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5 Jun 2007 : Column 14WH—continued

10.29 am

Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con): I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) on securing this important debate. I put it on the record that he has a passionate and keen interest in the developing world, particularly Africa. He is extremely knowledgeable and he articulated that knowledge in an informed way, as he described the serious water and sanitation problems in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world.

My hon. Friend rightly put the issue in the context of our own history in the United Kingdom and the significant efforts that were made in the 19th century to improve some of the appalling conditions that existed, particularly in our cities. The significant difference between the conditions that existed then in the UK and those that now exist in the developing world is the presence of powerful metropolitan boroughs and the infrastructure necessary to implement many of the recommendations that have been highlighted in the reports mentioned. That infrastructure does not exist in significant parts of the developing world.

My hon. Friend was also right to detail the significant impact of the millennium development goals on improving the lives of people in relation to health, education and other areas. I will return to that later, if I have time. He was also correct to say that the Conservative party is seriously considering in detail how to improve the delivery of water and sanitation, how the issue interacts with climate change and aid effectiveness monitoring and how we can achieve a faster more effective delivery of water and sanitation to help those who really need it.

The right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) is a renowned expert on this matter and adeptly piloted his private Member’s Bill through Parliament. Hon. Members from all parties made a small a contribution to the passage of his Bill
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and, like the right hon. Gentleman, I hope that the issues raised by the Bill will be debated on the Floor of the House as soon as possible, because it has made a significant improvement to the DFID annual report, in which it has rightly been subsumed.

The right hon. Gentleman was correct not to focus only on Africa, but to highlight water and sanitation issues in other parts of the world. DFID also needs to focus its attention in that respect. However, he was also right to recognise DFID’s contribution to the issue, although all hon. Members agree that more needs to be done. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone and the right hon. Gentleman were both correct to highlight the significant impact that organisations such as Tearfund, WaterAid and some of the other excellent non-governmental organisations have had on this issue.

I had the privilege of travelling with the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) to Nigeria, where we looked at many of the issues that he mentioned. He is an expert on Nigeria with a high reputation and a high regard for those in Nigeria because of his expertise. When we were there, we both met the formidable DFID team who were doing an excellent job, sometimes in difficult circumstances. However, he would be the first to acknowledge the significant problem of how Nigeria can provide the necessary resources for water and sanitation if it does not have an accurate view of its own population. He was also right to highlight the financial impropriety in some parts of Nigeria, because that makes it difficult to deliver the necessary improvements.

The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) was right to press the Secretary of State to ratify the UN convention and right to raise the significance of water management in the developing world. She may be aware that WWF is doing significant work on analysing those issues. I advise the Secretary of State and his officials to look at that report when it is available.

I will not repeat the statistics that have been mentioned, but make two or three points to re-emphasise the significance of the issue. There are 5,000 child deaths a day—I am not sure whether that equates to a child dying every 15 seconds, but it is a significant number—because of unclean water and poor sanitation. However, there has been some progress. Some 10 million people gained access to improved drinking water in sub-Saharan Africa annually between 1990 and 2004. The problem is that the population is growing far faster than improved services can be delivered. It is estimated that, during that same period, 60 million more people did not have access to water. On sanitation, it has been estimated that the numbers of people who have access to facilities has risen by 5 per cent. since 1990. However, that has been outstripped by population growth, so an additional 111 million people in sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to sanitation.

Water and sanitation is a key millennium development goal and, in some parts of the world, particularly in Asia, providing access to water is on track. Sadly, as with much else in sub-Saharan Africa, progress towards the millennium development goal for water and
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sanitation—I think it is No. 7—is significantly off track. If we continue at the current rate, it will not be reached until 2076.

I do not wish to paint a completely bleak picture, because there has been progress. Mauritius and South Africa are close to universal access to water. In Uganda, there has been a significant increase in the number of people with access to sanitation and water, with the figure tripling from 21 to 61 per cent. between 1990 and 2006. We acknowledge the perhaps belated progress that DFID has made on the issue by doubling the funding for water and sanitation to £95 million and doubling it again by 2011-12—whether that is enough is a debate for another day. We welcome the Government’s acknowledgement in November 2006 that access to safe and affordable water is a right for all. However, the International Development Committee report that I, along with the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green, hope will be debated in full on a separate occasion, was critical of DFID. It said that sanitation was neglected by DFID and in evidence to the Select Committee, the Secretary of State himself acknowledged that its eye had perhaps been taken off the ball regarding that.

The issue is a particularly complicated part of the international development sphere because there are numerous complex and interrelated challenges. I shall raise two or three key matters. Water and sanitation is a more challenging sector than health and education because there are often a number of Government departments, agencies and private contractors involved in the provision of the service. There is rarely one Department responsible and the issue is often the responsibility of local government, which in many developing nations does not have the absorptive capacity or infrastructure, and is regularly over-burdened, under-resourced and lacking the required expertise.

Mr. Cash: The hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) made a point about corruption and governance and I backed him up on that. I take the point that my hon. Friend makes about local government, but the history of the issue and the context in which we are considering it shows that it was the reform movement and the local government changes that took place in the mid-19th century that provided the mechanism to enable delivery. Would my hon. Friend like to pursue that point?

