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For those of us who have been fortunate enough to visit countries in the developing world and work with extraordinary people who cope daily with burdens that we can scarcely comprehend, one of the abiding memories of such a visit is the women and children who line the roads every day as they carry jerry cans
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and other containers significant distances to find the water that they need for their families for the day. In some circumstances, that parade of graceful, incredibly resourceful people can appear rather romantic—a traditional pattern of life being carried on in the modern world—but in reality it is the face of a disaster. Lack of water is one of the single greatest factors restraining developing nations from fulfilling their true potential, as women and children’s time and effort are diverted from other activities to the daily grind of securing water—an act that all of us take for granted. The average distance that women in Africa and Asia walk to collect water is four miles, and the average weight of the water that they carry on their heads is some 20 kg, roughly the same as our baggage allowance in a United Kingdom airport.

That is why, yesterday morning, a collection of hon. Members, religious leaders and some 30 wonderful children from All Souls Church of England primary school in Foley street, London, led by their head teacher, Miss Alex Ascough, assembled in Parliament square to undertake a symbolic four-mile journey to collect water from a fountain in Hyde park, fill some containers and return. We carried nothing like the amount of water that we would actually need for the day.

I asked the House of Commons Library to estimate how much water is used each day on the parliamentary estate, and the Library kindly put together some figures for me. In 2006-07, the estate used 178,084 cu m of water. In working out what that comes to for each of us, one can do various calculations: per Member and peer, per working day or per sitting day. Our best minimum estimate was that all of us—MPs, peers, parliamentary staff, political staff and visitors—use 23 gallons of water every day, 365 days a year. Imagine if we had to carry that every day—fetching it, carrying it, bringing it into our offices—before starting work and getting on with the day.

I commend those who walked with us yesterday, particularly the children. Their behaviour was impeccable, their interest in what we were doing was remarkable and their sense of solidarity with their brothers and sisters in so many places around the world who do the same for real every day was palpable. I thank them and the school for their efforts. The walk was, we hope, the first of hundreds in the “Turn on the Tap” campaign of challenge walks being organised nationwide by the Christian international development organisation, Samaritan’s Purse. Churches, community organisations, schools, clubs and individuals are being encouraged to organise similar four-mile walks on or around 10 May this year. The charity hopes that the simple symbolism captured by the walk will encourage more people to direct their aid efforts towards water provision, and it has prepared aids for schools, including lesson plans and charts, to encourage those who wish to organise a walk. I commend Samaritan’s Purse for what it is doing and for its efforts to bring it to the attention of the House.

Samaritan’s Purse is far from being the only charity involved with water provision. WaterAid, World Vision and a series of leading non-governmental organisations and charities working in development recognise the
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importance of the provision of water and provide opportunities for people to donate to support such projects. I am sure that the whole House would commend such work and urge individuals and communities to continue to do what they can to support it. Although government has its role in development—I shall come to that shortly—it should not be forgotten that each of us owes an individual responsibility to our neighbours in a rapidly shrinking world. We cannot expect all the burdens to be shouldered by others or by Government. By supporting individual projects and the work of charities and NGOs such as Samaritan’s Purse, and by taking part in the “Turn on the Tap” challenge, we are all playing our part.

I should like to say a word about one aspect of the importance of access to water in the developing world, apart from the obvious connection with disease or health, which I think others might cover. The developing world knows that its future does not rely on aid donations, nor has it done so for many years. It relies on countries and their peoples developing their full potential, but if the basics of life are inaccessible, the time spent acquiring them takes people away from the very processes needed to help a country develop in the best possible way.

For children in particular, the absence of water makes a substantial difference to their schooling. Last year, I had the honour of visiting Rwanda with colleagues, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), as part of a substantial project. As we travelled through the country, we saw children taking water to and from places and we visited children in village schools. We saw the quality of some of those schools and of the toilets and sanitation in them. As a result of that, we recognised how important the process of fetching water is.

