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Although we have heard that the current situation, in which a sixth of the world’s population is in water need, is dire, my fear is that, without radical change and political will, which includes understanding that water is a public resource—if we do not understand that, things will only get worse—the situation will deteriorate. That is why, in redoubling efforts to meet millennium development goal 7.3, we must face up to
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some uncomfortable truths and powerful vested interests that lie behind our failure as a world community to meet those targets for access to safe, clean water.

3.1 pm

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): May I be the latest in the line to congratulate the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) on his impressive leadership on this issue and the fact that he has secured this debate today? In doing so, he has allowed us the opportunity to reflect on one of the biggest challenges that the world faces and one of the most important issues that we, as a rich developed country, must tackle, and we must help others to tackle it, too.

The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire set out at great length the underlying problems that many people face; I hope that I do not repeat too many of the statistics that he quoted, but some of them bear repeating. He was right to remind us of the gulf between the privileged position that we enjoy in the Palace of Westminster, where water is literally on tap to us for every need and every whim, and the harsh realities of the everyday lives of millions of people around the world.

I also pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), who rightly highlighted the work that Oxfam has done. Many other organisations, including NGOs, are also active in this field, but we understand why Oxfam plays such an important part in his view. Like the Ministers to whom he referred, about a year or so ago, I visited Oxfam’s headquarters, which is a truly spectacular set-up. It is a symbol, I suppose, of Oxfam’s breadth and reach and, as the right hon. Member pointed out, of the important contribution that Oxfam makes in so many different areas.

Without getting sidetracked, may I also endorse the observations of the right hon. Member for Oxford, East about Gaza? Although most of the comments today will be focused on the crisis in sub-Saharan Africa, the situation in Gaza is truly appalling, as we have said in so many debates in the House recently. It seems likely that the Minister will have a generous amount of time to reply to this debate, and I hope that he will take some time to address the points that have been made about Gaza. I have been pressing the Secretary of State for International Development and other Ministers in correspondence about the extent to which they regard Israel’s response to the issues in Gaza as proportionate. I invite the Minister today to address that subject, including the comments of the right hon. Member for Oxford, East.

My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) has put things in very dramatic terms, and he is right to do so. For all the intellectual humour that there may have been at Mr. Malthus’s expense over the centuries, my hon. Friend is right to remind us of the basic prediction that Malthus was making and the problems that we may yet have to laugh on the other side of our face about.

Although I do not accept every aspect of what my hon. Friend said about the role of the private sector, he is right to highlight some of the dangers of private sector involvement. It is important that we strike the right balance. We must get the private sector expertise,
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initiative and input into tackling problems like the lack of access to safe water and sanitation, but we must not tie developing countries in such a way that they are beholden to the profit motive rather than what is absolutely their first priority: ensuring that they get the access to the water and other resources that they need.

Like the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire, I pay tribute to the staff of Samaritan’s Purse, particularly Simon Barrington, Matt Bird and the many others who have been instrumental in bringing Parliament’s attention to this issue. As you will know, Mr. Hood, MPs are inundated by invitations to meet groups and organisations, both small and large, from constituents and many others. It takes a special kind of organisation and a special kind of issue to create a stand-out moment that one remembers. Meeting the guys from Samaritan’s Purse a few weeks ago, I was immediately impressed both by what they are trying to do as an organisation and, even more crucially, by the fact that they were not puffing their own organisation but focusing on this issue. Through speaking to them and subsequent research, I, for one, have learned a great deal more about the issue, and I am absolutely sure that they are right to expend so much energy on it.

Again like the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire, I pay tribute to those who joined us yesterday on what was thankfully a fairly modest walk. It took place in reasonably clement conditions; they were a bit chillier than we might have expected and a world away from the temperature that the people of sub-Saharan Africa must cope with day in, day out. The walk, from Parliament square to Hyde park, was a good opportunity for us to reflect on what is a daily responsibility for people in many parts of the world.

