Sr. Joan Pytlik, D.C. of the Elizabeth Seton Federation responds to the question “Water is the Simplest of Things. . . or is it?”Water, what could be simpler? We turn on the faucet and expect clean water, or we buy bottled water. In April, I attended the 12th Session of the United Nation’s Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD-12). The themes were “Water, Sanitation, and Human Settlements.” I learned that the issue of water is not so simple, especially when one takes a world view. Not only do we drink it, but water is necessary for health & hygiene, cooking, agriculture, livestock, power, and many other industries.

Sustainable Development means satisfying the needs of the current world population without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs and to sustain our planet. The UN members first agreed to work toward sustainable development in Rio de Janeiro (1992). The World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg (2002) linked poverty and the environment, and produced a specific Plan of Implementation outlining responsibilities on the national and international levels. The Plan states that, “Eradicating poverty is the greatest global challenge facing the world today and an indispensable requirement for sustainable development, particularly for developing countries”(7). Governments must begin to consider the totality of socio-cultural, economic and ecological consequences of their choices. All countries should promote sustainable consumption and production patterns.

The problems surrounding water are multi-form, including over-consumption, effects on the poor especially women, financing, privatization, and whether water is a human right or a commodity. Over 1 billion persons do not have access to safe water. Every 6-8 seconds a child dies from water-borne illnesses, and 2.2 million people die each year. The average person in the USA uses 250-300 L. of water daily, while people in developing countries use little (e.g. Bangladesh = 9 L./day), and it is often polluted. Water is seen as a women’s issue since it is women and girls who travel on average 6-9 miles per day, collecting water for 6-8 hours, and carrying over 3 gallons per trip. They forego an education and continue in a cycle of poverty. Women nurse those sick from contaminated water. Women are also seen as agents of change in society.

In 2000, UN members agreed on the Millennium Development Goals. MDG #7 called for halving by 2015 the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. A lack of political will at national & international levels has hampered progress. Donor countries, including the USA, have delivered little on their funding promises. Only 4% of USA aid goes for water & sanitation, and ¾ of that does not go to the 30 highest priority countries. The Bush administration views increased privatization as the answer.

Privatization has been called “today’s gold” for multinational corporations. In many developed countries, including the USA, water is supplied by the public sector. However, the World Bank and the Inter-Monetary Fund (IMF) are demanding in some of the poorest countries, that state-owned companies be privatized as a condition for getting loans. This creates opportunities for the global water giants to take control over water. Bribery, dramatic increase in prices, contracts that exclude alternative providers, serious environmental violations, and putting profits over needs are some of the problems with privatization. Trade treaties [e.g. NAFTA] are requiring countries to deregulate their water sectors and open them up to private investment. Rather than reducing poverty, water privatization often means that the poorest families are no longer able to afford clean water.

CSD-12 identified what is needed to achieve safe water for all: good governance, accountability, monitoring of the private sector, donor nations meeting ODA agreements, and subsidies for people who are poor. Success requires capacity building through education, and voluntary, multi-stakeholder partnerships which include individual citizens, women, girls, and indigenous persons who have an ecosystem approach.

Non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) add their own suggestions: debt relief, diverting the money given to private companies for water to governments, and the USA influencing the World Bank regarding conditionality.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said, “Access to safe water is a fundamental human need and, therefore, a basic human right.” If a cup of cold water given in His name can get you into the kingdom, just imagine what changing structures that are obstacles to water for a billion people will do. Urge the President and members of Congress to recognize that safe water is a basic human right, and to provide more aid for water in the poorest countries as the means to poverty eradication.