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Report Documents Decades of Broken Promises on Water

New York - As the world's governments meet in New York the at the 12th session of the Commission for Sustainable Development to discuss water issues, a new report shows that little progress has been made towards improving water and sanitation. Despite decades of promises to improve water and sanitation, 1.1 billion people still do not have access to clean drinking water, and 2.4 billion people do not have access to proper sanitation. The meeting, taking place this week and next, is the first since the Word Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, when countries pledged to halve the percentage of people without access to drinking water or to basic sanitation by 2015.

"The world's governments have promised action on water and sanitation since 1977 but have little to show for it," said Christopher Williams, manager for river basin conservation at WWF, which sponsored the report with CARE International U.K., Green Cross International, Oxfam Great Britain, Tearfund and WaterAid. "Millions of people continue to die, and billions more are made sick and impoverished by lack of access to these basic human needs."

Earlier this week Josè Antonio Ocampo, the U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, said at the meeting that the world needs to more than double its spending if it is to achieve the 2015 target.

The report criticizes both rich and poor countries for failing to aggressively meet the world's water crisis. It shows that the majority of developed nations surveyed failed to increase the level of aid they give to water and sanitation between 1998 and 2002, and that overall aid for water is declining. Just 4 percent of development aid from the United States is spent on water, and only 8 percent of that goes to the 30 countries most in need.

The report is also critical of developing nations. Tanzania and Uganda are among few countries making water a priority in their poverty reduction strategies while Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Indonesia and Guinea have not prioritized water at all.

"Rich countries need to increase aid for water and target it more effectively to the countries most in need," continued Williams. "Poor countries need to recognize that access to water is a prerequisite to breaking the grip of poverty. Both must understand that the natural sources of water -- wetlands, river basins and groundwater aquifers -- are key to ensuring clean freshwater for all."

Promises Made but Not Kept

1977 - At the U.N. Water Conference in Mar del Plata, Chile, governments recognize that "all people, whatever their economic or social condition, have a right to access to freshwater." This leads to the Decade of Water Pledge.

1981-1990 - As part of the Decade of Water, governments pledge to provide safe drinking water and sanitation to underserved rural and urban communities by 1990.

1990 (September) - New Delhi Statement adopted at the Global Consultation on Safe Water and Sanitation calls for access to safe water in sufficient quantities for all.

1990 (September) - At the World Summit for Children governments pledge universal access to water supply and sanitation by 1995.

1992 (Rio Summit) - The Rio Summit's Agenda 21 reaffirms goal of access to freshwater for all.

2000 - U.N. Millennium Development Goals call for halving the number of people without access to water by 2015.

2002 - World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg expands goal set in 2000 to include sanitation.

2003 - As part of the U.N. International Year of Water, access to water is declared a prerequisite to other human rights.

Chris Williams is attending the meeting in New York and can be reached by email at or by mobile phone at 240-605-1742.

The report can be found at WWF International's Web site. (PDF format, 171k)