More than 75 government ministers are poised to decide on a course of action to boost worldwide efforts to provide clean water, basic sanitation and improve the lives of slum dwellers as the United Nations Commission on Social Development opened its first-ever policy session today in New York.
"These three issues encapsulate the silent humanitarian crisis in the world today," José Antonio Ocampo, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, said ahead of the Commission's 13th session. He noted that roughly 4,000 children die each day of diarrhoeal diseases caused by poor sanitation and contaminated drinking water, while living conditions in crowded slums were exacerbating public health issues such as communicable diseases.
The Commission is the key UN forum bringing together countries to consider ways to integrate the three dimensions of sustainable development - economic growth, social development and environmental protection. Two years ago, the 53-member panel approved a multi-year work plan featuring different thematic clusters of issues for each cycle. This year's focus on water, sanitation and human settlements will be followed in 2006 with talks on energy, industrial development, air pollution and climate change.
Opening the session today, Mr. Ocampo pointed out the strong correlation between the Commission's discussions and the international targets set by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), saying that without adequate water, agriculture cannot feed the world's growing population and that water-poor agriculture-dependent countries were among the poorest in terms of income per person.
And while there had been genuine progress since 1990, with more than one billion people gaining access to improved water and sanitation facilities, he said, meeting water and sanitation targets over the coming decade will require that safe drinking water meet an additional 1.5 billion people, and that basic sanitation becomes available to an additional 1.9 billion.
"[This] will require strong political resolve, translated into sizeable additional resource flows to poor countries, together with enhanced domestic resource mobilization," said Mr. Ocampo. The estimated cost of meeting water, sanitation and slum targets are in the range of $30 billion to $40 billion a year. "Even in the best of all possible worlds, capital will remain scarce in most poor countries, so its effective investment will be critical."
With the General Assembly's mid-term review of the MDGs set for September, and in light of the Secretary-General's recent report, "In Larger Freedom," which calls on the global community to accelerate efforts to enable poor countries to break out of their poverty traps, Mr. Ocampo said the outcome of the Commission's session would provide a "litmus test" of international political will to tackle global poverty and to achieve the broader UN development agenda.
To achieve the task of outlining concrete policies in the focus areas, he urged the Commission to engage not only with civic actors and civil society organizations, "but to learn from and build on the experiences of the poor themselves, to help them mobilize the resources to invest in their own communities, and to provide them with the public services of which they are too often deprived."
Urging delegations to "make a break with business as usual," Commission Chair John Ashe recalled that in early March, a week-long preparatory meeting had forwarded to the Commission a draft compilation of policy options and actions as a springboard for discussions on how to help speed up implementation of the commitments made in the last decade at United Nations conferences on the environment and on sustainable development.
That "Chairman's Text" also refocused international attention on the UN Millennium Declaration, which contains two development targets that relate directly to water and human settlements - namely to halve by 2015 the proportion of people unable to reach or afford safe drinking water, and, by 2020, to have significantly improved the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers.
"International efforts to address increasing water scarcity are fragmented, and insufficient international attention and resources have been given to sanitation, hygiene and wastewater treatment," Mr. Ashe told the Commission. In addition "the urgent problems of the cities of the developing world - where virtually all future population growth will occur - are not being adequately addressed.
"We have a daunting challenge ahead of us during the next two weeks, but we also have an opportunity to make a real difference in expediting the implementation of sustainable development," he said.