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1 May 2008 : Column 158WH—continued

3.44 pm

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): Thank you, Mr. Bayley, for calling me and I apologise to the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) that he has to listen to me in the meantime. [Laughter.]

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): I beg the hon. Gentleman’s pardon.

Mr. Moore: I thank the hon. Gentleman and others for their contributions this afternoon. It is a pleasure, as the hon. Gentleman said to serve here under your chairmanship, Mr. Bayley, knowing your extensive interest in international matters through our short period of overlap on the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, your chairing of different all-party groups and your own involvement in the International Development Committee. We all understand that there must be an element of frustration for you, given that you understand this subject very well but you have to sit there, by and large, mute—we must hope that that is the case—while the rest of us get the opportunity to debate these matters. However, your expertise and understanding are thoroughly acknowledged.

This is a very important report and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) and his colleagues in the Select Committee, who spent a great deal of time on it, travelling to different parts of the world. As his opening speech illustrated, this issue of sanitation and water will crop up in country after country; it is a direct issue in this particular report, but often it appears in other inquiries by the Select Committee too. I congratulate him and his colleagues on the fact that they are continuing to emphasise this issue in all the work that they do.

We often use the cliché that this is a fast-changing world and unfortunately we use it because the rate of change is one of the harsh realities that we have to deal with, alongside the reality of a fast-growing population. On the issue of water and sanitation, population growth is a hugely significant matter. Trying to tackle the
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terrible problems of poor sanitation and poor access to safe water is exacerbated by the huge growth in population, particularly in the developing world.

We have heard a number of statistics this afternoon, but some of the most striking statistics that I have heard and read about are those from UNICEF. UNICEF statistics highlight the fact that 1.5 million children under the age of five die every year, due to their lack of access to sanitation and safe drinking supplies. Poor water and sanitation is the second biggest cause of child mortality.

Of the 120 million children born in the developing world each year, 50 per cent. do not have access to adequate sanitation and 20 per cent. do not have access to safe water. More generally, UNICEF has observed that, to fix this problem of poor water and sanitation, there needs to be a commitment in the order of $10 billion a year. To a country the size of the United Kingdom, that is a large figure, but for the world as a whole surely it is not. It is very important that the Committee has drawn attention to the need for resources to be put into this sector, although I also respect what my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon said about the outcomes being important as well as the inputs.

The millennium development goals offer us a framework within which we can debate all these subjects regardless of which particular theme we take on a particular day. However, it is worth reminding ourselves that they are pretty modest in their ambitions for this particular area of water and sanitation. We have set the target of halving the proportion of those people without improved access to drinking water and halving the proportion of people without access to safe sanitation by 2015. I repeat that the target is only halving the proportion of people affected by these problems. That is not eradicating these problems—far from it.

Some 1.6 billion people across the world need to get improved sanitation if we are to meet that target. As we heard from the hon. Member for Stone, on current trends we will not reach that target until 2076. By 2015, we will still be 600 million people short of that target, which is a vast, appalling figure that we must not forget.

As others have already mentioned, this particular millennium development goal that we are focused on is surely pretty central to achieving so much else that we hope to achieve within the overall millennium development goals framework. As I said, it is linked to the millennium development goal on child mortality. It is also important for maternal health, and essential if we are serious about achieving universal primary education.

This subject raises great emotion. It is complex and, as someone said earlier, it is sometimes difficult for us to address it, but I believe that each of us as a constituency Member of Parliament is well aware of how strongly our constituents feel about it from the number of e-mails and letters that we receive and the contacts that are made with us to raise it and linked issues.

