G-8 row over water access boils over

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Posted by Sadie from ? ( on Monday, June 02, 2003 at 11:53AM :

Row over water access boils over

More than a billion people around the world have no clean water, leading to the death of a child every 15 seconds. Gaby Hinsliff and Mark Townsend report on the hot topic in Evian

Sunday June 1, 2003
The Observer

From the picture windows of the newest of the nine restaurants at the exclusive Royal Parc Evian hotel, the view of the shimmering expanse of Lake Geneva is by all accounts unrivalled.

But, if they tire of it, the leaders of the world's richest industrialised nations gathering here today can always enjoy a dip in one of its four swimming pools - or perhaps languish in the steam room of its world-famous spa, sipping waters that are flavoured with essential oils of juniper and elderberry.

In Evian-les-Bains, home of one of the world's most famous mineral springs, water is the one thing that is never in short supply.

It is a particularly cruel irony, then, that one of the main topics on the agenda of the G8 group of industrialised nations arriving here this morning is the fact that a staggering 1.1 billion of the world's peopledo not have access to clean water. For the international aid agencies hoping to use the meeting to highlight the cause, it is a case of water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink.

Even the genteel ladies of the Mothers' Union have been battling for the cause, with a campaign to send empty plastic Evian bottles to the French President, Jacques Chirac, labelled with demands to reduce the burden on developing countries.

For Britain, water is not officially high on an agenda that will range from climate change - Tony Blair, who flies into Evian today, will call for the world to move beyond the commitments at the Kyoto summit and invest in new technologies which do not damage the environment - to trade talks and terrorism.

To the anger of charities, Valerie Amos, the new International Development Secretary making her first major appearance on the public stage since she replaced Clare Short, is not expected to announce any new funding for water aid.

'Where has the British Government's conscience gone? For every 15 seconds they say "no" another child dies from lack of safe water,' said Stephen Turner of Water Aid, which is to launch a report at the summit calling for spending on clean water supplies to be doubled.

But for the French government, home to the world's two most powerful private water companies, which between them control almost two thirds of the world's privatised supplies and are keen for more, it is an issue of acute interest.

Michel Camdessus, the former head of the IMF, is due to discuss the findings of a high-level inquiry into the financing of water supplies at the summit. It is a controversial subject, with many protesters offended at what appears to them to be a cynical deal by developed countries with thriving private water industries to gain access to the markets of the Third World: others, such as Water Aid, argue that those desperate for a drink simply need it piped in by whatever method proves most effective, be it private or public sector.

Such debates may seem a million miles from the lives of those like Sema Kedir, the mother of three found hanging from a tree near her home in central Ethiopia. The only clue to her fate lay in the shattered remains of a clay pot near by.

She had collapsed on the final leg of the 12-mile hike from the nearest water well and spilled the precious liquid that would have kept her children alive for another day or two. Already in debt to a neighbour, she could not afford to raise money for a new pot: there seemed no way out.

It was cases like hers that helped persuade the international community to agree a target in Johannesburg last year to halve the number of people without clean water. But so far there is little sign of concrete progress towards the target.

The stakes could not be higher. Access to clean water saves the average household two working hours a day, ending the punishing ritual of long trips to wells such as that made by Kedir; reduces the mortality rate from diarrhoea by 65 per cent; it is even proven to drive up school attendance.

During the three days of the summit more than 170,000 people will die from diseases triggered by lack of safe drinking water, according to the charity Tearfund.

Yet even the toilet water in the G8 official hotel is cleaner than the well Kedir stumbled seven hours in the dark to reach. One flush consumes as much water as the average person in Africa uses for a whole day's drinking, cooking and cleaning.

But water is not the only issue on the agenda this weekend. The summit is US President George Bush's first real chance to heal the rift with 'old Europe' over the Iraq war: cancellation of the billions of international debt run up by Saddam Hussein will be high on the agenda for discussion.

The battle against polio, the success of trade talks this autumn in Mexico - whose President Vicente Fox is one of the handful of non-GM nations based on the other side of the lake, ready to be ferried in for a few hours' audience with the G8 itself - and safeguards on the exploitation of mineral resources in developing countries are also live issues.

Perhaps of most acute interest to the G8 will be a discussion of the precarious state of the world economy, and its implications for the powerhouses of the West. But they can expect little sympathy from the anti-globalisation protesters, already skirmishing yesterday with the police in south-west France. With a romantic weekend package in one of Evian's spas still costing less than a sanitation system for a school of 350 children in Africa, the G8 may have its work cut out to convince the sceptics.

-- Sadie
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