The world's thirst

About the author
Ehsan Masood is the Editor of Research Fortnight

Eight years from now, in 2015, the United States space agency Nasa will send a probe out to Jupiter's moons in search of evidence of life below their saltwater lakes.

In that same year, some 800 million people on our own planet will also set out in search of water. They will travel comparatively shorter distances - one kilometre or more, often on foot, but they will need to do this every day for the rest of their lives. Many more (nearly 3 billion) will not have a clean and private toilet. The lucky ones among them will have a nearby river or lake to relieve themselves in. Those less fortunate will have to make do with a paper or plastic bag. And perhaps most depressing of all, between 2007 and 2015, some 15 million children will die from diseases spread through dirty water - such as diarrhoea.

"The irony of humanity spending billions of dollars in exploring the potential for life on other planets would be powerful - and tragic - if at the same time we allow the destruction of life and human capabilities on planet Earth for want of far less demanding technologies: the infrastructure to deliver clean water and sanitation to all."

The juxtaposition (and the quotation) come from the latest United Nations Human Development Report. This year's edition is called Beyond Scarcity: Power, Poverty and the Global Water Crisis .The continuing scandal that is water scarcity in the developing world has been long overdue for a detailed assessment - of the type that UN agencies are masterly at being able to pull off. These documents can take up to two years to produce, and in the process utilise vast teams of writers, researchers, editors and reviewers. Hundreds of interviews are conducted. Facts are checked and rechecked. The resulting analysis and the conclusions are the best you can get.

Beyond Scarcity is all of the above, and more. To begin with, at 422 pages it is nearly twice the length of its predecessors. This is a reflection of the scale and complexity of the issue. It is also a reflection of the quantity of knowledge and experience that has been accumulated in recent years on why we have failed to make even minor inroads into providing a basic right to those who deserve this the most (see Mike Muller, "A global thirst: water, power and the poor", 10 November 2006).

The report is honest in naming those who must take their share of the blame: including bad advice from multilateral organisations. It is strong in collecting evidence of good practice in water and sanitation from around the world. More unusual for a UN study (though no less refreshing) is in its retelling the history of water in the developed west, and the many lessons this still offers. Those who are fortunate to be able to draw hundreds of litres of clean water from a shower every morning often forget that the situation for their great-grandparents was no different to that found in sub-Saharan Africa today.

Ehsan Masood is a writer and journalist based in London. He is the author of British Muslims: Media Guide (British Council/Association of Muslim Social Scientists, 2006), and co-editor (with Daniel Schaffer) of Dry: Life Without Water (Harvard University Press). He has also edited How Do You Know: Reading Ziauddin Sardar on Islam, Science and Cultural Relations (Pluto Press). He writes for New Scientist and Prospect magazines and is a consultant to the Science and Development Network.

Among Ehsan Masood’s articles in openDemocracy:

"Why the poorest countries need a WTO" (December 2005)

"Doing the maths" (January 2006)

"Bush's 'war on science' through the microscope" (January 2006)

"Measuring miracles" (April 2006)

"The aid business: phantoms and realities" (July 2006)

"Millennium Development Goals: back to school" (August 2006)

"Physics in revolution" (October 2006)

“The upside of down” (29 November 2006)

Two lessons, three problems

Beyond Scarcity contains two broad lessons, both of which also point to a common solution.

The first is that the private sector is unsuited to running water utilities and the acknowledgement that, while industry may be useful in providing services, water is a public good and ultimately has to be the responsibility of the state. This judgment, based on the experience of a number of failed privatisations of water utilities in east Asia and Latin America, is quite an admission.

The second lesson is that close to 1.5 billion people are living in areas where more water is drawn from lakes, rivers and underground aquifers than is being recharged. Unless something is done about this, there will be no more water left for them to use.

There are three familiar problems common to urban water-supply and sanitation in the developing world:

▪ creaking infrastructure including leaky pipes (water losses of up to 50% in many countries)

▪ a majority of customers on low incomes who are forced to pay private water-vendors to make up for what they do not receive through the public pipe

▪ governments which claim they are unable to afford the vast sums needed to invest in fixing leaks, laying new pipes, or building new plant.

Throughout the 1990s, governments' answer to these problems was to allow multinational water companies to step in and run the utilities as they would a profit-making company. The rationale was that these companies should be allowed to make a profit from customers (who already pay private vendors), some of which would be invested into making the necessary infrastructure upgrades.

What seemed like a good idea on paper proved controversial in practice. Privatisations in Argentina, Bolivia and the Philippines collapsed because prices were set at unaffordable levels for people on the lowest incomes, and because the state proved incapable (or unwilling) to provide the necessary regulatory oversight.

The tragedy in these examples is that failed policies have meant that the poorest people have had to suffer more than they already would. Across the developing world, households are forced to pay a much greater proportion of their monthly wage on water supplies compared with those in the developed world. Yet they account for less than 10% of water-users: the lion's share of water is used by agriculture and industry. Big farmers and industrialists use money and influence to draw out as much water as they wish - with potentially fatal consequences for the rest of the population.

It's not even past

Intriguingly, Beyond Scarcity also shows that we have been here before, and it demonstrates how some of the lessons from the past could help to inform policies in the future.

In the 19th century, Britain and large parts of the United States resembled today's developing world. Industrialisation was taking off at great speed and average incomes were rising as more people left the fields to work in cities, as is happening elsewhere today. But also on the rise was disease and death from diarrhoea and dysentery. Infant mortality in Britain in the late 1890s was 160 deaths for every 1000 live births - the same as in Nigeria today. The reasons for these deaths were also the same as today: there was no separation of sewage from drinking water.

When parliament and government took notice, this was partly because of public concern from rising deaths, as well as the work of reformers such as Edwin Chadwick - known, among other things, for applying the findings of research in social and economic development. In 1842 Chadwick produced a landmark study: Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain.

His conclusions will strike a chord in many cities today: part of the problem, he is reported to have said, was that private water companies were charging high prices. His recommendations were for a private tap and latrine connected to a sewer for every household; and for local authorities to take responsibility for doing this. Action, including two acts of parliament, took time. But municipalities had removed the private water suppliers by 1880. A decade later, a massive programme of public investment in sanitation was underway.

There are many similarities between Chadwick's conclusions and those of Beyond Scarcity. A particularly poignant one is in the way both compare deaths from water and sanitation-related diseases to deaths from wars and armed conflict. Chadwick is quoted as saying: "The annual loss of life from filth and bad ventilation is greater than the loss from death or wounds from any war in which the country has been engaged in modern times."

Now consider this from the authors of the UN report: "The 1.8 million child deaths each year related to unclean water and poor sanitation dwarf the casualties associated with violent conflict. No act of terrorism generates economic devastation on the scale of the crisis in water and sanitation. Yet the issue barely registers on the international agenda."

It is high time that it did.