Previous Section Index Home Page

19 Mar 2008 : Column 270WH—continued

The interconnecting nature of the MDGs has been highlighted, not least by the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, but by helping to provide clean water and basic sanitation, we can provide a catalyst unlike any other to build a platform from which to achieve other MDGs. For example, we can do a huge amount towards MDGs 2 and 3—achieving universal primary education and promoting gender equality and empowering women. If young girls and women do not have to walk four miles every day, they are more likely to have the opportunity to partake in some sort of educational programme. In turn, as the Select Committee points out, girls who have been educated have improved
19 Mar 2008 : Column 271WH
maternal health, which relates to MDG 5, and are twice as likely to stay safe from AIDS, which relates to MDG 6. Of course, improved access to clean water would also help to reduce diarrhoea and water-borne diseases, thus reducing child mortality by an estimated 30 per cent., which relates to MDG 4.

Finally, I want to touch on the links between water and agriculture, which is the biggest consumer of water in developing countries, accounting for 70 to 90 per cent. of water consumption. As water availability becomes increasingly constrained, perhaps as a result of climate change or population growth, countries will have to make increasingly difficult decisions on how much water they can afford to use for agriculture. However, as several NGOs have pointed out, this appears to be the one area that DFID’s water strategy still does not address adequately. When he winds up the debate, will the Minister touch on that important matter and, in particular, say how his Department’s water strategy links with helping to achieving MDG 1, which seeks to halve the number of people who suffer from hunger?

In conclusion, it is clear from today’s debate that there is consensus across the House that although we are definitely moving in the right direction, there is slight frustration at the pace of progress. More can—indeed, must—be done if our aim of meeting all the MDGs by 2015 is to be a realistic one. I end with a quote from the former South African Development Minister, Ronnie Kasrils, who said:

3.29 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): I join others in congratulating the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) on securing the debate in tandem with the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). It is helpful that in the run-up to world water day on 22 March we have the opportunity to debate water and sanitation.

I join the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire in congratulating those who organised the walk and those who took part in it—the religious leaders, parliamentarians and the children and teachers of All Souls school. I regret that I was not able to take part, but I join him in commending the work of Samaritan’s Purse in organising the “Turn on the Tap” walks. I join others in encouraging the many different walks that will be organised on 10 May and hope that they have as much support as possible from our constituents.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), who has the Oxfam headquarters in his constituency, rightly highlighted the excellent work that Oxfam does on water and sanitation. He raised a series of other points that I will return to.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale rightly noted the huge significance of making progress in this area for improving health and achieving millennium development goals. He also rightly raised the issue of population growth. I had a sense of the dramatic relationship between population growth and a lack of access to water when I visited Yemen and
19 Mar 2008 : Column 272WH
talked to Ministers in the capital, Sana’a, about the huge challenges that they face. The population of Sana’a continues to grow ever greater and engineers are having to dig ever deeper to find water resources for the people of the capital. Such is the pressure on water resources that some in Yemen are starting to wonder whether the capital will have to be moved to the coast.

The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) raised a series of questions that I will come to, some of which echoed those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East.

The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) raised two issues that I want to address at the beginning of my remarks. He spoke of the importance of making progress on water and sanitation if we are to ensure that much of the discrimination that girls and women face in developing countries is addressed so that girls, for examples, get access to school. From one of my visits to northern Malawi, I remember the experience of a grandmother who looked after a series of AIDS orphans in her village. She had to walk or organise the children to walk over a mile each way to get water from the nearest river. He also rightly raised the importance of the international year of sanitation in giving focus to the need for change to the current shocking lack of access to good sanitation for people in developing countries.

My right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State for International Development, now Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, sought in November 2006 to galvanise the international community to give greater attention to water and sanitation when he published the case for a global action plan on it. He set out five key targets for progress on water and sanitation across the developing world. I will come on to say where we have got to on those five elements.

In seeking to reassure the House that the Department for International Development continues to take this issue seriously, I draw attention to the water resources forum that we held yesterday, with not only our own staff, but academic experts, civil society representatives who are working on these issues, UN organisations and a variety of other stakeholders. We share the view of all hon. Members who have spoken of the essential truth that access to safe, affordable water is a human right. We share the outrage of the House that in this day and age, more than 1 billion people still do not have safe water to drink. Indeed, half of the populations in developing countries do not have access to even a basic toilet. I share the resolve of hon. Members that we simply cannot allow that to continue.

We believe that we will meet our existing promises on spending and the future promises that have been made going forward to 2010-11. To recap, in March 2005, we announced that we would double spending on water and sanitation in Africa from £47.5 million to £95 million by 2007-08. Based on current estimates, we will meet that target. The hon. Gentleman alluded to the fact that we also said that we would double that spending by 2010-11 to achieve a figure of £200 million. It is early days for spending in Africa, but I am confident that we will meet that target.

