x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Clean water a fading dream for many as climate change dominates

Nearly 2,500 people travelled to Sweden last week to Stockholm's 2009 World Water Week.

Nearly 2,500 people travelled to Sweden last week to Stockholm's 2009 World Water Week. Men in grey suits and greyer hair mingled with Africans in national dress discussing watersheds and trans-boundary borders earnestly, pushing their little round glasses back up the ridges of their noses and occasionally taking them off and misting them with their breath. The king of Sweden held a banquet - the flunkeys in blue uniform were something to behold - and gave a prize to Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, the founder of the Sulabh International Social Service Organisation, who has single-handedly brought sanitation to parts of India by inventing a toilet that flushes with only 1.5 litres of water, compared with the 10 litres that are consumed by conventional apparatuses.

Dr Pathak was dubbed "one of the world's great heroes". I shook hands with him just before he left with his prize, a large cut crystal and a cheque for US$150,000 (Dh550,950). One outcome of the meeting was a breathtaking declaration that said that "water must be included in the COP-15 climate negotiations in Copenhagen this December". Come again? According to the statement, discussed and pored over for days "at various sessions throughout the week, a number of organisations and officials have articulated the reasons why water needs to be an integral part of the negotiation process on climate change and adaptation. Those reasons became key points of the 'Stockholm Statement', which the assembled participants of the 2009 World Water Week unanimously supported at the final plenary session this morning."

So the Stockholm statement boils down to this: water should be part of climate change talks. Nearly 2,500 people who travelled to Stockholm will now be free to visit Copenhagen in December to discuss it again. It turns out that talking about water is even more sustainable than water itself. No mention, then, of the more than 1 billion people who must make do with water that is not always clean and kills some 5,000 or so people every day, most of them children.

"The economic case for clean drinking water and sanitation is clear," says Dominick van de Waal, a senior financial specialist at the World Bank. Many studies have been conducted that show that a population is more productive when it is not suffering from diarrhoea or dysentery. The trouble is, nobody is listening to this clear message, not even many of the attendants of the meeting in Stockholm. They are too worried that they have missed the boat on climate change. All that money, all those meetings, and we are not part of it!

For a number of years, the UN just treated water as a sector, similar to industry or health, when as anyone who has read the work of the Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus knows, "everything is water". None of this would cut any ice with Manju, an Indian girl I met two summers ago. Every morning of the year, about 6am, she waits at the entrance to Bindusar Camp, east of Kailash in New Delhi. This is a middle-class area, with grand houses three or four storeys high and worth up to 40 million rupees (Dh2.9m) on both sides of the road.

But between the Shri Ram Temple and an open space of grass, there is a small V-shaped piece of land, no more than half an acre. More than 750 people are crammed into this tiny area, having illegally built 100 or so small brick and corrugated iron-roofed dwellings. Each home is not much bigger than a dog kennel. There is also a shop, a small restaurant, and two open sewers running down either side of a narrow path.

One standpipe provides water to all the residents, but supply is erratic and strictly controlled by those who live nearby. The quality of the water is not even that good. This is why the group of people is waiting: not for a bus to take them to work or school, but because at some point a water tanker is scheduled to appear. Manju thinks she is about nine. Her job is to ferry large containers of water from the tanker to the family's shack.

The water smells strongly of chlorine, so it has been treated and should be safe, if unpleasant, to drink. It is free, but Sunita, Manju's mother, says that they would rather pay for it and not have the chore of waiting for a tanker every day. When the water doesn't come, they have to go out looking for it. Sometimes they find a tanker elsewhere and they scramble to get water. This can lead to clashes. The water may be free, but it comes at a cost. The family is already paying the greatest price that an Indian family can pay: the lack of an education for one of their children.

This is not to belittle the work of the water experts in Stockholm. Many serious people worked long hours. But water, by its very nature an elusive and slippery element, often seems to resist being categorised and, as in nature, takes the path of least resistance. Finance ministers can overlook it, because there is always a more pressing need to deal with something that will get them in the papers.

But while countries such as India prefer to put a man on the moon rather than piped water in its cities - nowhere in India is there 24 hours of running water and the farmers are pumping groundwater at record speed, with potentially devastating consequences - much of the world's population will remain poor and unproductive. @Email:rwright@thenational.ae