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Drinking Water

Volume 406: debated on Wednesday 11 June 2003

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If he will make a statement on the efforts being made in co-operation with the international community to increase the availability of clean water in the developing world. [118379]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development
(Ms Sally Keeble)

One in five people currently lacks access to clean water worldwide. My Department is spending £87 million on bilateral programmes, focusing on improving water management and health education. We are also providing at least £40 million for multilateral initiatives to increase access to water.

Given the Government's commitment to humanitarian aid for Iraq, can the Minister tell me whether there is a time scale for the delivery of fresh water?

We have taken substantial steps, which my hon. Friend will be aware of, to ensure that we provide aid to Iraq. Extensive work, supported by us, has been undertaken to ensure that the power supplies, which were a real problem, were reconnected so that the people could get water. I believe that the water supplies are now getting back to pre-war levels.

Given that 6,000 children die every day because of poor water supplies and poor sanitary conditions, and given that this week, reports from Oxfam, Care, and Save the Children have highlighted problems with the water supply to the children of Iraq, what will DFID do to deliver for those children?

I have already set out what we have done about the water supplies, and the steps that have been taken to reconnect the power to ensure that such supplies get through. We have also provided aid to several non-governmental organisations, including, I believe, UNICEF, to meet some of the needs of the children in Iraq. The hon. Gentleman is entirely right to point out the connection between water and child health—a problem that affects not only children in Iraq but children world wide. Some 2 million children die each year, quite unnecessarily, from diarrhoea-related diseases, which are almost entirely due to poor water supplies. It is not just about the supply and management of water; hygiene and sanitation needs are absolutely crucial. That is one reason why we are putting so much effort into tackling the need to improve sanitation levels, as well as into tackling the worldwide shortage of clean water.

My hon. Friend will be aware that the World Trade Organisation is currently discussing the liberalisation of services, including water distribution and supply. Does she agree that any negotiations must ensure that sufficient safeguards are in place to protect supplies to the poorest people in the world, and that the WTO should now adopt the millennium development goals?

My hon. Friend has set out some important issues in her question. It is entirely for Governments of individual countries to decide how to manage and organise their water supplies. Figures so far show that, by and large, virtually all the investment in water in the developing countries—about 68 per cent.—is in the public sector. Despite fears about the consequence of the liberalisation of water, comparatively little investment by the private sector in the developed world has taken place. When investment has been made, it has tended to be in management rather than infrastructure, about which most people are concerned. The main concern of the Department in increasing access to water is precisely to ensure that the most poor and marginalised people gain access to it. I can give my hon. Friend my complete assurance on that.

The Minister will be aware that Malawi has plenty of water, but needs to improve its water management. On the other hand, throughout all sub-Saharan Africa, local villages and small communities need that help. Is it not a fact that DFID is not too happy about supplying funds to some of the non-governmental organisations working in those areas, because the sums that they are looking for are too small? I understand, for example, that £2 million to help an education, AIDS and water programme was considered too little.

I am surprised at the hon. Gentleman's remarks. If he wants to make specific points, I would be grateful if he would make them afterwards and I shall ensure that they are followed up. The Department's approach to water deals extensively with management and education programmes rather than infrastructure. Our experience would go against what the hon. Gentleman says. I shall ensure that he receives a detailed reply to any specific points that he wants to raise.

It should come as no surprise to the Minister that hon. Members on both sides of the House are drawing her attention to the chronic problems of securing a clean water supply in Iraq. At the International Development Committee yesterday, non-governmental organisations warned that there are already clear signs that cholera, dysentery and diarrhoea are on the increase. According to the former Secretary of State, the Government ignored the need to keep basic humanitarian services running when they were planning for the war. Will the Department now launch an inquiry into why preparations were so poor?

The issue of the Department's preparations has been covered many times. The hon. Lady knows how much finance was provided to NGOs specifically to prepare for the eventualities of war. She also knows that much of the money went into making preparations to deal with refugees and displaced people, though, mercifully, that problem has not arisen. We are aware of several cases of cholera and other diseases on the basis of information supplied by the World Health Organisation and other organisations operating on the ground. We examine such information closely. Without wanting to sound complacent, we are aware of the health problems that can arise at this time of year in Iraq, and we are taking stringent steps to improve services, particularly water. I understand that both power and water supplies are more or less back to the position that obtained before the war.