Alistair Burt: I am grateful to the Minister for the way in which he is dealing with the issues that have been raised. However, no one is querying the amount
19 Mar 2008 : Column 273WH
of money that is being spent; that is not the issue. The issue is whether there is evidence—bearing in mind the progress report on the millennium development goals—that the money is being spent effectively and whether we are moving towards our targets. The good will and the intentions of the world community cannot be doubted, but we must ensure that progress is made, and in view of the progress report, there is a query about that. For all the money being spent, is the Minister confident that enough change has been made in how it is being spent and in the processes of providing water, so that there will be better progress towards meeting the target and we do not fall short of it?

Mr. Thomas: I cannot currently give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. We are barely on track to meet the millennium development goal on water and we are certainly off track in achieving the target on sanitation. As the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes alluded to, sub-Saharan Africa is seriously off track against the water and sanitation targets. It is that lack of progress that my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State sought to challenge in setting out the case for more global action on water and sanitation.

To give the House hope that the situation will continue to change, I give the example that in the 15 years from 1990 to 2005, more than 1.2 billion people gained access to water supply and sanitation services. We know that progress has happened and that it is achievable when the Governments of developing countries, international donors and a variety of other players in developing countries work together to accelerate progress. I hope to say a little about how some of the resources that we are spending in developing countries have made progress and will make further progress.

I will briefly dwell on some of the broader points that have been raised by hon. Members in noting that simply providing safe drinking water and better sanitation would drastically cut the needless loss of life in poor countries. As I said, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale was right to highlight that poor people are the least able to deal with the ill health that is caused by unsafe water and how a vicious circle is often created. The water used by poor people is too often contaminated or polluted. That can result in sickness and the medical costs increase the level of debt that they experience, making them less likely to be able to work or send their children to school. Improved access to water and sanitation breaks that cycle. Indeed, hon. Members alluded to the huge economic benefits of access to safe water. Millions of working days are saved and can be achieved, and millions of children, particularly girls, can attend school, with all the resulting economic benefits for the country, as well as the individual. As I said, it is women and girls who have the biggest responsibilities for providing water for drinking and cooking, and for ensuring family hygiene. We need to continue to tackle that implicit discrimination.

It is worth noting a point which I do not believe has surfaced in the debate thus far. By 2025, more than two thirds of the world’s population will live in water-stressed countries, so the way in which water is shared
19 Mar 2008 : Column 274WH
and used will be critical. The importance of that will be further heightened by an increasing population, by the urbanisation that is taking place, by the increased economic growth that is needed and by the growing challenge of climate change. All those factors will combine to make stress around access to water all the more important. Therefore, we must work with countries to help them strike the right balance between water for growth, for people to live healthy and productive lives, and, crucially, for keeping ecosystems in good shape. If people cannot do that, their long-term development will be threatened.

In order to do that, change is needed, not just within the international community but within developing countries as well. Some developing country Governments, but by no means all, do not pay enough attention to what poor people in their country say, or respond to their needs. As a result, they do not provide enough finance for water or ensure that it is not just the wealthy, the influential and the privileged who are well served in respect of access to water and good sanitation. All too often, we see in some developing countries that the funds to maintain water and sanitation systems and to keep them operating are simply not in place. Forty per cent. of the boreholes in Africa are not working simply because they need to be repaired. They could provide access to water, but they do not because they have not been repaired. That speaks to a broader point about the lack of good governance in water sectors in developing countries. That is a key point on which we are working.

I alluded to the call that my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State made in November 2006. In essence, he called for five key elements—five “ones”—to change. At the international level, he called for one international monitoring report and for one international meeting to chart progress on access to water and sanitation, and to explore what else needed doing. In developing countries, he called for one national water and sanitation plan—not a plan for how each donor would spend their money, but one clear national water and sanitation plan that everybody would get behind.

My right hon. Friend also made clear the need for all the different donors in country to come behind the leadership of one clearly designated UN agency, be it UNICEF, the World Health Organisation or something else, and support the water plan. One UN agency would take the lead.

In country, there should be one water and sanitation monitoring group of donors—not groups of donors deciding what they thought needed to happen, but all donors coming together. That may seem like common sense to hon. Members, but the sad reality is that it has not happened in many countries to date. There has often been a series of international meetings and a series of reports, and, in some years, no report. We are funding the first international monitoring report, which should be published shortly. We expect to have an opportunity to debate its implications at an international meeting that will take place in September.

In respect of the three ones principle, we are working in Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Mozambique and Bangladesh in supporting one national water and sanitation plan, seeking one UN agency to take the lead and ensuring that there is only one meeting of donors in country. In addition, we have identified three critical areas for progress over the next 12 months.
19 Mar 2008 : Column 275WH
Sanitation has been a taboo issue for too long. That point was made by the UN Secretary-General and was repeated yesterday at the water resources forum. International donors need to do more about sanitation both internationally and in developing countries directly. We are directly supporting the international year of sanitation to make that happen.

We need to do more to manage water resources better, and we will prioritise resources and time to achieve that purpose. We must consider how we can ensure that water services are better delivered to the poor. That will be done partly through the three ones principle that I alluded to, but also by ensuring that money goes directly to where it is needed.

