of a continuing national shortage.

President Jacques Chirac of France warned a Unesco conference in Paris that unequal sharing of water resources among African countries risked exacerbating conflicts on the continent. "Water is abundant in Africa, but unequally shared," the President said, urging a fresh mobilisation by governments to address the issue.

In London, Hilary Benn, the International Development Secretary, said the Government will double funding for water and sanitation projects in Africa over three years. British funding in 11 countries, including Ghana, Malawi and Zambia, will increase from £47.5mto £95m, he said.

Ravi Narayanan, the director of British-based charity WaterAid, said Mr Benn's move was welcome and "not a day too soon. His intention to work closely with partner countries in Africa is another step in the right direction. One size does not fit all and we need country-level action-plans addressing actual priority needs rather than international policy prescriptions."

The UN will use the decade-long campaign to try to hold governments to pledges made as part of the UN's "Millennium Goals" on water. At the Millennium Summit in 2000, leaders promised to halve the number of people lacking access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015. "We need to increase water efficiency, especially in agriculture," Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, said in a Water Day message.

But so far the progress on finding international aid has been discouraging. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development said public aid for water improvements in developing countries declined from $2.7bn (£1.4bn) in 1997 to $1.4bn in 2002 and has remained at that level since.

According to UN statistics, while 1.1 billion people around the world lack safe water to drink, 2.4 billion have no access to water for decent sanitation. About 3 million deaths a year are attributable to poor water supplies.

Meeting the targets would require an extraordinary effort. It would mean giving proper sanitation facilities to an additional 300,000 people and clean drinking water to nearly 150,000 more people every day.

Carol Bellamy, the director of Unicef, said400 million children lack even the bare minimum of safe water they need to survive. "Our failure to provide a mere two buckets of safe water a day to every child is an affront to human conscience," Ms Bellamy said. "Far too many are dying as a result of our inertia, and their deaths are being met with a resounding silence.

Announcing Britain's increased funding for Africa, Mr Benn told attendees at a conference organised by the Royal Geographic Society that the Government was in part responding to the recent decline in funding for water projects.

He said: "We will make sure that each of these countries has a core donor group on water and sanitation. We will quickly map what donors and governments are currently doing, what more needs to be done and make water and sanitation a central focus of discussion with governments in each of these countries."

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