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Beyond the UNDP Human Development Report 2006

The 2006 UNDP Human Development Report (HDR), entitled ‘Beyond Scarcity: Power, Poverty and Global Water Crisis’ is now available. While many of the individual issues and arguments presented will already be familiar to water sector experts, the report cleverly draws together the wealth of existing knowledge, lays bare the challenges faced and sets them within a much wider context.

The report is welcome for a number of reasons, in particular:

  1. Firstly it highlights the fact that in recent years the water and sanitation sector has generally not fared as well as counterparts in education and health despite its centrality in terms of human development.
  2. Secondly it exposes some of the myths which have infiltrated global water discourses including efforts to link lack of access with supposed ‘scarcity’ and scaremongering about imminent ‘water wars’.
  3. Thirdly it recognises the centrality of power, poverty and inequality as underlying causes of the so-called global water crisis and that solutions should not just be technological and financial but also political.

The report is entitled ‘beyond scarcity’ but the report could arguably have gone even further:

  1. Beyond crisis? Continual talk of ‘crisis’ tends to encourage short term solutions and must not be allowed to divert attention away from the central problem of providing access on a sustainable basis.
  2. Beyond health? The report recognises that the livelihood benefits of improved access extend far beyond health but it remains unclear how the artificial divide between domestic and productive uses can be addressed to better meet the needs and priorities of poor water users in developing countries.
  3. Beyond water? The report provides clear justification for increased water sector investment on the basis of human development needs and identifies the need to build sectoral capacity to absorb and spend funds effectively but many of the biggest obstacles to implementation lie beyond the water sector and relate to the wider challenge of building effective developmental states. Chapter 3 rightly highlights that sanitation still lags far behind water supply, despite the negative health consequences of poor sanitary conditions in many developing countries.

The report also points to a number of areas where our understanding is currently lacking:

  1. Water governance. The systems and processes by which societies manage water tend to be highly context specific and good water governance may take many forms. Important unresolved questions remain around the relative costs and benefits of trying to reform developing country institutions versus efforts to build on existing institutions and make them perform better.
  2. Water as a catalyst. The report refers to water as a ‘catalyst for progress in public health, education and poverty reduction and as a source of economic dynamism’ but the contribution of water sector investment to wider objectives of poverty reduction and growth in low income countries remains poorly understood.
  3. Donor behaviour. The report includes a call from Gordon Brown for increased aid and innovative financing mechanisms but recent reviews of existing sector financing mechanisms suggest that a great deal of work is required in order to improve donor harmonisation and alignment in the water sector in practice, to increase the effectiveness of existing funds.

The HDR provides a damning critique of the underlying causes and consequences of the so-called ‘global water crisis’ that leaves, at the beginning of the 21st century, some 1.2 billion people without access to safe water and 2.6 billion without access to sanitation. The focus it gives to the issues is welcome. However, it will be in what action it inspires and what results it brings that the report must be judged and it remains to be seen whether it will it provide the impulse for a step forward for the sector.

What do you think?: Should the report have gone further? Will it be the impetus for a step forward in the sector?