WELL, the resource centre for water, sanitation and environment health at Loughborough university, says that in Madagascar, for example, 3.5 million school days are lost each year owing to ill health related to poor sanitation, and that children frequently miss school owing to domestic and water-carrying duties. It reports a 12 per cent. increase in Tanzanian school attendance when water is 15 minutes away rather than an hour. Of the 120 million school-age children not in school around the world, the majority are girls. Some 41 per cent. of primary-age girls worldwide not enrolled in school are in south Asia and 35 per cent. are in sub-Saharan Africa. When women and girls have access to water and sanitation, less school time is lost. Where there are working and well maintained separate sanitation facilities for girls, school enrolment increases. In rural Pakistan more than 50 per cent. of girls drop out of school in grades 2 and 3 because the schools do not have toilets.

Many questions surround the provision of water, which cannot and will not always be supplied in exactly the same way. The needs of urban and rural communities are different. There are complex questions about how water is supplied; about the role of non-governmental organisations, charities, Governments and the private sector; about ensuring that a country’s resources are best used to provide water; about how utilities are provided all over the world and how those services can
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be liberalised—that has been raised in world trade talks—and about the extent to which communities can, or should, be required to make a financial contribution towards the water that they need in order to help to provide investment for others. Those are all questions with which Governments and others must wrestle, but the basic underlying facts remain undeniable and must challenge us all.

The debate in this country, which centres on questions such as the provision of bottled or tap water, what we ask for in a restaurant, whether water comes with bubbles or without, and so on, is one of luxury and must seem a world away from the roads lined with women and children as they carry their cans to some hole in the rock from which water is flowing, or to a polluted well where water is not flowing at all. By accidents of birth, they are where they are, and we are here. We cannot put everything right that we would wish to through the stroke of a pen, or the signing of a cheque, but we can individually make a difference by remembering, each time we reach for a bottle or a tap, the difficulties experienced by those who can do neither.

I hope that the “Turn on the Tap” walks will be well supported around the country. I commend Barbara Farquhar, who is promoting the walk for Churches Together in Biggleswade in my constituency on 10 May. I urge my constituents to join her and me in this and similar walks.

Will the Minister provide the Government’s assessment of progress towards the millennium goals on water and explain the priority given to promoting water access in the aid and development schemes that we support? This debate has aroused interest already, both inside and outside the House, and I know from conversations with my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) that he takes it very seriously. By and large, the subject unites the House. It is a question of how we, as politicians, as a nation and as individuals, can best deliver. The subject might be complex in the detail of how water is supplied, but in essence it is a simple matter of justice and equity and of ensuring that people all over the world have what we take for granted and have so easily available at the turn of a tap.

2.44 pm

Mr. Andrew Smith (Oxford, East) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) on securing the debate on what is undoubtedly one of the most important and pressing issues facing the world. I commend him on his speech, his evident commitment and the way in which he set out his arguments. I always listen carefully to arguments in the Chamber, from whomever they come, but it is rare that I agree with every word of an argument made by an Opposition Member—this is one of those occasions. I endorse what he said about the importance of pulling together across the House and other political divisions. I join him in praising all of those seeking to raise awareness and to prompt action on this vital matter.

I shall focus on two things: the work of Oxfam and the catastrophic situation in Gaza. Last week, I was very pleased to welcome the Secretary of State for International Development to Oxford. As part of that visit, we went to Oxfam and discussed with staff their excellent work focusing specifically on the challenge of
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water distribution. We saw the water distributor that Oxfam sends out to areas in need. It is simple to erect and operate, with buckets designed to be as easy for people to carry on their heads as possible and with tamper-proof lids. As the hon. Gentleman said, that was a humbling reminder of how arduous it is for the women and children who do much of the water collection in poor countries, and of how, in zones of disaster and war, very simple devices to allow people to get the basic essential of water can make an enormous difference to their lives, and indeed to whether they have a life.

The scale of the challenge confronting us is truly enormous, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out. According to UNICEF, more than 1 billion people drink unsafe water and more than 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation facilities. Those factors alone are the world’s single biggest cause of disease. Disruption of water supplies in disaster and conflict zones, or because of climate change, is the most immediate and dangerous aftermath of catastrophe, and is a real killer, especially of children and older people.

