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Water Supplies

Volume 460: debated on Wednesday 9 May 2007

2. What steps his Department is taking to promote the availability of clean drinking water in developing countries. (136206)

3. What steps his Department is taking to promote clean water and sanitation in the developing world; and if he will make a statement. (136207)

We will double our expenditure on water and sanitation in Africa, where the millennium development goal targets are most off-track, to £95 million a year by 2007-08, and then double it again to £200 million a year by 2010-11. Last November, I published a global call to action on water and sanitation. We need both developing country Governments and donors to do more, we need to invest more and to ensure that money is spent effectively, and we need to put the best structures in place to make all of that happen.

Like me, my right hon. Friend will have visited developing countries such as Ghana and Nigeria and seen at first hand the lack of proper drinking water and the poor sanitation. What tangible efforts could be made in terms of the World Bank to assist us in our millennium goals and in solving the problem of poor sanitation in developing countries?

It is a question of funding—there needs to be more funding for water and sanitation from the international community, donors, multilateral institutions and the Governments of developing countries themselves—and giving local authorities in the growing towns and cities of the developing world the resources that they need to provide water and sanitation as their populations increase. It is also about changing cultural attitudes and habits, which is why our support for the community-led total sanitation initiative is a really good thing. The initiative has shown its capacity to change attitudes throughout the world and to get people to realise that if they do not deal with sanitation, they undermine the health of their community. We need more of that.

Given that more than 1 billion people throughout the world lack access to clean water, what is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that that important issue is on the agenda of the G8 meeting in June?

By our own actions we have increased investment, which I have described to the House. The global call that I issued in November was all about trying to raise the profile of the issue. I am pleased to report to the House that at the recent spring meetings of the World Bank, we reached an agreement that there should in future be one annual report on how the world is doing and one annual meeting at which we can gather to determine what needs to be done next and to divide up the work. The UN has indicated that it is prepared to nominate one lead UN body in- country to be the vehicle through which support for water and sanitation will be provided, which represents real progress. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will continue to press the matter, including through the G8.

To return to my right hon. Friend’s comments about changing habits, is he aware that the local authority in Nairobi had well-advanced plans some months ago to pipe water to one of the city’s largest slums, but that the plans had to be withdrawn owing to landlords’ threats of violence because they were making too much money out of selling water in that slum?

The story that my hon. Friend tells draws our attention to the difficulties that countries face as they try to make progress. In the case that she cites, the landlords have a vested interest in the existing system because, as the House knows, the highest prices for water are paid by the people who buy it in plastic bags and buckets from water sellers. In Ghana, such people pay five to six times as much for water as those who get it through the leaky, creaky water supply system. That illustrates that one problem that local authorities face is how they deal with informal settlements. There is a question whether there will be recognition of the fact that millions of people live in an area and whether clean water will be provided, and that shows what a big task local authorities face. That is partly about governance and partly about resources.

Will the Secretary of State note that I have tabled an early-day motion, which has been signed by the chairmen of six all-party groups connected with Africa, that calls for support for the “End Water Poverty” campaign? Some 193 Members—soon the number will be more than 200—from all parties have signed the early-day motion, which, as it happens, is supported by Conservative Front Benchers, to call for the problems to which the Secretary of State has just referred to be remedied. Is he aware that we are going to Downing street on Saturday to present a petition about the matter? WaterAid and Tearfund, which have led the campaign, deserve every conceivable support. Does he agree that the £95 million a year that he is proposing might not be adequate and that we need to do more?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s very last point, and that is why we will double the amount again when we reach the £95 million figure, because the problem is greatest in Africa. I am grateful to him for telling me about the petition that will be presented. I join him in paying tribute to the two organisations to which he referred, which we support and work with, because this is a great global cause—frankly, we need all the help that we can get. Above all, the people who do not have clean water and sanitation need all the interest and attention that we together can garner so that progress can be made to improve their lives.

What is my right hon. Friend doing to improve access to water and sanitation in the slums? Is his Department working with UN-Habitat to examine the upgrading of slums and the likely impact of that on improving access to these services?

I have met Anna Tibaijuka, who heads up UN-Habitat, to discuss the slum upgrading programme and the facility that she is advocating. In the end, the most important thing is to give resources to the people who have responsibility for providing clean water and sanitation in the urban areas of Africa and Asia. This country’s history shows that local authorities, as they developed, were principally responsible for putting in place piped water and sewerage systems, which did more than anything else in 19th century Britain to prolong life expectancy. Developing countries are going through exactly the same process, and we need to ensure that they have the means, the political will—that must come from within—and resources at a local and city level, given that that is where the investment must be made.

The Select Committee on International Development’s recent report highlighted the fact that sanitation is a poorly performing target within the Department, and it recommended the establishment of a sanitation agency. I cannot support that request. Does the Secretary of State not think that it would be more appropriate for him, his Department and his civil servants to highlight sanitation as an issue, to focus on it and to try to improve the situation?

I think that that is what we are doing. In fairness to the Select Committee, it acknowledged that the UK played a leading role in securing a millennium development goal target on sanitation, which was agreed in 2002. Britain deserves credit for having pushed for that. Secondly, our support for the rural hygiene, sanitation and water supply project in Bangladesh has helped 7.7 million people in the first five years, and we are funding a UNICEF programme in India that aims to reach 213 million people. In addition, the community-led total sanitation initiative is a practical way of dealing with the problem. It is very blunt and direct; it involves going into villages and saying, “We’ve got to take a decision to stop open defecation in this village because that’s the cause of a lot of ill-health,” and it works, because it does not have a fixed plan. It works with the community and finds solutions. In some cases, the price of the plates that are needed for pit latrines has come down to as little as a dollar. These are the practical steps that need to be taken if more people are to have clean sanitation.

What role does my right hon. Friend think that private water companies can play in ensuring clean water and sanitation through charitable work, and what will he do to ensure that our private companies do even more charitable work overseas?

I welcome the contribution of any organisation that supports charitable work to provide clean water and sanitation. On the public-private argument, I welcome what the Select Committee report had to say. In the end, we are not having an ideological debate about public or private; the issue that we should be interested in is the most effective way of getting clean water and sanitation to the largest number of people. I am interested in what works.

The Secretary of State must be acutely aware of the widespread concern, expressed by the Select Committee, numerous non-governmental organisations and many others, that clean water and, in particular, the unglamorous but vital issue of sanitation risk becoming the orphan millennium development goals. On current progress, we will not meet those targets for nearly 70 years. Is not all our work on prioritising health and education undermined if girls have to walk five miles each day to get water for their families, and if children risk death from poor sanitation?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and that is why providing clean water is not just good for the health of children and communities, but very good for getting girls into school. That is why, as I saw for myself on a recent visit to Malawi, providing toilets as well as classrooms is absolutely fundamental in the education work that we support. That maximises the chances of girls coming to school, and, as they get older, staying in school, which they will not do if there are no toilets for them to use. The issue is how we integrate all the approaches to health, education, water and sanitation to ensure the progress that the hon. Gentleman and I both want.