A few weeks ago, several right hon. and hon. Members of this House and Members of the House of Lords joined Samaritan’s Purse and others who are campaigning under the banner of Turn on the Tap. We were trying to
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highlight the fact that in much of the developing world women and young children have to walk as much as 4 miles a day to collect safe drinking water. We learned as we participated in that walk what a major distraction that is for many young people. We walked to Hyde park and back with children from All Souls primary school in London. I remarked in the debate at the time that the children were well informed and alert to what that particular example meant to them but, more importantly, what it meant to the thousands of children across Africa and elsewhere who daily have to do that walk in circumstances that are very different from those that we enjoyed on our pleasant walk a few weeks ago.

Turn on the Tap is building up to walks across the country on 10 May which I hope will get support from our constituents throughout the United Kingdom. It is right that they keep reminding us as parliamentarians of the importance of the issue and do not let us forget about it, and they are not the only ones. The hon. Member for Stone rightly highlighted the importance of WaterAid, and we know that many other non-governmental organisations have a close interest in this debate. We owe it to all of them to take the issue seriously.

Although I am not a member of the Select Committee and have not seen the same events and projects that its members have, I recall being in Kalicha township, a slum beside Nairobi, a few years ago. I saw at first hand the absolutely desperate circumstances in which people were living and learned about the flying toilets project, which sought to minimise the health risks of the sanitation regime that existed for that vast, sprawling and, at times, hopeless gathering of humanity. Nobody who saw that or the things that colleagues have referred to today can come away with anything other than the feeling that we have so much to do, and that a wealthy country such as ours must take a leading role.

In that respect, like others, I wish to pay tribute to the work that the Department for International Development has already done and to its good intentions. I hope that the Minister will give us more information today about how its plans are developing.

The Select Committee rightly praised the global action plan. The hon. Member for Glasgow, North (Ann McKechin) spoke about the “five ones” strategy, and the Minister indicated that he intends to focus on it in his remarks. Like others, I look forward to hearing more about it.

The hon. Member for Stone expressed some doubts, but I believe that multilateral action is fundamental. We cannot expect a country of Britain’s size to contribute everything. Why we would be expected to supply all the funding was a bit beyond me, but, inevitably, as we work with other countries, it is important that we do not duplicate services. We must focus our efforts, and those on the receiving end of our resources, advice and assistance must experience the minimum of duplication and inefficiency.

Mr. Cash: The problem is simply that when we are dealing with questions of corruption and things of that kind, we must have the right legislation to ensure that the aid that we give is accompanied by a requirement to ensure that corruption does not take place in, for example, the water sector. Otherwise, we will not get the results that we want. This Parliament should make certain that
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it imposes the right requirements, and delivery of the aid programmes as well. That is not to say that there should not be co-operation around the world. I am not saying anything like that. I am simply saying that we need to focus on how to deliver through our national capacity specifically but also in co-operation with others.

Mr. Moore: I do not want to exaggerate the differences between the hon. Gentleman and me or to create differences where none exist. I acknowledge his commitment to this issue. I recall that he intervened on me to ask about corruption when we debated the international development themes during the passage of the European treaty recently, and I hope that I was able to satisfy him that I take an equally robust view, as I am sure all hon. Members do, on the need for such requirements.

I recognise that there is an important role for this Parliament and the Government to ensure that what we participate in—the work that we fund or assist—is of the highest standard and that there is accountability. We also need to be careful that we do not burden countries with too many different routes for donations and assistance, and that we work multilaterally as effectively as possible. That is why I am keen to hear more about how the global action plan is developing and how we can expect it to link with activities at the European and G8 levels.

The hon. Member for Stone made robust comments on the financial contribution. It would be helpful if the Minister confirmed whether the Government have met their target to contribute £95 million in this financial year for sanitation and water. It was mentioned earlier that in three years’ time that will have risen to £200 million. A couple of issues arise from that.

Clearly, although the amounts are significant and a big improvement, as the hon. Gentleman said, they are still a small part of the larger requirement of $10 billion. I accept that the Government cannot be responsible for the $10 billion on their own, so can the Minister share any insight he has about where the balance will come from, and what our European and G8 partners are offering? How much of an international shortfall still exists? What scope is there, as we move to a fairly sharp increase in spending to reach the 0.7 per cent. development assistance target in the next few years, for sanitation and water to play a part in reaching the goal?