Mark Simmonds: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention as he is absolutely right. I was going to say that DFID can play a significant role in strengthening local government accountability and structure, and civil society in local areas. That would enable better and more effective streamlining of delivery mechanisms and instruments. My hon. Friend makes an additional point, which picks up on the point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West, about central Government accountability. He was right to highlight the dislocation that exists in Nigeria and elsewhere in the developing world because the electorate can bring to bear no accountability upon the individual who has been elected. There is often no taxation structure or system and that situation needs to be improved. That issue relates to the building of pluralistic civil societies, which I know DFID is involved with in many developing nations. We must make a greater and more significant impact on reforming institutions, reducing corruption
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and strengthening legal frameworks. Without central Government commitment and accountability in developing nations, it will be difficult to improve access to water and sanitation.

Another key point is that few water utilities are financially sustained with tariffs. It is rare to cover all operational and maintenance costs, not to mention the original funds for capital investment, so most utilities rely on subsidies, which presents significant challenges in weak and fragile states. I saw that for myself in Yemen, where Oxfam had put a water and sanitation system into a tremendously poor village just outside Aden. Not only was the system not sustainable because Oxfam would only be there for a certain number of years and the local government structures did not have the funds to improve it, but people in the village did not have the money to access the water supply and sanitation. That related to my hon. Friend’s comment that often it is the poorest who are asked to pay more, which is completely unacceptable.

Better water and sanitation could make a significant contribution to achieving all the millennium development goals. It could reduce the number of people suffering food scarcity and living on less than a dollar a day—millennium development goal 1. It could boost school enrolment—millennium development goal 2. It could promote gender equality—millennium development goal 3. It could reduce child mortality—millennium development goal 4. It could improve maternal health—millennium development goal 5. It could protect people from HIV and other diseases—millennium development goal 6. In addition, however, there is a moral imperative to improve access to water and sanitation. It has been established that improvements are cost-beneficial—the potential economic gains significantly outweigh the costs.

As the Opposition spokesman, I have three particular suggestions on which I think that DFID needs to focus. The first is greater efforts to promote sanitation and waste water treatment. Often the problem is not lack of water, but poor management, pollution and wastage, and lack of facilities. That might change as climate change has an impact; there might be more significant water shortages as rainfall and river levels drop, exacerbating water scarcity and water stress, which will lead to conflict and significant migratory flows, particularly into urban areas. It is important that we provide water and sanitation facilities, which will enable and enhance economic growth, thereby enabling developing nations to stand on their own two feet.

My second suggestion is that it is important that DFID encourage more flexible local, small-scale providers to strengthen capacity. In northern Bangladesh, I saw for myself a project run by an NGO involving microfinance and microcredit, enabling small villages to produce sanitation equipment, which they then sold to surrounding villages, which not only helped sanitation and watercourse cleanliness, but generated income for themselves, so that they could provide for their families and buy into other products and services.

Although subsidies will remain necessary to provide sanitation in rural areas, output-based aid and performance-based subsidies to support and incentivise service delivery are important. Tying subsidies to performance output to improve service quality and
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lower costs, thereby allowing increased coverage, could be a significant way forward. Indeed, recently, in Mozambique, 36,300 new connections have been made—a 22 per cent. increase in Maputo alone—via output-based aid.

My third suggestion is for subsidies for initial connection costs to increase access more rapidly, given that tariffs rarely cover operating and maintenance costs. That means ensuring sustainable long-term funding from donors and the internal national domestic budget allocations, which will enable utilities to extend their services and target areas to where the majority of poor people live.

I have two or three quick questions for the Secretary of State. The EU initiative on water and sanitation has not been a great success, even though it has improved. We are into the 10th round of the EU development fund, the replenishment of which will be finalised this year. Is DFID pressing for a reform of the EU water facility and, if so, what progress has been made? Will the Secretary of State say what progress is being made to harmonise the work of the 23 UN agencies currently involved in water and sanitation? It might be preferable to have one country plan, co-ordinating body and monitoring and evaluation strategy in each country working with the respective Governments to deliver the improvements in water and sanitation that we all want.

There was criticism in the Select Committee report about the lack of technical expertise in DFID. I hope that the Secretary of State will say today that that is being addressed, or has been already. The 2007 annual report states, in the context of the action plan that the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill mentioned earlier, that DFID is updating its policy work on water and sanitation. When will that work be publicly available, so that the House can consume and discuss it? We welcome the increased resources that DFID has pledged for water and sanitation and the fact that it has recognised concerns that there might not be significant absorptive capacity on the ground. Will he say what steps DFID is taking to strengthen the absorptive capacity of local government and providers to ensure that that funding has the maximum impact in the shortest possible time?

Effective investment in water and sanitation facilities is essential if we are to see improvements in living conditions, economic performance and the quality of life in the developing world. I plead with the Secretary of State to ensure that every penny of additional funding is delivered effectively for the benefit of those in the greatest need. He will find that the Opposition are supportive of the British agenda for water and sanitation.

