A record-breaking 28,000 people, including five heads of state, participated in the Fifth World Water Forum in Istanbul, Turkey, last month. I was there, too, excited to be discussing this year’s theme, “Bridging Divides for Water.” Much of the conversation centered on how to bridge the remaining divides in meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)—especially MDG 7, which aims to halve the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015.
While notable progress has been made in many regions of the world, such as China and India, other areas, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, lag woefully behind. According to the most recent numbers (2006) by UNICEF and the World Health Organization, only 31 percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa has access to sanitation, and there are 38 sub-Saharan African countries where sanitation coverage is less than 50 percent. Access to improved drinking water sources has increased to 64 percent across the region; however, increases in coverage are not keeping pace with population growth, and the current rate of provision is not adequate to meet the MDG drinking-water target.
The Fifth World Water Forum, however, marked a hopeful new development. For the first time, the region of the world with the most serious water challenges, Africa, used the Forum to announce an internally driven water and sanitation agenda with a united voice. With support from the African Development Bank, the African Union and the African Ministerial Conference on Water (AMCOW) unveiled a plan to implement existing political commitments to water and sanitation. An “Africa Regional Paper” informed by the First African Water Week, held in Tunis in March 2008, presents African perspectives on each of the themes of the Forum (global change and risk management; advancing human development and the MDGs; managing and protecting water resources; governance and management; finance; education, knowledge, and capacity development), with a key message of delivering on existing commitments. In response to this agenda, the G8 countries announced increased aid to Africa’s water sector.
The desire to solve the world’s water crisis has generated many reports and frameworks over the years, including the Brundtland Commission’s report “Our Common Future” and the World Water Forum process itself. But perhaps nothing is as effective as a proactive, united stance from sub-Saharan Africans themselves, which could go a long way toward ensuring aid is used appropriately and efficiently. The fact that South Africa will host the Sixth World Water Forum in March 2012 should provide another impetus for meeting water and sanitation targets on the continent.
Hope Herron is an environmental scientist with Tetra Tech, Inc. She is currently researching water security issues in the context of the new U.S. Africa Command and U.S. defense, diplomacy, and development frameworks.
Photo: A Sudanese girl fills a water jug at a pump. Courtesy of Flickr user Water for Sudan.