It is greatly to Oxfam’s credit, and to that of all who support it, that its single most distinctive competence in disaster relief and emergency assistance—of course, it has experience in a wide range of areas—is its expertise in assessing and addressing risks to public health, where clean water supply, along with sanitation and hand washing, is absolutely crucial. Of course, to wash hands, enough water is needed to drink first. Oxfam rapid deployment kits—with water tanks, tap stands, buckets and latrine kits, all designed for rapid distribution and easy construction—are saving hundreds of thousands of lives by getting quick help on water and sanitation to the victims of disaster. I congratulate all those involved in that vital work and the public support that makes it possible.

The big challenge for the future is to make better and faster progress towards the millennium development goal—I know that Department for International Development programmes are working on that—and towards installing, improving and replacing permanent water supply systems in poor countries, so that the revolution in public health that Britain enjoyed thanks to Victorian engineers can at last reach everybody.

What assessment have the Minister and his Department made of the effectiveness of aid and loans on infrastructure investment in water supply in poor countries? I was minded to ask that question in light of recent news about the disastrous electricity supply in Nigeria and the way in which investment there seems to have disappeared—some of it through fraud and corruption, no doubt. Are there similar problems elsewhere? Situations will vary enormously from country to country, of course, and we are all aware of instances in which it has proved much more effective to give direct assistance at a Community level or through NGOs, rather than through incompetent or corrupt Governments or local administrations. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend responds to that because we must ensure that the aid and loans which are intended to provide that most basic essential of clean water do so.

One of the worst aspects of the vulnerability of poor people to an absence of water supply is when water and sanitation, which would otherwise be available, are denied as a consequence of conflict. It is one of the
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most awful manifestations of the impact of military or terrorist activity on civilians, because it could hardly be more calculated to have the worst effects on the most vulnerable—elderly people and children.

I shall focus part of my remarks on the catastrophic situation in Gaza. Before I go any further, however, let me underline that yes, those people responsible should stop firing rockets or deploying suicide bombers against Israel, but that is not the issue in this debate. Before Hamas took over control of Gaza in June last year, Israel had already stopped spare parts for water and sanitation networks entering Gaza. Import restrictions on fuel and water equipment are leaving water-well and sewerage systems in a desperate state. Oxfam staff have visited communities that are flooded knee deep in sewage, with people marooned in upstairs rooms without water or sanitation. Although the overall situation fluctuates, in recent months the Palestinian water authority has estimated that at times as many as 40 per cent. of Gaza’s population has been without a water supply.

That effective collective punishment is in breach of the Geneva convention and Israel’s obligations under the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend, whom I was also pleased to accompany to Oxfam recently, could tell us what action the Government are taking to relieve that humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, and specifically whether he and his colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are intervening to secure entry for £10,000 worth of electrical and mechanical equipment that Oxfam has been trying to get into Gaza for several weeks as a first instalment on hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth of water and sanitation equipment, which Oxfam, the World Bank, UNICEF and other humanitarian agencies are desperate to supply. Despite the equipment having been presented for transfer by the Israeli authorities, and apparently having met the transfer requirements, I am told that it keeps getting turned back by the Israeli forces at the border. I ask him and our Government to do all they can to help get that equipment through, and more generally—whether in Gaza, Darfur or anywhere else—to make it clear that water and sanitation must not be deployed as weapons of war.

We face an enormous challenge, but as the hon. Gentleman said, the supply of water is not a matter for political division. As a nation, we—the Government, the people, charities, faith groups and everyone who is concerned about the problem—must pull together to ensure that what really is a basic necessity of life reaches all citizens throughout the world, whatever their circumstances or situation.

2.53 pm

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hood, and I congratulate the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) on securing a very important debate. I want to say some things that are, I suppose, political, vaguely negative and possibly even critical of the situation, but in no way do I wish to break the all-party consensus. The challenges are serious and we face them together.