My right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon was right to say that the debate is not just about funds. It is also about people, technical assistance and advice. The Minister made a helpful response to a question put to him about the degree to which staff and the team of highly skilled individuals in DFID have been learning more about the importance of sanitation and water across the different disciplines. It would be helpful to know more about how mainstream the sanitation and water themes are within the different elements of the Department’s work.

The UK Water Network, which is part of BOND—British Overseas NGOs for Development—places particular emphasis on cross-Department working, and I think that it as well as the rest of us would be interested in knowing a little more about it. It is something that we always talk about on these occasions. I hope that the Minister can assure us that it is at the heart of what he is trying to do.

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Turning to the European Union—I am not doing so simply because the hon. Member for Stone has left the Chamber, but I shall get my comment in quickly—the global action plan was clearly based on the need to co-ordinate international efforts, and the EU has a key role in that. Both the Department and the Committee have called for the EU water facility to be reformed and better linked to a strengthened EU water initiative. In its response to the Committee’s report, the Government agreed to push for reforms in that area during the 10th round of the European development fund, and perhaps the Minister will give us some information about how that has developed.

One of the most important things to come out of the Committee’s report has been the absolute priority of ensuring that sanitation is no longer the poor relation of water in terms of its focus for the development community and international supporters. We have heard many graphic examples of why that must be the case, and I hope that on the basis of what the Minister has heard here today he will realise that there is cross-party support for that refocusing of the approach.

Will the Minister reflect on what is happening in Gaza? On the “Today” programme this morning we heard about the horrific situation and what is happening there because of the Israeli blockade of fuel and essential supplies. Sanitation supplies and water processing have been heavily affected in Gaza. The report said that 40 million litres of untreated sewage is being pumped into the sea only 1 mile from the population centre of Gaza city. Will the Minister soon, if not today, give us some feedback on how accurate he believes that report to be and, assuming that it is accurate, what representations he and his Department or the Foreign Office are making to the Israelis to plead, if necessary, for a new look at what is happening in Gaza so that the desperate situation there is not worsened by the risk of disease and other consequences of poor sanitation?

Malcolm Bruce: May I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the fact that John Ging of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency gave evidence by video link from Gaza to our Committee yesterday morning to confirm that figure. In some cases, people are going without food, as well as suffering from lack of sewerage facilities and water shortages. His comment was that the basic necessities of life for some people are simply not there every day.

Mr. Moore: My right hon. Friend is right to draw attention to his Committee’s work. I do not intend to become distracted into a broader debate about what is happening in Gaza, but this point is very relevant to our debate. I hope that the Government will make it clear that they continue to deprecate what is happening in Gaza, and will use this example to put further pressure on the Israelis to rethink their strategy there.

The awful statistics and terrible reality of the sanitation and water experience for many people throughout the world should and do appal all of us. We have targets, frameworks and strategies galore, but we cannot yet have confidence in our collective ability to achieve what are reasonably modest goals, and something must be sorted out to get that right. I acknowledge that the United Kingdom has invested significantly in that area, but the report has surely highlighted the fact that there are still significant areas for improvement, and at the very least none of us has any grounds for complacency.

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4.4 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): It is a great pleasure, Mr. Bayley, to serve under your chairmanship in this debate. I congratulate the Select Committee and its Chairman on this excellent sixth report, on sanitation and water. I shall not comment too much on the Chairman’s speech because, in a sense, the whole debate is about the report, in which he played a major part.

This has been a high-quality debate. We have heard some excellent speeches from the hon. Member for Glasgow, North (Ann McKechin), my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore), and the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) who so aptly summed up his Committee’s report.

There is a great deal to go into on this report, so in the few minutes for which I want to speak I cannot go into everything. Suffice it to say that when one starts to research for such a debate, one discovers things about one’s colleagues that one did not know. I had no idea that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone chaired the all-party group on water.

