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1 May 2008 : Column 146WH—continued

In the context of managing water resources, it is a classic fact that the continent of Africa—I will oversimplify this slightly—has enough water to meet the needs of all the people of Africa. Of course, that varies quite a bit across the continent—perhaps we should leave the Sahara out of the equation. One problem is that many countries often experience both flooding and droughts in the same year, which is a clear indication that the water supply is not being managed, although I am not suggesting that that problem could be solved easily. What are the various agencies doing to improve the quality of water management, to iron out the extremes in supply, to
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meet people’s needs and—incidentally—to reduce the potential for conflict? I added the latter because if water is managed properly, pressure will be released elsewhere.

I mentioned that we would benefit from an analysis of the rural-urban split, but we should also consider the need for water for drinking and irrigation, which the Committee discussed quite a bit. Clearly, there are different types of water, and different needs in terms of quantity, but there is also competition. People need clean water for drinking and less-clean water for irrigation, but they still need it and it still needs to be provided in ways that can maintain the balance. Those are big projects, subjects and challenges—nobody denies that. When considering the potential of the MDGs, one learns that not one of them exists in isolation. They all feed off each other. It is clear that providing good sanitation and access to clean and irrigation water is crucial to the basic general health and well-being of the population, which in turn affects maternal and child mortality, poverty reduction and general economic activity.

Sanitation is a challenge and people must talk about it; it literally must come out of the closet. Water management entails big infrastructure and investment challenges that must be met if ordinary people, whether living in urban or rural environments, are to have access to basic sanitation and meet their water needs, which is essential to their good health.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: When the right hon. Gentleman and his Committee visited Ethiopia, did he examine how well the Research-inspired Policy and Practice Learning in Ethiopia and the Nile Region—RiPPLE—agreement is working? It is the upper-Nile, inter-country agreement on how the Nile is to be used. When I visited Ethiopia, there was huge sensitivity in Egypt about any large-scale irrigation from the Nile by Ethiopia. Egypt was worried that if too much water was taken up from the headwaters of the Nile, downstream it would start to silt up. Did his Committee consider that?

Malcolm Bruce: Not in detail. Of course, we are aware of it, and we discussed and asked about it, but given that we were in Ethiopia, we got only the Ethiopian perspective. However, the hon. Gentleman’s question reinforces the point about the regional dimensions, such as conflict and shared resources, in many areas. The aim of RiPPLE was to ensure that all parties, including those bordering the Nile, managed it equally and fairly. Of course, problems occur not only in Ethiopia, but, for different reasons, in Uganda and elsewhere. We are aware of the need for a proper agreement and an enforceable partnership that gives all countries with use of the river the right to use it on terms that do not disadvantage others. That is an obvious requirement. It is easy to talk about that, but a genuine agreement is needed. We were aware of and discussed that issue, but it was not the prime focus of our investigation. I would not hazard a guess that we got a fair and totally objective view—it was just the Ethiopian perspective.

For reasons that are no one’s fault, some considerable time has passed since we produced our report. However, this issue is not just topical for just three, six or 12 months, but central and crucial all the time. The Department is a major player in this and has invested more resources.
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However—I hope that the Minister will take this in the right spirit—when a Department has a rising budget and says, “Yes, this is a major operation and priority and we are investing extra resources,” the Committee will say, “Input is fine, but what is the outcome? What are you going to do with that money that will actually make a difference?” It would be really helpful to the Committee if he gave us an update on how DFID has taken forward its own policies, which of course are independent of what the Committee says, and how they fit in with some of our recommendations.

2.58 pm

Ann McKechin (Glasgow, North) (Lab): I, too, welcome this debate on our report. As the Committee Chair, the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), said, a year has passed since we produced it, but the issue remains highly topical, particularly in regard to the MDGs—not only MDG7, but those relating to child and maternal mortality, hunger and school enrolment. Currently, almost one in two people in the developing world lacks access to sanitation. As the right hon. Gentleman rightly said, in considering the report the Committee wanted to put particular emphasis on sanitation, which is often the junior partner in this area of development policy. It might sound frivolous, but it is a subject of embarrassment to some, which represents a serious obstacle to its consideration not only by the general public but by politicians, political leaders, civil servants and so on.

Mr. Cash: I agree with the hon. Lady, who might know that Mahatma Ghandi himself stated that sanitation was more important than independence.

Ann McKechin: I would not wish to disagree with one of the foremost thinkers of the 20th century. Nevertheless, personal hygiene issues have for various reasons—cultural, religious and others—remained ones that people have found difficult to discuss.

When we studied sanitation, we noticed that a different approach was needed in regard to its promotion. For example, everyone wants water and it is clear why we need it. Sanitation, however, is not necessarily a first choice priority. I have some anecdotal evidence from Vietnam to back that up. When people were given the choice of a toilet or a karaoke machine, some went for the latter rather than the former. However and as the Chair rightly says, when we visited Vietnam last year, we saw some very good examples of local, low-cost sanitation projects.

