Geneva, 21 March 2003
GOVERNMENTS NEED TO DELIVER WATER AS A HUMAN RIGHT
"For the first time ever, World Water Day (March 22) is being marked this
year with the knowledge that there is now a world-wide realization that water
is a human right. Human dignity is not possible without access to clean water,"
said Didier Cherpitel, secretary general of the International Federation.
Uli Jaspers, the head of the Federation delegation attending the World Water
Forum, which closes in Kyoto, Japan, this weekend, said that the Forum needed
to signal to the world that governments are going to be held more accountable
on the provision of clean drinking water to the 1.1 billion people who do not
have access to it.
"Too little progress is being made in delivering water and decent sanitation
to poor households. It is hard to believe that in the 21st century 2.4 billion
people do not have access to a safe latrine. If the World Water Forum is to
achieve anything then it must persuade the 145 countries who have signed up
to water as a human right to take all reasonable steps to improve access to
clean water," said Jaspers.
The International Federation's water and sanitation co-coordinators from around
the world are also meeting in Kyoto this weekend to discuss how the Federation's
178 member National Societies can support implementation of the UN's recent
acceptance of water as a human right.
The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recently stated "the
human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically
accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses." The 145
countries that are signatories to the International Covenant on Economic, Social
and Cultural Rights are required to "move as expeditiously and effectively
as possible towards the full realization of the right to water."
"This encourages us all, particularly humanitarian organizations, to partner
with governments to ensure that they can deliver against this commitment particularly
to vulnerable populations. The Federation itself will then be able to achieve
more in this area where we are already delivering 20 million litres of water
per day to some one million people around the world," said Jaspers.
For further information, or to set up interviews (ISDN line available in Geneva),
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Kyoto, Japan - Clean drinking water is a commodity that many of us take
for granted. We turn on the tap and wash, open a bottle and drink. But by the
middle of this century, up to seven billion people might have neither clean
water for drinking, cooking and washing, nor basic sewage. Last November, with
the input and wholehearted support of the Red Cross Red Crescent, a first step
was taken to avoid that appalling scenario when the United Nations Committee
on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights declared access to water a basic human
We should be clear - the health of millions is under daily threat. Polluted
water used for drinking and cooking is the main cause of a catalogue of diseases,
including diarrhoea, cholera, typhoid, hepatitis, dengue fever and malaria.
In 2002, 1.6 million young children died of diarrhoea, one of the most easily
In the Pakistani city of Karachi, three million people live without piped drinking
water. In the slums of Dhaka, in Bangladesh, 70 per cent of people have no sewage
system, while in the Kibera shantytown of Nairobi, Kenya, up to 200 people have
to share one pit latrine.
The problems are equally dramatic in rural areas, where there is often a total
absence of water or sewage facilities. Natural disasters such as the hurricanes
and typhoons that affect the Caribbean or South Asia, and the droughts that
ravage Africa and Central Asia only serve to make the problem worse.
In the former Soviet Union, where water used to be distributed practically
free of charge, the situation has changed drastically since independence. Most
of the problems are of a long-term structural nature: crumbling infrastructure;
inadequate funding for the maintenance or replacement of existing water delivery
systems and sewage facilities; the exodus of qualified technical specialists.
When a civil war and its aftermath are added to this already dismal state of
affairs, the situation can be catastrophic. Conflict can lead not only to a
breakdown in civil infrastructure, sometimes with water and sewage treatment
works targeted, but also results in the displacement of populations.
Refugees and other displaced populations have to deal with not only the loss
of their land, valuables and family members, but also have to find access to
water within hours, often in hostile or isolated locations. The international
community has a duty to help such vulnerable people to remain free of water-borne
ailments. The Red Cross Red Crescent plays its part - ICRC has been active in
Iraq since 1980 carrying out a wide range of activities including the upkeep
and repair of water and sanitation infrastructure.
In another conflict-affected country, Tajikistan, the local Red Crescent had
helped rebuild irrigation systems and developed bore holes. The Tajik government
was a vocal advocate in favour of declaring this year the International Year
of Fresh Water.
National governments and international organizations spend large amounts of
money on drugs, facilities and personnel in an effort to cure diseases caused
by drinking unsuitable water and using inadequate or improper sanitation facilities.
In many cases, however, the poor health situation could be improved or even
completely avoided at a much lower cost if these funds were better spent on
disease prevention. Provision of clean drinking water and proper sanitation
facilities, combined with public health education campaigns, is the most effective
way of battling water-borne diseases.
The Red Cross Red Crescent recognises this, and has made water and sanitation
a central element in its response to virtually every disaster. Every day, it
supplies 20 million litres of safe water to vulnerable communities. Over the
past 20 years, 1.5 million Nepalese villagers in 18 regions have benefited from
Red Cross water and sanitation programmes, resulting in a fall in water-borne
diseases. Worldwide, specialised Water and Sanitation Emergency Response Units
have been deployed in 18 major disasters in recent years.
But still, wherever there is poverty, there is water-related disease. Often,
clean drinking water is available only at prohibitive costs, meaning people
have to get water from risky sources. The illnesses that result block their
ability to find employment or carry out the simplest domestic chores - such
as finding and bringing home water.
Children and women are the main family providers and users of water, especially
in rural areas. Sometimes they spend several hours a day walking and carrying
water from the available sources. A readily available supply of clean water
would improve their quality of life, freeing up more time for children to attend
school or for parents to tend their fields.
Lack of safe water strips people of their dignity - what could be more threatening
to well-being than knowing that the water you rely on to quench a thirst or
to cook your food could kill you and your children? Human dignity is a central
concern to the Federation, and is an overarching theme for the forthcoming International
Red Cross Red Crescent Conference to be held in Geneva in December.
Through the Millennium Development Goals, countries around the world have committed
themselves to halving the proportion of people without sustainable access to
safe water. But past declarations - such as the 1980 UNICEF-led initiative to
provide safe supply of drinking water and sanitation to everyone within 10 years,
and a similar initiative proclaimed at the 1990 World Summit for Children -
clearly failed to reach their objective.
The Third World Water Forum in Kyoto is the most important meeting ever devoted
to this issue. The International Federation believes it imperative that national
governments and international organizations accelerate their efforts and increase
funding for water and sanitation activities worldwide.
* Tadateru Konoe is a Vice-President of the Japanese Red Cross Society and
a member of the International Federation Governing Board. He is heading the
Federation's delegation to the World Water Forum in Kyoto.
The Geneva-based International Federation promotes the humanitarian
activities of 178 National
Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies among vulnerable people. By coordinating
international disaster relief and encouraging development support, it seeks
to prevent and alleviate human suffering.
The Federation, National Societies and the International Committee of the Red
constitute the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.