MPs and Church leaders went on the walk, but I, too, was very impressed by the teachers and particularly the children of All Souls primary school. It is clearly a school that has a very outward-looking focus. I asked the children about what was exciting them at the moment, and they were still full of happy memories of a recent visit to a farm in Wales, which had obviously opened their eyes to very early starts in the morning and to some different realities of life here in Britain. More broadly, however, they were very seized of the issue that we were highlighting yesterday by that walk. We were all grateful when we reached Hyde park that, although there were quite a lot of water containers, there was not one each, so we were able to understand a little of the issue without having to endure all the discomfort and physical pain that would go with making such a walk regularly. Perish the thought that we might have to carry what we as individuals use on this estate every day.

“Turn on the Tap”, Samaritan’s Purse and many other organisations and campaigns are focusing on this issue and drawing particular attention to the walks that will take place around the country on 10 May. I hope that there will be a lot of support then for the different Church organisations and other organisations across the United Kingdom that are participating in this year’s efforts. It is fundamentally important that we, in all our communities across the United Kingdom, are
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conscious of this issue and do our bit, both to raise awareness and to make a material difference to the lives of people across the world.

We have already heard many of the statistics. None the less, the fact that 1.1 billion people live without access to safe water is something that we should not tolerate. Parliamentary convention requires us to be moderate in our tone in how we conduct these debates, and quite right too, Mr. Hood; I do not intend to challenge that convention. However, the “Turn on the Tap” website quite rightly says that the fact that 1.1 billion people do not have access to safe water is an outrage. We need to get an element of that outrage into the way that we think about the problem that we are trying to tackle.

Hon. Members have already mentioned the millennium development goal, and I am sure that the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster), who is the Conservative shadow Minister for International Development, and the Minister himself will reflect on that goal, too, in due course. Although, as others have said, we are in danger of failing to meet that target, we must remember that it is not to eradicate the problem or to ensure that everyone has access to clean water, but to halve the number of people without access to it. Even if we meet that target, therefore, we will still be only part of the way towards eradicating this terrible problem, and we must not lose sight of that. Not meeting that relatively modest target would therefore be a real failure.

We are talking not just about one development goal; it is interlinked with many others. Indeed, I am sure that a case can be made for each of the millennium development goals to be linked to this issue, because if we are serious about reducing child mortality, promoting better maternal health and achieving universal primary education, we must ensure that people have access to safe water—the issue must be right up there and it needs to be ticked off as having been achieved. As the kids yesterday showed us, taking a few hours out of the day to go and collect water means that people are in no position to study or to lift themselves out of poverty. We must therefore see the issue in the round.

At the same time that we are trying to tackle these issues, we are also fighting the huge problem of climate change. As we try to mitigate the worst effects of bad sanitation and poor access to water, global warming is making the problem more acute—not just in the obvious sense that it is warmer, but because the weather is being disrupted, thus threatening what predictable sources exist. Sadly, water and access to it are increasingly a source of conflict, as we see in Gaza and parts of Africa. We can quickly get into a vicious spiral, moving further away from our goals, rather than closer to them.

The developed world has of course pledged to meet the millennium development goals, which are a wonderful focus for us all, as we seek to reach a point where we are no longer ashamed by the fact that so many people go hungry and do without water and so much else. The European Union has had its water initiative in previous years, and the World Bank has been financing a huge range of projects across the globe through the International Development Association. In recognising the need to speed up our achievement of the development goals that we are talking about, the Government have been central to the call for action,
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and I hope that the Minister will continue to use that call as a focal point for all countries in the European Union and elsewhere to encourage them to recognise the centrality of those goals.

DFID has increased its funding in this area, and I, like others, pay tribute to the Government for that. How have they used the increased funding during the current year and how will they achieve their target of doubling expenditure by the end of 2011? Increasingly, particularly on health—we debated the international health partnerships in this Chamber a couple of weeks ago—we are looking at how we can focus different channels of aid and assistance through one programme or another to minimise the bureaucracy and ineffectiveness of some of the existing methods of delivery. Does the Minister see some scope for greater co-ordination and focus on the issue?

