The Executive Director’s opening remarks at the Eminent Persons’ Panel Discussion
Hon. Borge Brende, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to first extend my warm welcome to this eminent group of persons for joining us today in this Panel Discussion organized on the occasion of the World Habitat Day. The theme for this year’s observance is Water and Sanitation for Cities. This theme will be the focus of our discussion this afternoon.
You would recall that the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade, which was undertaken more than two decades ago, aimed at achieving full provision of water and sanitation to all by the year 1990. Much was accomplished in those ten years, yet, the concerted effort by governments and the international community could not make up for the years of neglect and the new demand coming from the growth in population. By the end of the decade there were more numbers un-served than at the beginning of the decade. With the numbers of un-served steadily mounting, the internationally agreed goals (MDG,2000; WSSD, 2002) have now been reluctantly scaled back to half, i.e., to reduce by half, by the year 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.
Clearly, it is difficult to accept that past approaches and strategies have brought us closer to the goal. It is equally difficult to assume that more of the same approach will take us closer to the goal. Many of us believe that new thinking and a bold, innovative strategy will be needed to reverse the current trend and achieve the MDGs.
I would urge the Eminent Panel to share with us their thoughts on what they see as some of the key issues and challenges facing us, and the priorities that we must pursue to make a real difference in the lives of the people who are currently denied of these basic life sustaining services.
On my part, let me begin by sharing with you my impressions of a visit to the Bairro de Mafalala in the outskirts of Maputo in Mozambique some months ago. I was in Maputo to attend the African Union Summit earlier this year. I took some time out of the meetings to visit this Bairro which had become well known as the birthplace of many prominent leaders of the country.
People in Mafalala have learnt to be sturdy and stoic as life is not kind in these settlements. Huddled together in this over-crowded settlement, people here manage to survive when, because of lack of drainage, the area is flooded every year to a full-man’s depth. When you are crowded out, sanitation can be a big luxury. So every time it rains, the human excreta gets mixed with the flood water into a deadly cocktail. Cholera and other debilitating epidemics visit this place regularly. Not far from this place, within a kilometre, stands the “cement city” of affluent neighbourhoods, with its wide access roads replete with high class buildings and restaurants serving some of the choicest dishes you could find anywhere.
As I was watching a group of children playing close to overflowing drains passing through the middle of an access road, I came across women vending food near a stench-filled, make-shift culvert choked by solid waste. I shared with them what was happening at the Summit, how African leaders were trying to take charge of their destiny. I saw a spark of hope in their eyes and an eagerness on their faces to be part of this effort. They wished me well and walked across.
I was indeed glad on the final day of the Summit, when the African Heads of States agreed to include in the final declaration a call for addressing the urbanization of poverty. I came back from the Summit, a happier person, the faces of those women still fresh in my mind.
What lessons can we draw from this episode? First, we need to bring awareness among the people and the politicians of what does it mean when a large section of the society is denied safe water and basic sanitation - the very means of survival. What price the people pay through sickness, poor health and lost wages? What price for lost dignity? What price the nation pays through enormous medical bills and lost economic opportunities? What are the opportunity costs for inaction of the present generation of policy-makers?
Secondly, the people are eager to participate in the improvement of their living conditions. Yet, unfortunately, the current development paradigm gives little opportunity for the voices of the people to be heard. We want to provide for them what we think are right for them. In the end, often we provide for facilities that the people do not want and will not pay for.
Yet, the people are already paying for every service that they get. From the vendors they get unsafe water and pay as much as five to twenty times more than their affluent neighbours who are connected to municipal supplies. It is unbelievable but true that a slum dweller in Nairobi, or the resident of a barrio in Quito (Ecuador) pays at least five times more for a litre of water than an average North American citizen.
I would welcome this Eminent Panel to consider a few questions that are, to my mind, central in our effort to achieve the Millennium Development Goals:
• Where do you put your priority first: Water, sanitation or hygiene? If money was short, where would you put emphasis?
• MDG is about the poorest of the poor (the bottom half of the unserved). Can the governments do it alone? Do you think private sector can play a significant role in the provisioning of services to reach the MDG?
• How can we draw upon the untapped resources of the civil society in the provisioning of basic services?
• What role do you see for international agencies like UN-HABITAT? How can we be more effective in our support to countries?
• In the end, who should decide if the MDGs are met? The national governments, the local authorities or the people themselves? How do we bring the people in the monitoring and evaluation process?