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Every good student of British social history knows about the Rev. Thomas Malthus, who famously predicted in the late 18th century that we would all starve and run out of clean water by the mid-19th century, because, from his standpoint, we were growing geometrically population-wise, but, I think, growing arithmetically in terms of our ability to provide additional food, clean water and sanitation. The poor guy has been held up as a laughing stock for the past 230 years by A-level tutors throughout the country, and with no offence to the memory of Mr. Malthus, I should not like to see him rehabilitated in the coming years on the subject of access to clean water throughout the world. I want him to continue to be proved wrong, but I have my fears, because over the next 40 years, the world’s population will increase by 50 per cent. and demand for water will increase by more than that. The sad fact is that Malthus may be proven right if we cannot find ways to ensure that all the world’s people have access to that basic human right—clean and safe water.

Currently, more than 1 billion people do not have access to enough clean water to meet those basic needs—not the extravagances that we assume we need, but their basic needs. The consequences are dire, because as the hon. Gentleman said, there are 5 billion cases of diarrhoea each year among children in developing countries. That sickness is the second-biggest killer of children in those countries, and in total 2 million people, predominantly young children under five years old, die each year because they do not have access to clean water.

In this country, however, according to a recent BBC “Panorama” study, we spend £2 billion a year on bottled water, despite having access to perfectly clean and safe water—tap water. Dare I say it that in western society we have become so prissy and gullible that now we will buy water only in bottles? Although I am pleased to say that the bottled water before me is not imported, some is, and often it is even imported from developing countries. According to the BBC survey for “Panorama”, those countries include Fiji, where one third of the population do not have access to clean and safe drinking water. There is something obscene about that, as I am sure we all agree.

The situation should make us ashamed. It made the world’s leaders so ashamed that the millennium development goals were agreed to, including goal 7.3, which aims to halve by 2015 the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. Sadly, as the hon. Gentleman said, current trends show that we are off target in large parts of the world. Indeed, as things stand, we will miss it by a staggering 600 million people, and the tragedy is that in some parts of the developing world, we may even be going backwards. The United Nations millennium development goals report 2007 states that in the largest part of Africa, the absolute number of people without access to sanitation increased from 335 million at the beginning of the 1990s to 440 million just three years ago. That is outrageous, but it is not the only threat that we face, because climate change threatens access to clean water, too.

The UN estimates that as things stand, by 2080 an additional 1.8 billion could live in a water-scarce environment. The challenge is huge and it is not getting any easier. Of the 1.1 billion people who do not have
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access to clean water, most cannot reach it because the provision simply does not exist. However, there is evidence, sadly, that a large minority of those 1.1 billion people do not have access to clean water because of financial constraints, and they are entirely avoidable.

To support the development of water infrastructure, many private companies have taken advantage of aid from western countries as water supplies have been extensively privatised. Hon. Members will, I hope, be reassured that I am not trying to make a gratuitously ideological point, merely a practical one. I contend that the privatisation of supply has on the whole been a failure. It has been a waste of aid money and a means of making profit from impoverished societies while denying the very poorest people access to clean and safe water.

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, when he was the Secretary of State for International Development, made important steps forward last year when he ensured that additional support was given to enable public utilities to develop water and sanitation infrastructure on a not-for-profit basis in developing countries. However, the European Union continues to promote unfair market solutions, which can hardly be described as either fair trade or free trade. I say so as a strong supporter of that body. The Minister knows about the economic partnership agreements that would allow EU countries to have bilateral arrangements with countries that are essentially their former colonies, and which would formalise a trade-for-aid package that obligated the developing country in the partnership to open its markets to its rich European partner in return for aid. In many cases, the part of the developing country’s economy that is of most interest to powerful European companies is its utilities. Therefore, water gets controlled by those aiming to make a profit from it and it is not supplied freely and safely to everybody in need.

To raise the spectre of Malthus again, the great fear is that increased world population will place even greater pressure on this precious resource, especially if it is controlled by self-interested bodies whose motivation is primarily profit. The tensions over water rights will increase. However, the tensions over the ownership of this most natural of resources have been building for many years; it is not a new thing. I suggest that these tensions are going to become worse unless we can ensure fair trade in water supply.

A story was related to me recently of the old farmer from Colorado who, just after world war two, spoke about the local private water company that had effectively removed his water rights and the rights of others in his rural community. I will not attempt the accent, but the farmer said, “Them folks in Denver, they’ve reversed the laws of nature: they’ve made water run uphill towards money.”

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