Mr. Cash: And sanitation.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Water and sanitation. During my 16 years as a Member of Parliament I have been searching to find something wet about my hon. Friend, because he is one of the very few hon. Members who is drier than Lady Thatcher. He initiated an important Adjournment debate on this subject in June last year, and indeed my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) had an important debate on 19 March this year.

This is an important debate and the salience of the issue will become more and more important. This is the international year of sanitation, so it is an appropriate time for the debate. As many hon. Members have said, the cohort of water is sanitation, and so often one concentrates on water but not on sanitation. It is a fact that, as has been said, more than 1 billion people or one fifth of the world’s population are deprived of access to clean water, but two fifths or some 2.25 billion lack adequate sanitation, which is an absolute scandal in the 21st century.

As has been said, every 20 seconds a child dies due to lack of clean water and sanitation, and 1.6 million children under the age of five die every year due to unsafe water and inadequate hygiene. The hygiene part of the equation is important, as is education about hygiene. Approximately 2 million people die every year due to diarrhoeal diseases, and most are children under the age of five. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stone has said repeatedly, 1.8 million people suffer unnecessary diarrhoeal diseases.

Mr. Cash: Billion.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Yes, 1.8 billion suffer unnecessary diarrhoeal diseases. Hundreds of thousands of young girls miss the opportunity of an education as they are forced to walk an average of 4 miles every day to fetch fresh water.

We in the west tend to take for granted the fact that when we turn on the tap water comes out. We can wash our clothes in a washing machine, and we have dishwashing machines and sophisticated irrigation. During the floods
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last year, a large part of Gloucestershire was cut off from mains water and we had the spectre of quite a large area having standpipes. That was seen as going back to the dark ages, but a large part of the developing world must live like that. Even if people have standpipes that is an improvement, because many of them must go large distances to carry the meagre amount of water that they need each day to survive. Since the 1930s, UK water usage has increased, but the Committee’s report says that water availability in Africa decreased substantially between 1975 and 1995, a trend that is likely to continue.

In an excellent speech, the hon. Member for Glasgow, North asked the Minister what the Government are doing about the UN watercourses convention and the lack of access to fresh water, which is something that more and more NGOs are beginning to raise with us. I hope that the Minister will be able to address that matter.

The hon. Lady also mentioned the problem of cross-border rivers, and throughout the world we are seeing a greater and greater number of bigger and bigger problems with cross-border rivers. One has onlyto look to at the problems of the Nile, which is mentioned in the Research-inspired Policy and Practice Learning in Ethiopia and the Nile Region programme. There are plenty of other cross-border rivers and there are problems in relation to rivers that are not cross-border—for example, the Yangtze and the Yellow river in China are beginning to dry up. What catastrophic effect will that have on the most populous nation of the world? We should also consider the effect of the River Jordan drying up, particularly in the middle east. If we consider the effect of other rivers drying up, one can begin to see what is happening throughout the world.

Mr. Cash: I would like to refer again to the excellent programme on Channel 4, “Unreported World”, which demonstrated that, as my hon. Friend says, the rivers are drying up. In countries such as Bangladesh, the flooding and the washing away are so intense that new river systems are emerging. That creates worse and worse problems for sanitation because the shanty villages are being washed away and the sanitation is getting worse.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend is exactly right; when everyone sees a natural disaster—I will mention global warming later—one of the first things that tends to suffer is the sanitation systems. Disease then follows, and the knock-on effect is death and suffering. That is why this is such an important subject. We need to deal not only with shortages of water, but with national natural disasters. Indeed, many people are still suffering from the floods that hit a large part of central Africa last year. This week, some representatives from Uganda told me that the Government there have done little to help the communities in north-east Uganda simply because they are of a different political persuasion. We need to make it clear how we should deal with natural disasters.

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