The theme this year of World Habitat Day on 6 October spearheaded by the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro is water and sanitation. Never before has there been such clear international consensus that sustainable development starts with health and dignity. These fundamental conditions of human development cannot be met without sustained investment in safe water and basic sanitation.
According to UN-HABITAT estimates, 60 per cent of the world’s population will be living in urban areas by 2015, the year set by world leaders to achieve the water and sanitation related Millennium Development Goals. It is further estimated that 90 per cent of the population increase between now and 2015 will be in urban areas. And most of that increase will be in the inner-city slums and squatter settlements of developing countries. In the slums of Nairobi, the bustees of Kolkata or the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, providing safe water and basic sanitation to the urban poor is a critical challenge facing the world today.
Recognizing this challenge, the Governing Council of UN-HABITAT has called for concerted action by the international community to help developing countries achieve the targets Millennium Development Goals related to water and sanitation. The Commission on Sustainable Development will also focus on water, sanitation and human settlements during the first cycle of its deliberations (2004-2005).
A strong political commitment at both the national and local level will be crucial to achieving success. This was underscored by this year’s G8 Summit, which adopted an Action Plan for Water, committing leaders of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful countries to give priority assistance to poorer nations that make a political commitment to place safe drinking water and basic sanitation at the top of their poverty eradication and sustainable development agendas.
The urban water crisis must be recognised for what it really is: a crisis of governance - weak policies and poor management, rather than a crisis of scarcity. Cities need sound policies and the political will to back them up; strengthened institutions and trained managers to run them; a responsible private sector and an enlightened public sector to work hand in hand; and finally, informed public opinion and active participation of communities to draw upon the vast resources of the civil society. In short, cities need an enabling environment in which all stakeholders can pool their resources to meet their needs.
Sanitation and hygiene promotion should receive priority in their own right. In fact, the focus of the international community on water in the past has often masked the growing problem of poor sanitation. This is the most dehumanising aspect of the daily battle for survival of the urban poor. In countries around the world, a publicly stated government policy on sanitation and hygiene is long overdue.
There is an alarming decline in per capita investment in both water and sanitation in the cities of most developing countries. The annual flow of resources to the sector will have to increase all round if the Millennium Development Goal related to water and sanitation is to be reached. In fact, these resources will have to be doubled, at a minimum.
Systematic tracking and review of progress towards water and sanitation targets will be equally important. Monitoring and assessment will also help target international cooperation for the poor more effectively.
World Habitat Day this year is an opportunity to build on the global consensus to meet this critical challenge.