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International Issues: In Depth: Fact Sheet

The United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development
Released by NRDC at the World Summit for Sustainable Development, August 29, 2002.

Action, Not Words: Safe Water & Sanitation for the Developing World

The human tragedy wrought by the global drinking water crisis is profound, but has not been enough to move the world to solve what is perhaps its worst health problem. More than 1 billion people on the globe lack access to safe drinking water, more than 2 billion lack sanitation. Most troubling, 2 million to 10 million people -- mostly children -- die every year from contaminated water. That's more than 5,000 children who die daily. If newspaper headlines read "17 jumbo jets full of children crashed today killing 5,000, and another 17 will crash tomorrow, and every day this year," perhaps people would not be so complacent.

This public health and environmental catastrophe is also an economic development disaster. No nation can develop if its citizens cannot work because they are constantly ill, are caring for dying children, and spend a large percentage of their time or household income fetching water to drink.

The scarcity of safe fresh water is exacerbated by population growth, wasteful or poorly planned use, and water grabs by nations seeking to develop their irrigation systems, industry and domestic water supplies. The water crisis also is widely expected to become a flashpoint for international tensions, and perhaps war.

Solutions Promised, but Deeds Fall Short

For decades, water experts, national governments, health and relief organizations, U.N. agencies, international conferences, and many others have called for action on the global water crisis. The U.N. Decade for Safe Water and Sanitation came and went in the 1980s. The nations of the world proclaimed in 1992 at Rio that they would halve the percentage of people without access to safe drinking water. Many other international conferences and agreements in Dublin, Bonn and elsewhere have focused on the water crisis and called for solutions.

There has been some progress, and hundreds of millions of people who did not have safe drinking water and sanitation two decades ago now do. However, this progress has been outstripped by population growth. Despite herculean efforts by many committed people, at least as many people lack safe drinking water and sanitation today as did in 1980.

Why Have Actions Fallen Short of Announced Goals?

There are essentially three major reasons why the global effort to provide safe drinking water and sanitation have been unsuccessful: (1) the lack of a strategic, well-planned and coordinated effort by the United States and the developed world to transfer funds, expertise and technology to address the water problem in the developing world; (2) the lack of strong, high-level commitments by many developing nation governments to publicly recognize and address the water problem as a top governmental priority; and (3) the failure by both the developed and developing world to implement comprehensive and culturally appropriate technological solutions, with accompanying training and educational programs, to solve the problem in developing nations.

What Must Be Done at the Johannesburg Summit? What is the Role of "Partnerships?"

The time for more promises has passed. NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) calls on the Johannesburg Summit to adopt an aggressive sanitation goal, and recommit the 1992 Rio Summit goal to provide access to safe drinking water. But we have to go beyond the rhetoric.

The time has come for action. The world's governments must make a commitment to provide substantial new grant-based funding, not mouth platitudes. NRDC agrees with some critics who view "partnerships" with a wary eye, and is well aware that these partnerships could become a ruse or excuse for inaction. However, another general international agreement will achieve nothing absent concrete agreements for vigorous implementation and action. These implementation actions are the only way that flesh can ever be put on the bone of the many global water action plans, and are therefore essential to success.

What is the Role of the Private Sector/Privitization?

Some developed nation governments and multilateral funders have argued that privitization is the key to solving the global water crisis. NRDC believes that utility privitization has been abused, and has the potential for disaster, particularly in developing nations where there is neither independent, effective public utility regulatory infrastructure, nor a commitment by the private sector to resolve the water needs of the poor. Moreover, for hundreds of millions of people in the developing world -- particularly in peri-urban (slums surrounding cities) and rural areas -- there will be no private sector investment because it simply is not profitable. Thus, privitization is not a solution to the developing world's drinking water crisis.

How "Action Agreements" -- or Partnerships -- Should Proceed

We need a targeted, strategic, country-by-country approach that allows for broader participation in solving the water crisis. Governments, multilateral funders, NGOs and others should enter into "water action agreements." They should initiate pilot action agreements in nations that have severe water problems and are "water willing" -- that is, they are willing to commit to making water a priority within their country and to taking concrete steps to address the problem. It should be kept in mind that only 10 nations shoulder 80 percent of the global burden of waterborne disease. We must help the nations with the worst problems if they are willing to make a commitment to take action. A water action agreement should include:

  • A commitment by a developing nation's government to: (1) make providing safe drinking water to all of the nation's citizens a top priority; (2) put into place the legal and institutional structure to ensure safe water for all citizens; (3) establish safe drinking water programs that embrace good governance (including public participation), ecosystem protection, adequate sanitation, financial integrity, appropriate and fair cost allocation, and systems to track progress (indicator tracking);
  • A commitment by other partners to provide funding (including grants) and technical assistance to support the efforts of nations to resolve drinking water, sanitation and source water problems.
  • A commitment by all partners to develop a water action agreement for remedying the most serious drinking water, sanitation and source-water ecosystem problems in the nation (urban, peri-urban, and/or rural water contamination problems), in consultation with its citizens, national and international NGOs, funders, and other partners. Special efforts must be made to include "public-public partnerships," in which participants in successful water projects (e.g. from nearby nations) would share their field experiences.
  • A commitment by all partners to identify, in a national water action agreement, a few key indicators that will be used to track progress. These indicators should be realistic and specific, but should not be a bar to effective "home grown" solutions.

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