To spur efforts by governments and civil society to meet agreed targets on halving the number of people lacking access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015, the United Nations is launching the international Water for Life Decade tomorrow on World Water Day.
With agriculture being the main consumer of water and women in developing countries often being the main carriers of water, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a message, "We need to increase water efficiency, especially in agriculture. We need to free women and girls from the daily chore of hauling water, often over great distances. We must involve them in decision-making on water management."
The least progress was being made in providing basic sanitation and many millions of children were dying each year from water-borne diseases, he said, urging the world "to respond better" on an urgent matter of human development and human dignity.
"And we must show that water resources need not be a source of conflict," but can be a catalyst for cooperation, Mr. Annan said.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), noting that it now takes a ton of water to produce 2.2 pounds of wheat, said, "Appropriate polices and good governance are needed to encourage and guide farmers to make better use of water."
A continuing rise in farm productivity of 67 per cent is needed to meet food requirements between 2000 and 2030, but the increase in water use could be kept down to 14 per cent, FAO's Land and Water Division Director Kenji Yoshinaga said.
The agency's water management expert, Jean-Marc Faurès said, "Agriculture is now coming under much more scrutiny as water resources are shrinking, populations are growing and competition between sectors is increasing. Substantial adaptations of agricultural policies are necessary."
On the question of health and sanitation, UN World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Lee Jong-Wook said the collective failure to tackle diarrhoeal disease, which was killing 30,000 people per week, was "a silent humanitarian crisis" that impeded the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a list of targets for reducing many socio-economic ills by 2015.
"It has been estimated that an additional investment of $11.3 billion per year over and above current spending could result in a total economic benefit of $84 billion annually," Dr. Lee said. "The economic benefits would range from $3 to $34 per $1 invested, depending on the region."
The launch will be marked by a "Blessing of the Waters" tomorrow at UN Headquarters in New York, while a web site on the decade will be made available.
The actual debates and policy recommendations will, however, take place next month at the 13th session of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD-13), which will focus on the three themes of water, sanitation and human settlements. This will be the first policy-setting session since the World Summit on Sustainable Development was held in 2002 in Johannesburg, South Africa, and government delegates will decide on concrete policy options and actions to be taken to achieve the internationally agreed development goals and targets in these three areas.
Among the goals CSD-13 will consider will be ensuring that no one is excluded from essential water supplies.
"Examples of possible actions include the provision of targeted means-tested direct subsidies to the poor, as in Chile, applying increasing block rate tariff structures to water pricing, as in Côte d'Ivoire, and the provision of a basic daily quantity of water free of charge to households, as in South Africa," the Commission said in a release.
Countries could also make basic sanitation access affordable to poor people, by subsidizing household hook-ups to sewerage services, as in Jamaica and in Trinidad and Tobago, and providing cross-subsidies to meet the sanitation needs of the poor, as in Egypt, it said.