More seriously, sanitation is not the only issue of concern; there is also cleanliness in general. When the World Health Organisation considered the promotion of washing hands with soap, which is the lowest-cost health intervention that has the maximum effect, it discovered that it was not the public health messages of the danger of death and disease that worked best, but utilising the advertising expertise of some of the largest soap-producing companies in the world to devise an advertising campaign. In Ghana, for example, a simple tune was used in radio adverts, and more than 80 per cent. of the children knew the tune. That resulted in a significant increase in soap sales. Given that soap is an expensive product in many developing countries—people have to make a real choice about buying soap, rather
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than other products—that showed that a different approach can be more effective. Everyone in the development community must keep an open mind about what may work best and what may be the most effective intervention.

As the Chair also pointed out, we need to look at the issue of gender when we consider tackling the problems of water and sanitation. Issues of menstruation, pregnancy and, in some places, culture, mean that in many cases when girls reach puberty they often withdraw from school or miss school for weeks because of the lack of adequate sanitation facilities. It is no overstatement to say that when Committee members visit developing countries, their thoughts inevitably turn to, “When exactly are we going to find a suitable toilet spot? Where is it going to be, and what kind of state will it be in?” We have visited schools and found that they had no facilities. Sometimes the facilities are incredibly basic and not particularly clean. If we had to consider making such decisions not just for a few short days but for every week of the year, and how that would affect our lives, we would see the practical problems that everyone faces, particularly women. It is no overstatement to say that gynaecological diseases and various other complaints can be exacerbated by the lack of proper toilet facilities.

The Chair rightly touched on increasing urbanisation in many developing countries. When we went to Ethiopia, which has abundant water resources but one of the lowest sanitation coverage rates in the world—just 13 per cent.—I was struck by the growing number of shanty towns. Those towns were being built to accommodate the rapid increase in population. I think that Ethiopia’s population is increasing at the rate of some 2 million per annum. As people can no longer survive on their family land, they begin to seek work in urban areas and often live in the most dreadful conditions.

As well as visiting various toilets throughout Ethiopia, we also went into a shower block in a particular town. One of our Committee members did not realise that it was shared by both sexes, but he soon found out. Nevertheless, the provision of basic facilities in urban areas, which may have to be communal because of cost restraints, is essential not only because everyone has a basic right to water and sanitation but because of the increasing risk of disease, particularly when people live together at very close quarters. Therefore, the provision of such facilities has to be built into our thinking as more and more people are moving from rural communities into urbanised environments or shanty towns, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

As the Chair mentioned, the experiment of using health workers—almost all of whom are female—to provide advice on basic sanitation, prenatal and antenatal care and general health facilities is making a significant improvement in local communities in Ethiopia. It is also improving the status of young women because they are being approached to give information and advice, and their views are being respected. That change in society, as well as in practical living standards, is interesting and a relatively low-cost solution. For many developing countries, low-cost solutions are about not just having such a facility but finding a means to run that facility in a way that can be sustainable and financially covered over a long period.

I would like to ask the Minister some questions on a couple of macro issues, one of which concerns the UN watercourses convention. He may be aware that last
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year an early-day motion in the House called on the Government to ratify the convention. Some 103 Members supported it. The Stern review stressed the development and economic changes that result from climate change, one of which concerns access to fresh water with the continuing expansion in the world population. We need a co-ordinated approach based on an international legal framework. At the moment, 263 rivers cross international borders. That affects 40 per cent. of the world’s population, and 60 per cent. of the world’s river flows affect 145 countries, so this issue impacts on great many people throughout the world.

The convention would have the advantage of clarifying the rules for rivers that cross the borders, which are non-navigational trans-boundary watercourses. It would minimise degradation and conflict through international management, and meet the needs of developing countries at the same time. There are a number of areas in which there are already potential conflicts. One is in Palestine. Earlier this afternoon, I took part in a debate on the middle east, which is experiencing huge political difficulties. There is also potential conflict over the Jordan river between Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.

There are also difficulties in connection with dam works in India. Various dams and hydro-electric plants are having a knock-on, damaging effect in Bangladesh regarding rivers running from India into Bangladesh. Pakistan has also recently accused India of violating the 1960 Indus water treaty by planning a dam on the Jhelum river.

The RiPPLE initiative was mentioned earlier. The Nile basin clearly affects a large number of countries. In cases where there are competing demands for water resources, there is a potential for conflict, and that area in particular has many problems and has had periods of fragile government and war in recent years. Clearly, there is cause for concern.

I would be interested to know what experience has been gained as a result of the RiPPLE initiative and whether the initiative could be expanded to cover the entire Nile basin. Also, have the Government considered ratifying the convention, given that 16 other nations have done so, including Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands? Is the Department’s keenness on global policy instruments such as the human right to water compatible with its reluctance to sign up to the convention?

The second issue on which I would like the Minister’s comments is the progress that has been made on the “Five Ones” initiative. The aim is to have one high-level meeting on water and sanitation every year—the issues that we are discussing could be taken forward at the meeting that will be held with the OECD in Accra later this summer—one annual report, one country plan, one lead UN body and one group in-country to co-ordinate. I would be grateful if the Minister told us what progress has been made internationally and how DFID is contributing to the process.

