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Poverty and Water policy: Squaring up to the challenge at The Hague

Time (GMT +00) 00:00 23:59


Jon Lane, Consultant in Water and Sanitation


Clare Short, Secretary of State, DFID

Tony Allan, Professor of Geography, and SOAS Water Issues Group

Lyla Mehta, Fellow, Institute of Development Studies, Environment Group

Ravi Narayanan, Director, WaterAid

Colin Skellett, Chairman, Wessex Water

Hilary Sunman, Global Water Partnership, Framework For Action Unit

1. The president of the Institution of Civil Engineers, George Fleming, welcomed the Secretary of State and assembled audience and panellists before handing over to the Chair, Jon Lane. Highlighting the significance of The Hague Second World Water Forum itself, and the potential significance of the ministerial statement to arise from it, Jon Lane emphasised the centrality of British organisations and individuals in the water debates surrounding The Hague process. The meetings series had, he said, both focused on the importance of addressing poverty in all its aspects and revealed that the ‘critical issues’ were largely political, and not technical. Whilst some remained pessimistic about the future, he remained optimistic that potential problems could be overcome given the right level of co-operation. As well as introducing the panel members he also warmly welcomed the group of Nepalese students who were performing a youth vision at The Hague and would be presenting the vision to the audience. The Secretary of State’s address followed.

2. Following the Secretary of State’s speech Jon Lane invited the Nepalese youth vision performers to take the floor (organised by a local partner of WaterAid’s in Nepal – NEWAH – and brought to The Hague forum by WaterAid). The director of the vision performance (Umesh Pande) summarised the storyline as depicting (through the story of one women and her daughter) a village where the health impact of a poor water supply had prompted a communal solution in the construction of a pipeline from a clean source to the village. Integrated with latrine construction and hygiene education the improvements were felt immediately in both increased time available for other activities, and improved health. Following the performance the panel were invited to respond to the speech.

3. Colin Skellett noted the aspirations but lack of delivery of the 1980s ‘Water Decade’. Whilst the new targets proposed by the SoS were ‘ambitious’ they were ‘achievable’ if people worked together. He welcomed the role identified in the speech for the private sector, and argued that the future had to be in private-public partnerships. Investment needs in water and sanitation would be some £600 billion over the next 10 years and the private sector had access to both the necessary expertise and capital, but needed ‘stability and transparency’ in which to operate. One of the biggest issues was how to get people to put value on water at the same time as making it available to the poorest; the key balance to strike being between sustainability and affordability, central to which were tariffs and tariff structures. There was ‘nothing wrong’ with cross-subsidies, he said.

4. Ravi Narayanan remarked on the fact that the Nepalese performance had highlighted how simple solutions could be. Clare Short’s speech, he said, had underscored three important issues: 1) that control should be in the hands of people; 2) that women must play a prominent role in the governance of systems; and 3) that competition was pointless – targets could only be achieved through co-operation.

5. Hilary Sunman stressed the importance of water being recognised as an economic good and picked up on the importance of valuing water for other uses, particularly irrigation. She asked Clare Short whether some money earmarked for debt relief might be directed to water projects, particularly water for the poor.

6. Tony Allan stressed that politicians were ‘in the business’ of constructing knowledge and allocating resources. The Hague process was about the same, he said. Those optimistic about the future were right ‘but dangerous’, he said, whilst pessimists were ‘wrong but useful’. Emphasising the centrality of politics he quoted one author’s observation that water not only flowed downhill due to gravity, but also ‘uphill to money and power’.

7. Lyla Mehta stated that there were a plurality of debates surrounding water scarcity, and warned against blanket perspectives which often obscured questions of power and politics. Water as an economic good was, she suggested, contrary to a rights-based approach and asked Clare Short how both views could be held at once.

8. Initial questions from the audience were then taken: these ranged from whether current structures were sufficient to enable greater co-ordination of efforts; how disputes could be adjudicated and the issue of distribution of water as a political problem.

9. In responding to the panel comments and questions from the floor Clare Short stressed that the reduction rather than alleviation of poverty was the key, to which there was ‘no question’ about water being a part. The real development crisis was one of governance, she stressed, and cited the problem posed by corruption in a state like Nigeria which ‘corroded’ governance capacity. ‘Profoundly disagreeing’ with the comment that water as an economic good went against a rights-based approach she said that the concept of a rights-based approach was not ‘economically illiterate’, rather it meant managing resources in such a way as to bring the poor what they needed. Greater co-ordination was needed in general in development, and not just in water. Putting away institutional ‘flags’ and strengthening local systems were key.

10. Disputes being essentially political, the answer to successful adjudication was consultation and respect for the views of all people. Distorted decisions were taken when not everybody was included, she said; and the point of building up civil society, therefore, was to get the views of the poor heard. On the privatisation of water in the UK, the government had decided that post election it could not buy it back, but it could use regulation for everything previously undertaken under public ownership.

11. Further questions concerned sanitation receiving too little attention during The Hague process; possible tensions within integrated water resources management between the case for ‘bottom-up’ planning and basin-level planning; the target of plans in place in all countries by 2005 being too ambitious and the possibility of a ‘Global Water Facility’, and the question of water as a human right. Jon Lane invited comments from the panel on these questions. Hilary Sunman suggested that sanitation needed a push and noted that the FFA was promoting a sanitation initiative. Tony Allan suggested that there had been a feeling that sanitation already had a ‘big battalion’ behind it.. Ravi Narayanan noted that the role of local governments and the ‘connect’ he described with civil society was very important; control needed to be devolved ‘lower to point of usage’.

12. Concluding her participation, Clare Short stressed that the poor already were spending money and not getting the service they required. On the target for integrated water management plans in place in all countries by 2005 she agreed that there was reason to question whether the capacity was there in every country to facilitate the planning process. Nevertheless, she stated that the commitment was there under the sustainable development objective and that water had to be incorporated. Whilst there would be slippage in some countries the process could be driven forward through targets ‘already there and signed up to’. The meeting was drawn to a close by Jon Lane.


The event highlighted the significance of The Hague Second World Water Forum itself, and the potential significance of the ministerial statement to arise from it.