Water pollution expert derides UN sanitation claims

The shadow of a woman collecting drinking water from a communal tap is cast on a wall in the squatter suburb of Kliptown in Johannesburg. Photograph: Saurabh Das/AP

Juliette Jowit

THE GUARDIAN | April 25, 2010

Hundreds of millions of people that the UN declares have gained access to safe water and sanitation are still struggling with polluted supplies and raw sewage, a leading expert has told the Guardian.

In its latest report on the progress of the UN Millennium Development Goal to halve the proportion of people lacking access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation, the World Health Organisation said that since 1990 1.3 billion people had gained access to improved drinking water and 500 million better sanitation. The world was on course to “meet or exceed” the water target, it said, but was likely to miss the sanitation goal by nearly 1 billion people.

However, Prof Asit Biswas, who has advised national governments, six UN agencies and Nato, said official figures showing that many cities and countries had met their targets were “baloney”, and predicted that by the UN deadline of 2015 more people in the world would suffer from these problems than when the goals were first adopted.

Biswas, president of the Third World Centre for Water Management, spoke to the Guardian ahead of a speech tomorrow in which he will tell water industry leaders that inadequate improvements to drinking water and sewage are hiding the true scale of the problem and storing up environmental problems for future generations.

“If somebody has a well in a town or village in the developing world and we put concrete around the well – nothing else – it becomes an ‘improved source of water’; the quality is the same but you have ‘improved’ the physical structure, which has no impact,” said Biswas. “They are not only underestimating the problem, they are giving the impression the problem is being solved. What I’m trying to say is that’s a bunch of baloney.”

The problem would not have been halved by 2015, he added. “I would say more people will not have access to drinking water in the sense they will have water they can drink straight from the source, and sanitation is even worse.”

Biswas will also tell the Global Water Intelligence conference in Paris that water problems are caused not by physical scarcity of supplies but by poor management, including corruption, interference by politicians and inexperience. Such comments will be controversial in an industry dominated by companies providing technological solutions to “water stress” or “scarcity” – a lack of reliable supplies for average daily needs – which experts estimate affect more than 1 billion people around the world.

“These are real-life problems, but are we talking about them in the water profession? No. We talk about water scarcity,” the professor said. “With the water we have, and the money we have, we can manage it better.”

Biswas, whose awards include the prestigious Stockholm water prize for “his outstanding and multi-faceted contributions to global water resource issues”, has travelled to cities and countries that have officially met the UN goals, such as India, Egypt and Mexico, visited the new facilities and carried out tests on the water supplied.

“I’m asking them which planet they are on,” he said. “I advise the government of India, I have been advising Egypt since 1974: you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody lower-middle class or up [in those countries] who drinks that water.”

Instead, most homes in these countries pay high prices for extra filters, expensive membranes so they can create mini sewage plants to treat their own water, and bottled water, said Biswas. He is calling for politicians to be removed from water management, well-paid experts to be appointed to run water authorities and more public outcry when supplies are too bad to drink.

His comments follow another report last week from the WHO and Unicef, which claimed aid for water and sanitation improvements was falling and that only 42% of money donated to the issue went to where it was needed most. Furthermore, a report from the World Bank Group and the International Monetary Fund on Friday said the global financial crisis would cut progress towards the provision of clean water, meaning that in 2015 more than 100 million people would be enduring dirty water.

Responding to Biswas‘s criticism, a WHO spokesman told the Guardian the organisation shared his concerns about water quality and the spread of improvements in water and sanitation.

The latest WHO update on progress, published in March, also warned that even if the Millennium Development Goals were reached in full, billions of people would still live with very poor water and sanitation.

Barbara Frost, chief executive of the UK-based global charity WaterAid, said: “Here is a global catastrophe which kills more children than HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined and which is holding back all development efforts including health and education.”

This article was first published by The Guardian, April 25, 2010.