The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire talked about how much we learned from yesterday’s walk, and I repeat his point that it was a humbling experience not only to learn so much from the children who took part, but to reflect on why we were taking the trouble to walk four miles on just one day, as opposed to every day of our lives, and not in the conditions that so many others experience. Like the hon. Gentleman, I urge people in my constituency and in others up and down the land to support the “Turn on the Tap” initiative, not only on 10 May, but in the following weeks, months and years. We should never lose sight of the fact there is an outrage at the root of this issue, and we must do something about it.

3.14 pm

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): It is a pleasure to be able to contribute to this important debate. If I achieve nothing else in my few remarks, I hope that I will underline the fact that sanitation and clean water must go hand in hand. All too often sanitation has been very much an afterthought, and it is vital that the two issues are considered in partnership.

I start, however, by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) on securing this important debate. He did a marvellous job of outlining the issues and opening the debate. I also compliment the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) on his excellent speech, which highlighted not only the good work of Oxfam in his constituency, but the contribution that other non-governmental organisations make. In addition, I congratulate the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) on his informed speech, which highlighted the impact that not dealing with this problem can have on health. He also made some interesting remarks about the role of the private sector, to which I intend to return. Finally, the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) once again made a very good speech, and I take this opportunity to commend him on tabling early-day motion 897, which in recent weeks and in the run-up to today’s debate has done much to highlight the concern about the issue.

This is a timely debate, not least because 2008 is the United Nations international year of sanitation. As we heard, yesterday saw the “Turn on the Tap” four-mile
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walk, with my hon. Friend leading the way. That event highlighted the average distance that people have to walk every day to fetch clean water so that they and their families can drink that day. My hon. Friend and other hon. Members highlighted the fact that the distance travelled by such people—the majority of them women—is just one of the many negative impacts that the lack of access to clean water has on people in developing countries. Indeed, the impact on health of the lack of access to clean water and basic sanitation is staggering. Various statistics have been quoted, but the fact that every 20 seconds a child dies because of the lack of clean water and sanitation is frightening. That amounts to 1.6 million children under the age of five dying each year because of unsafe water and inadequate hygiene.

It could be argued that when the international community signed up to the millennium development goals, clean water and sanitation were not seen as sufficiently important to appear as one of the eight main headline goals. The issues before us are covered in MDG 7 on ensuring environmental stability—in MDG 7.3 to be precise. Following the 2002 world summit on sustainable development, however, the world woke up to the crucial role that access to clean water and sanitation can play in helping us to reach the MDGs. In the same year, at the UN special summit on children and the second and third world water forums, three new goals were set for the international community. The first was to halve the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water by 2015. The second was to halve the proportion of people who do not have direct access to basic sanitation by 2015. The final goal was to equip all schools with sanitation and hand-washing facilities, also by 2015.

Unfortunately, it has been widely recognised, and DFID has been candid in admitting—I therefore hope that the Minister will take this criticism on the chin; I assure him that it is the only criticism that I shall make of his Department today—that just as the world was waking up to the importance of water and sanitation, DFID was, unfortunately, restructured and has been criticised for rather taking its eye off the ball. Dr. Darren Saywell of the International Water Association said:

To be fair and balanced, however, it is clear from the 2006 White Paper that, having identified sanitation as one of the four essential public services for the MDGs, and having recently increased its financial commitment to water and sanitation, the Department has attempted, and continues to attempt, to re-establish its lead on this issue. I am convinced that, with continued effort, it will do that.

Despite DFID’s renewed interest, which I commend, progress towards the goals remains painfully slow. A recently published World Health Organisation report estimated that the sanitation component of the MDG sanitation targets faces

As of today—the figures are worth repeating—an estimated 1.1 billion people still do not have access to
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improved water supplies, and 2.4 billion do not have access to any type of improved sanitation. I am sure that the Minister agrees that that simply is not good enough.