I shall give some examples of the progress that we are making and the benefits that are being achieved with British development assistance, provided by my Department. We have approved new funding of some £75 million over five years for water and sanitation in Ethiopia. We are confident that some 3.2 million Ethiopians will benefit from that spend, but between now and 2015, 300,000 more people need to get clean water and 450,000 more people need to get basic sanitation every day if we are to meet the millennium development goals. That is a huge challenge for the international community, and it is why, when the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire intervened on me, I could not give him complete confidence that we would meet the targets. However, we seek to do everything that we can to raise the importance of these issues.

A new global sanitation fund has been launched, in part as a result of the leadership of the WHO, to try to help communities build toilets and improve hygiene, and we have committed £1.5 million over the next three years to that fund. Other donors have pledged funding as well, and we will work on maximising the impact of the fund.

I mentioned that we need to do more about water resources. Yesterday, at the water resources forum, I was able to confirm our continuing support for the Nile basin initiative, which is an example of co-operation to manage shared waters, and to encourage the peace and stability that underpin economic growth in the region. The countries that are part of the Nile basin have a combined population of some 300 million, and they are among the poorest and most water-starved people in the world.

Hon. Members who know a little about the Nile basin will recognise that there is a history of tension between the countries in the area and that water has been the source of some of that tension. Good water-basin management in the region is essential, given the importance of climate change, to ensure that those countries continue to work together. We have committed £6 million to date to the Nile basin initiative, and yesterday, I was able to pledge a further £8 million to ensure that the initiative continues.

Similarly, many hon. Members will have seen the weekend coverage of the pace of change in the melting of Himalayan glaciers. They provide water for 1.6 billion people, and it is estimated that climate change could cause them to disappear in as little as 25 years, which is within the lifetime of most of us in the Chamber. Countries must work together to determine how they can manage and better share the water
19 Mar 2008 : Column 276WH
resources in those areas. It is a volatile region, and we want to ensure that water is not a source of conflict or volatility. A south Asia water initiative has been launched to catalyse greater co-operation between countries, and we have pledged £500,000 to that initiative.

Alistair Burt: May I pick up a matter that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes and the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale raised? Do the Government have an ideological position on the privatisation and liberalisation of water resources, or do they take a pragmatic view? I am aware that there are ideological extremes on both sides. Some NGOs and others categorically refuse to accept any privatisation, and some on the free market side propound that at every step. I have been convinced by neither political extreme, and I hope that the Minister takes a practical view. Do the Government have an ideological position on the increasingly important question of how, with all the money and projects, those resources are managed between the public and private sectors to deliver supplies?

Mr. Thomas: No, the Government do not have an ideological position on whether the private, public or third sector delivers water access. We work with all three sectors in different forums, from NGOs and public utilities to private water providers, as well as international and, much more at the moment, local private bodies. I perhaps take issue with the hon. Gentleman’s question, because I believe that there is not enough financing for water supply and sanitation at the moment. We must galvanise much more interest from private and third sector organisations, such as NGOs and international organisations, as well as aid donors generally, if we are to maintain progress to achieve the target.

Where public utilities are in place and Governments decide to bring in the private sector, the quality of regulation by Governments directly in country will determine the effectiveness of those responses. That relates to my point about the importance of our continuing to focus on the governance of the water sector, how regulation is achieved and ensuring that it is delivered effectively in the interests of the poorest people.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East asked about the water supply in Gaza. I confirm that we have committed some £1.5 million to the rehabilitation of Palestinian water and sanitation services through the temporary international mechanism. We estimate that that will benefit up to 1.5 million people by funding essential operations, maintenance and repair work.

My right hon. Friend highlighted a specific difficulty that Oxfam is having with the delivery of water-related equipment to the Palestinian territories. I hope that he understands that I must look into the matter. I will take it up with my Foreign Office colleagues, and write to him to explain the steps that we are taking to address Oxfam’s problems.

I hope that I have addressed the points made by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale about population growth. I recognise that it is a huge issue.

On the role of the private sector, as I indicated to the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire, the Government do not have an ideological view. There are examples of the international private sector being a
19 Mar 2008 : Column 277WH
considerable force for good, but there are also examples of it going wrong. The lesson that I draw from that is that we must look at what works, understand the lessons when things have gone wrong and ensure that they do not happen again. This is about the quality of regulation in country, which is why delivering better governance of the water sector through our aid is important.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the role of economic partnership agreements. They will be a force for good in helping to achieve economic growth. I spent a considerable amount of time talking to trade Ministers from the four African regions and the Caribbean region about how EPAs are being implemented in practice and how the negotiations are going. All the trade Ministers to whom I spoke wanted to sign an economic partnership agreement. Some had specific concerns about particular issues, and we and the Commission are seeking to address those concerns in the run-up to the 31 December deadline. I believe that EPAs for those countries that do not have least developed country status will deliver significant benefits by allowing duty and quota-free access for goods from those countries into European markets, and the simplified rules of origin will make a substantial difference.

The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk asked whether I thought that Israel’s response was proportionate. He will have noted the response of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to his questions last week, and the joint work of the Secretary of State and the Foreign Secretary in highlighting to Israel when we have thought that their actions were not proportionate.

Next Section Index Home Page