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The right to water, and after?

Posted by Jean-Michel Severino on 20 October 2010

The United Nations has just made an important political and symbolic breakthrough by integrating the right to water into individual human rights. A critical universal demand has finally been recognized and with this, a milestone has been reached with the consecration of one of the Millenium Development Goals.

Everyone however is aware that the most significant efforts still lie ahead. The real goal our planet must establish is universal access to quality water. Achieving this will help improve overall health (waterborne diseases remain the leading cause of death in poor countries), thereby helping with demographic control, the reduction of social tensions and even open conflicts. This is visible in many parts of the world affected by water stress and competition for access to water between communities. Economic growth also depends on universal access. Investing in water means investing in Keynesian mechanisms for growth, it means freeing productivity, providing access to schooling, particularly for girls…

The road to this goal contains a gigantic investment deficit. Fixing it requires providing specific answers to the question of funding. Both the report prepared under the direction of Michel Camdessus and the recent OECD report presented at World Water Forum in Istanbul have demonstrated that for such a subject, we must base ourselves on three axes: adequate tariffs for management and investment agencies, solidarity transfers among users, and finally grants because it seems unlikely that water can fully fund water. We have not done so in Western Europe, and it will not happen in the rest of the world. The only reason for this is the externalities to access to water, as economists say, for financial reasons, legitimize and even demand that the entire economy participate in such an investment via tax contributions.

In the globalized world in which we live, subsidies must be approached as a globally managed entity that comprises North-South transfers, inspired not by charity but rather by the awareness that we share a common space in which we influence one another. Take the case of Africa. Maintaining a growth rate above 6% per year, which would progressively provide for universal access to water would require over 100 billion Euros per year in investments. We are currently only roughly half way there. These investments are closely linked to energy, because water requires large quantities of energy and dams have multiple uses. Given the meagre taxes levied in the least developed of African countries coupled with their low debt capacity, it is impossible to achieve such levels of investment in the next ten years without significant financial contributions from abroad, much of it in grants. These investments require a marked improvement in the design and implementation of local water policies, including socially just and financially realistic tariff policies. A common effort must therefore be undertaken.

The next World Water Forum, to be held in Marseille in March 2012, should focus on allowing this effort to intensify until it reaches the required level to make the right to water a reality. This will be a unique opportunity to take action that France can promote. This should be an opportunity to free the financial bottleneck and link this topic to innovative financing. France is the driving force in the work group that steers the progression of this fundamental issue. As host of the Marseille forum, France has the opportunity to simultaneously accomplish two goals: to make sense of the summit’s political process, and thus of the entire meeting, as well as to offer a concrete subject to a discussion that until now has been abstract.

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