Finally, when we visited Ethiopia, we were very impressed by the expertise, engagement and specialist advice of DFID staff, which are very much appreciated by the Ethiopian Government. However, the Ethiopian Government and aid agencies expressed concerns about DFID’s staff resources and about whether the Department needed to consider employing more experts. Its staff provide detailed technical advice at the highest level and
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make a real difference to the lives of millions of people in Ethiopia. The Department should be proud of that record, but it should consider expanding its work and making its staff available to other countries. It should consider making the appropriate resources available, so that it can employ more staff and ensure that its expertise is shared as widely as possible. I look forward to the Minister’s comments in that regard.

3.12 pm

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): May I say what a pleasure it is to see you here, Mr. Bayley? That is not only because you are chairing our proceedings, but because you were present when the International Development Committee took evidence from Tearfund on this very issue and asked a lot of very interesting questions, although I will be the one asking the questions of the Minister this afternoon. I also pay tribute to your work in Africa.

I want to say much the same of the work of the Committee’s Chairman, the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce). This is an important report, but the most important point is that the inquiry has taken place. The issue of water and sanitation—or sanitation and water, as we prefer to put it—is central to the survival of people on a massive scale, and I shall give some indication of that. Before I do, however, I want to pay tribute to Tearfund and to Laura Webster, who wrote an excellent paper entitled “The Sanitation Scandal”. I also pay tribute to WaterAid and Jennean Alkadiri, who has played an important part in co-ordinating the work of non-governmental organisations on this subject. I also want to thank the 220 of my colleagues who supported me when I set up the all-party group on water and sanitation in the third world, of which I have the honour to be chairman.

The lack of sanitation is one of the world’s most urgent crises, and Governments have promised to halve the number of people without access to sanitation by 2015. Although the target is not off-track, it is not expected to be met in sub-Saharan Africa until at least 2076, believe it or not. If we consider the life expectancy of people in that part of the world, and remember that one child dies every 15 seconds, the fact that this target will not be met until 2076 raises enormous questions. Children are dying on a massive scale, but the life expectancy rates for those who have not yet been born will be completely out of kilter with any statistical base that one could imagine if this target is not met until then. In addition, 1.8 million children in developing countries die of diarrhoea every year, but the problem could easily be resolved if we got the provision of sanitation and water right. That is why those of us who are passionate about this subject will continue to nag away and campaign vigorously to ensure that what is clearly wrong is put right.

It has been proposed that there should be a new global action plan on sanitation and water. The “End Water Poverty” campaign, which some hon. Members might recall, was enormously successful in getting the issue on to the agenda of the G8. Indeed, one of the last letters that our previous Prime Minister wrote—it is dated 25 June 2007, and he went on the 26th—was on this very subject. He told me that he agreed with the
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point that I had made in my letter to him, which I do not need to repeat, and in a Westminster Hall debate shortly before to the effect that

He said that progress on the relevant millennium development goal “is therefore crucial”, adding that the Government were hopeful that progress would be made

I hope that the Minister can give us an update on that in what is the international year of sanitation so that we have a clear picture of where all this is leading. Time goes by very quickly, and we are off-track on a lot of these issues.

There is also the question of involving mainstream sanitation in other sectors, such as health and education, as well as in urban, rural and other relevant strategies. We must also ensure that all national plans for sanitation are fully funded.

I referred earlier to the statement by Mahatma Ghandi that sanitation is more important than independence, which is a pretty amazing statement for someone to have made, even in those days. We now have the opportunity to get things right in the developing world and Africa, subject to the matters that we are discussing. We have the technical facility to get there, just as people resolved the cholera epidemics in 1849 and 1865 by using technical engineering expertise and, as I said in exchanges with other hon. Members, providing basic latrines. Speaking as a bit of a Conservative, I think that many solutions are a matter not just of ideas or the wonderful work being done by the NGOs and DFID, although I pay tribute to the Department for the work that it has done, but of what happens on the ground in terms of providing the equipment, pipes and systems.

Adam Hart-Davis spoke about these issues at the inauguration of the all-party group. He has written a very interesting and amusing book about lavatories and he gave a very interesting and amusing talk about them—he is great value for anybody who wants to hear about the subject. The fact is, as the Committee Chairman pointed out from his practical experience, and as emerged from an interesting edition a few weeks ago of the Channel 4 programme “Unreported World”, which vividly laid out the problems of lack of sanitation in Bangladesh, that if we are to be able to solve the problem, we need the right sort of equipment. That is why I got in touch with the Bathroom Manufacturers Association. It will convene meetings, which I hope we shall carry forward with a view to helping the Department embed the knowledge of those involved in making the equipment; they may then be able to produce something cheaper than the products they make now, of a suitable design to deal with the practical problems of the kind of shanty town and village life that the right hon. Gentleman described.

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