10.46 am

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): I congratulate the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) on securing the debate on his early-day motion and on the passion and eloquence with which he spoke this morning on a subject close to the hearts of all right hon. and hon. Members present. I welcome the contributions of my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke), my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) and the hon. Members for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) and for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds). I congratulate also the End Water Poverty campaign,
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initiated by WaterAid, on encouraging all of us to do more. I welcome the International Development Committee report; the fact that it chose to carry out this inquiry and focus on this very important issue has been of great assistance.

The hon. Member for Stone summed it up when he talked about water being the stuff of life, but we have a world water crisis. The statistics are stark: 1.1 billion people lack clean water, 2.6 billion have no access to sanitation and 5,000 children die every day—he said that one dies every 15 seconds—because they have no water. In developing countries, the task of fetching and carrying water falls mainly to girls and women. On a recent visit to Malawi, I walked with some women and I ended that afternoon with an even greater appreciation of the sheer physical labour involved in that task. Those women walked six times that day the 15 minutes to the water points to collect the water, put incredibly heavy buckets on their heads and walked back. When girls are doing that, they cannot go to school. As he rightly said, the knock-on effects on their lives are enormous. They are less likely to have healthy children and be protected from HIV, and it is very clear that girls who have gone to school have greater knowledge and capacity to influence what happens to their lives and bodies than girls who have not. In Africa, an estimated 5 per cent. of gross domestic product is lost to illnesses and deaths caused by dirty water and the absence of sanitation.

Everyone recognises that that must change. That is why we have the millennium development goal for water and sanitation, which is to reduce by half the proportion of people without access to safe water supplies and basic sanitation by 2015. As we have heard, some countries are on target to meet that goal, but sub-Saharan Africa is really lagging behind on water and most of the developing world will miss out on sanitation. As the debate today has shown, the real challenge is to get governance right—to get the right institutions and systems. That challenge will become much greater owing to rapid population growth and rising urbanisation. As the hon. Member for Stone reminded us, we went through exactly the same process in this country in the 19th century. It is now being replicated in the developing world, first in Asia and then in Africa. In the next 50 years, the majority of people will live in towns and cities, but where is the clean water supply and sanitation going to come from? How did it change here? Contributions from social reformers, such as Chadwick and John Snow, drew attention to it. They insisted that the hand be taken off the pump in Broad street, which proved finally that cholera is caused by contaminated water. Remember the Great Stink in the 19th century when this Parliament finally got the message when it had to stop sitting because of the stink in the River Thames.

Several hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West, made the point that the real lesson is about political will. The question is why it took our nation so long to get the message that lack of clean water and sanitation had a terrible impact on people’s lives. The question is exactly the same in the developing world. In the end, the national Governments in those countries have to get the message. With the best
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will in the world, we cannot do it for people. Those Governments have to hear the message direct from their own electorate.

Let me explain one of the challenges. The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness was right forcefully to make the point he did about the problem of diffuse responsibility. In almost every country, there is a national education Ministry and a national health Ministry, but no national Ministry with responsibility for water and sanitation. The issue is dealt with regionally and by local authorities—it is dealt with at a very local level. The part that we play is that of helping those who do have the responsibility to get the message and to get on with the practical work of providing the water and sanitation required. That is why in every country there needs to be one national water and sanitation plan and one national group that co-ordinates action, bringing together Government, civil society, local authorities and donors to see what progress has been made and what the obstacles are and to agree on who will do what.

What contribution can the United Kingdom make to all that? We have done a fair bit already, but we need to do a lot more. The hon. Member for Stone kindly referred to the commitment to double and then double again our investment in water and sanitation in Africa by 2011. Included in that are plans to support a £100 million water and sanitation programme in Ethiopia and an £82 million joint health, hygiene, water and sanitation programme in Sierra Leone, because all those things are connected. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West referred to work in Nigeria.

I have to tell the hon. Member for Stone that global aid for water and sanitation is increasing again, having declined because the world took its eye off the ball, just as—we have to tell the truth—the Governments of some developing countries took their eye off the ball and did not give the issue the priority that it deserved. With the global call for action that I published last November anticipating the call that the hon. Gentleman made for the issue to be discussed by the G8, we are already on the case. The world needs to get its act together in ensuring that the contribution that we make as donors is more effective in helping change to happen on the ground.

That is why we want two things internationally. One is an annual report to monitor progress towards the MDG water and sanitation targets. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, the architect of the Bill that resulted in the very thick but, I have to say, very good DFID annual report. He and others have championed the argument that shining a better light of transparency on the work that all of us are doing helps to move the politics on, because when people can see what is or is not happening, they can say, when things are not working, “Oi, what are you going to do about that?”

Mr. Cash: On the “Oi” point, I ask the Secretary of State to raise this matter specifically and personally with the Prime Minister and urge him to raise the matter as a proper priority in the discussions in the G8.

Hilary Benn: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we, along with the French, have, through the G8 sherpa process, raised this issue.

Mr. Cash: I asked about the Prime Minister.

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