Opinion: A child dies every 20 seconds from lack of clean water

On 19 May, the summit of European-Africa-Caribbean-Pacific parliamentarians (the ACP-EU Assembly) at Budapest called for action to alleviate the global crisis in clean water supply.

One in six people in the world have no access to clean water. 2.5 billion are without clean sanitation and 1.5 million die every year from water contamination.

The report presented to the summit found that there are three main causes of water pollution: industry, agriculture and sewage. In developing countries 70% of industrial waste is dumped untreated into water. The most common source of water pollution, however, is faecal matter.

One of the Millennium Development Goals is to halve the number of people without access to clean water by 2015.

If, like the Defence Secretary Liam Fox, you think that the government should worry less about aid; if you think that the beginning and end of political priorities should be our own domestic self interest then these facts probably don’t interest you.

But for anyone who hates suffering and believes we should care about others then this situation demands urgent action.

The joint Assembly called for:

  • more boreholes in villages and shanty towns with rising populations
  • effective medical solutions, like chlorine tablets to combat epidemics including cholera, that are linked to polluted water
  • EU and ACP countries should prevent industry, deforestation, mining, chemical production and extensive use of pesticides from affecting water quality – polluters should pay.

There is no way around a financial cost to the first two action points. They are good examples of how aid spending can do real good. The third bullet point requires us to place restrictions and costs on the activities of companies that are usually western, large and influential in our own countries as well as the developing world. Shareholders of a western mining company may well kick back if we support regulations that curtail how they pursue projects. But we should simply require that they observe the similar standards abroad as we would expect in our own country. A company dumping waste into the water supply here would be prosecuted. The same should happen in the developing world. We ask this not because we are against companies making profits but because the lives of children matter and more than justify a marginal curtailing of profit.

The EU has pledged 200 million euros (equivalent to less than 40 cents from each European citizen) for action on clean water by 2013. These funds will be used to develop clean water supply and sanitation and help establish strong water governance in the countries where these problems are most urgent. That kind of action should make us all proud to be Europeans.

There are of course numerous arguments that this kind of action serves our enlightened self-interest: spreading our influence, creating opportunities for some of our companies and so on. But you would have to have no soul to need those arguments to persuade you that saving lives of people who lack water was a good thing to do.

This issue, and the summit in particular, received no coverage in the mainstream UK media. In the last fortnight our airwaves have been filled with super-injunctions and Twitter, Ken Clarke’s statement that some rapes are more serious than others and the latest instalment on whether or not GPs will become commissioners of services. All those issues are important but it is disappointing that the issue of so many preventable deaths and action about it could not receive some attention.

There is the Jean-Jacques Rousseau tradition of political philosophy (“man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains”) that holds that naturally we have what we need to live and it is the way we have constructed our societies that deprives some people of their basic needs. In relation to clean water, that must be right. Likewise the Judaeo-Christian religions hold that we have been provided by the world’s Creator with everything we need to live and if we lack a resource like water it is because men have deprived each other of it.

An important debate for the twenty-first century is whether the idea of fundamental inalienable rights applies only to legal and political rights (free speech, fair trials, elected legislatures, etc) or whether it should also apply to some social and economic values such as a right to education or to basic medical care. It seems to me that clean drinking water should be regarded as an absolute entitlement of every human being.

Antony Hook is Vice-Chair of the Liberal Democrat European Group.

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