It would cost an estimated $42 billion to achieve the goal of providing clean water to half of those who currently go without it, and $322 billion to maintain the current clean water system. Likewise, it would cost $142 billion to halve the number of people who do not have access to basic sanitation, and $216 billion to maintain the current sanitation systems in developing nations. That adds up to spending a staggering $72 billion a year up to 2015 to achieve those goals. Although I commend DFID’s uplift in spending, with figures like those, it will take a combined effort from all the nations that have signed up to achieve those important goals. I hope that whichever party is in power, the UK will continue to take the lead.

Last year’s report by the Select Committee on International Development, however, highlighted the fact that money alone will neither provide toilets and taps for the billions of people who currently lack access, nor drive the demand and change of behaviour that are required to provide sustainable uptake. The rush to spend money can have unintended consequences, of which I have personal experience. In 2006, I spent some time as a military engineer in Helmand, where I worked alongside DFID to deliver quick impact projects. In our desire to deliver those projects, to show people on the ground how the Government were beginning to make a difference to their lives, we made mistakes. I have raised this issue before in the House. We dug so many new wells in Helmand province without conducting proper water surveys that we ended up lowering the water table, and as a result the ancient karazes that brought water off the mountains no longer flowed. That is a clear example of how we can rush in and spend money to help a community, but instead have a long-lasting negative impact on that community. I hope that we have learned from such lessons.

Last week, I was in Guatemala—as an aside, I must tell the Minister that many non-governmental organisations there fear that DFID is turning its back on that country—where I was fascinated by a water project there. A local community managed to raise enough money to bring a 35 km pipeline into its village. Unfortunately, however, it was forced to bring the water through surrounding communities, many of whom were jealous that the pipeline was going through their communities but not serving them. The project took three years to be established because communities along the pipeline were simply smashing the pipe out of jealousy because they were angry that they had no access to the water it carried, while other communities did.

What have we done and what should we be doing? DFID’s website states that the targets

It also recognises that, on current trends, the

To be fair, the rhetoric is good, but actions and global leadership are needed if we are to achieve what we set
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out to do. DFID is taking steps in the right direction: it has committed to increase its spending on essential public services such as water, sanitation, health, education and social protection in at least half of the UK’s direct support programmes in developing countries. In addition, as I have said, it will double its support for the provision of water and sanitation in sub-Saharan Africa to £95 million a year by 2007-08, and more than double funding again to £200 million by 2010-11. Perhaps the Minister will confirm those figures and give an update on our progress toward the 2010-11 figure.

We must also consider carefully how the private sector can help in delivering essential services such as water. I return to the point that the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale made. It might well be damaging for water supply to remain a monopoly of the state in countries where the state is manifestly failing to deliver adequate services to its citizens. Well managed privatisation could help to expand access to clean water and to save lives if—I emphasise “if”—there is proper supervision, regulatory bodies and contract enforcement. What is the Minister’s assessment of the merits of greater private sector participation in service delivery in developing countries?

Aid predictability is one concern that is repeatedly raised with me when I visit NGOs in the field, as in Guatemala last week. Of course, political situations change in countries, and that may affect funding streams. In Nepal, which I hope to visit next month to monitor the elections, the Department has cut its water and sanitation budget from £4 million in 2003 to just £1.9 million in 2007-08. Its failure to provide long-term, predictable and co-ordinated finance in those sectors is clearly detrimental to achieving success in such projects. What steps is the Minister taking to meet the criticisms of his Department in that regard?

The Select Committee has made it clear that we must do more than improve the predictability of funding streams. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale highlighted some of the problems of tackling killer diseases. Spending money effectively can achieve disproportionate results in the provision of access to clean water and sanitation in developing nations, but, as I have highlighted, money is not the solution to everything. Unfortunately there remain significant barriers to progress on sanitation. For example, access to clean water and basic sanitation seldom features prominently on national political agendas, and people still attach a higher priority to water than to sanitation, even though the two go hand in hand. Unfortunately, factors such as prestige and convenience rank above health as a motivation for people seeking improved sanitation.

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