Unless one is living under a rock, chances are my readers have heard about United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals which were conceived to raise millions out of poverty in the developing world. According to the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohan Munasinghe, “throwing money” on the developing countries is not enough to make the world’s development path more sustainable. At the World Resources Forum in Beijing, he talked about why the rich need to focus not only on development aid and technological inventions but also on curbing their own consumption. First of all, why shift our attention to consumption? “Focusing on sustainable production is not a sufficient condition for sustainability.
The United Nations Millennium Development Goal (MDG) for sanitation is “to halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.” There are an estimated 2.5 billion people who currently lack access to basic sanitation, with more urban people lacking basic sanitation than rural people. These statistics alone make you realize what a challenge it is to reach the MDG, but what about the things we don’t usually think of? What about people with disabilities? What are their challenges to achieve basic sanitation? How do they gain access to a toilet without a ramp? How do they wash their hands when the tap is too low or too high? What about puberty-age school girls? How do they achieve basic sanitation when there are no proper facilities or disposal methods at school? Disability and gender issues don’t get nearly as much attention in the global conversation, but they are two very important issues that must be addressed to achieve the MDG for sanitation and hygiene. Basic sanitation for females and the disabled is linked to a whole host of socio-economic issues, including education, poverty, career choice, and ability to leave the home, even for the shortest and most basic trips. Increasing access may be as simple as adding a ramp so people in wheelchairs or on crutches gain access to toilets; increasing size of the toilet stall so a wheelchair will easily fit into the space; raising or lowering the height of the tap; providing disposal units for sanitary napkins; and providing a sink and soap for washing reusable pads.
The objective of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in June 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, also called Rio+20 to mark the 20 year anniversary from the first conference in this series, is to secure a renewed political commitment for sustainable development. The landmark Conference also aims to assess the progress and failures in global sustainable development to date. Among the successes are the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), among the failures are a lack of an international framework to address climate change mitigation and adaptation. As the largest global gathering of water professionals, the World Water Forum served as an important place to discuss goals for Rio. Sustainable development requires discussions about water in infrastructure, energy production, access, reuse and consumption. A number of panels were organized to facilitate the Rio discussion: Brazil’s Minister of Environment, Ms. Izabella Teixeira, delivered the Keynote speech at one such panel entitled “The Way Towards Rio+20”.
I was lucky enough to sit down over lunch with renowned environmental scientist, professor and political commentator, Asit Biswas. We discussed the state of water management in India, his home country. India is facing a huge water and sanitation shortfall, which will become more severe in the near future as pressures from population growth and climate change surmount. The federal system is beset by inter-state conflicts over trans-boundary river waters. Farmers engage in unsustainable mining of groundwater even as aquifers in the western part of the country begin to dry up. In areas that do experience heavy rainfall, floods cause widespread destruction. Biswas said that India’s democracy, which he argued is the developing world’s most robust despite its tumultuous character, makes managing water nearly impossible. He proposed a plan to overcome this obstacle. The current state of Indian politics is lamentable, says Biswas, because increasingly fragile multiparty coalitions govern not just the central government, but also many of the states. Water management entails the coordination of multiple stakeholders. This is difficult in the Indian political system, which has often been characterized as decidedly adversarial. Under these conditions, it is nearly impossible to address water quality and coverage. Multiparty coalitions are often an assemblage of a diverse set of stakeholder groups; they are often barely large enough to maintain parliamentary power. When issues arise that require the delineation of winners and losers, any coalition group that would lose out on the deal will play spoiler and threaten to bring down government unless the terms are changed. Thus, water issues, which often require some stakeholders to sacrifice, are rarely resolved. There are some highlights of strong governance within India, however.
When else can you find yourself in the same room as the French Minister of Agriculture, the Director of the International Seed Foundation, the President of the Food Security Council, the Assistant Director General for Natural Resources Management and Environment at the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, and a host of other international movers and shakers? It’s only at the High Level Session on Water and Food Security at the sixth World Water Forum. Food security is defined by FAO as “when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” Target 1.C of the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals (MDG) is to halve, by 2015, the number of people who suffer from hunger. We were, arguably, making some progress toward reaching that goal until the financial crisis of 2008 led to a spike in hunger in 2009, in both developing and developed countries. The theme for the sixth World Water Forum is “Time for Solutions”, and what better time than now to brainstorm ways to get back on track with the food security MDG. These high level sessions bring together representatives from the agricultural, governmental, and financial sectors, along with heads of international NGOs, to redefine objectives for worldwide mobilization.
Laura Burger reports from the International Environment House in Geneva where two short documentaries were screened, “When the Water Ends” and Carbon for Water, which focus on the subject of health, lack of clean water and climate change in Sub-Saharan Africa, Friday 28 October. The United Nations launched a large Millennium Campaign in 2000. Eight goals were chosen to improve dramatically the state of the world by the year 2015. Today, increasingly more people have a sceptical view on this campaign. Four years are left, but the chances that any of the goals is met are very low.
Ask yourself two important questions: Is the quality of my life better than the life of my grandparents? Will the life of my grandchildren be better than mine? Although the first one can be answered without hesitation, the second one may cause puzzlement. Both were directed towards the audience of the World Resources Forum by Prof. Mohan Munasinghe and both were to deal with the human’s inborn greed: for development and for natural resources. The main disease from which our generation is suffering from is the greed: borrowing from the future changes the world for worse.
What is the recipe for prosperity? What is essential for development and growth? Unbelievable though it may sound, the answer is consumption. Not consumption in general, but only sustainable consumption within overall limits imposed by nature. This type of consumption can bridge the gap between the rich and the poor.