World sanitation goals slip

The history of men is reflected in the history of sewers,” French 19th century
author Victor Hugo wrote in Les Miserables. “The sewer is the conscience of
the city. A sewer is a cynic. It tells everything.”

Judged by its sewers, the world is not doing well. Only 3 in 10 people now have
a connection to a public sewerage system.

And with the world’s population expanding, a goal of improving sanitation by
2015 is slipping out of reach, despite progress in nations such as China and
a few big contracts for firms such as Veolia or Suez to build waste treatment
plants in cities from La Paz to Rabat

Experts say a part of the solution, especially to cut water-borne diseases for
the rural poor, may lie in renewed and smarter exploitation of nature — for
example through plants or soil bacteria that feed on waste.

Novel schemes include a plan to build an artificial wetland at a jail in Mombasa,
Kenya, to process sewage from 4,000 inmates that now flows untreated into a
creek, or ponds in South Africa where algae purify waste and are then used as fertilizer.

“About 90 per cent of the sewage and 70 per cent of the industrial waste in
developing countries are being discharged untreated into water courses,”
said Achim Steiner, head of the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP).

“Understanding the ability of peatlands, of marshes, of wetlands, to play
an integral part in filtering waste water is often overlooked,” he said.

The U.N. set a millennium goal of halving the proportion of people with no
access to sanitation — even simple latrines rather than sewers — by 2015
from 40 per cent of humanity or 2.6 billion people now: “Africa is probably
struggling the most,” Steiner said.

A 2007 scorecard showed the sanitation goal was likely to be missed by
600 million people worldwide on current trends. 2008 is the U.N.’s
International Year of Sanitation

France’s Veolia, the world’s biggest listed water supplier, says East Asia and
the Pacific are progressing best. In Africa, the company’s only big contract
so far is to supply water and sanitation to three cities in Morocco, with
investments totaling 2.2 billion euros ($3.38 billion).

“A lot of countries underestimate the effect of sanitation on health,” said
Pierre Victoria, head of International Institutional Relations at Veolia Water.

U.N. data show a child dies as a result of poor sanitation every 20 seconds —
that is 1.5 million preventable deaths a year from diseases such as diarrhea or

In many countries “we are disappointed by the lack of interest of the politicians
about water issues,” Victoria said. “We’d like to have new contracts in developing
countries but we need contractual, legal and financial security.”

Proper sewers, with pipelines and treatment plants, are prohibitively costly for
many nations. As a sign of low ambitions, the logo of the International Year
of Sanitation shows a latrine built above a hole in the ground.

Among lower-cost projects, prisoners at the Shimo La Tawa jail in Mombasa,
Kenya, will soon start work on an artificial wetland where plants will act as
a sewage processing plant in an experimental $117,000 scheme.

“This technology costs very little both for construction and maintenance,”
said Peter Scheren, manager of joint UNEP-Global Environment Facility
projects in Africa.

The scheme will also include a fish farm — fed by waste water purified by
two artificial wetlands each 55 meters (180 ft) long, nine wide and two deep.
If it works, the fish can be eaten by prisoners, or even sold.

Such wetlands can have other spin-offs. “There are experiments going on in
Tanzania where types of grass for roof thatching and baskets weaving are grown
on wetlands,” he said.

Many scientists say natural systems, such as wetlands, forests or mangroves,
are worth more left alone rather than cleared for farmland because they supply
free services such as food, water purification or building materials.

“For sanitation it’s much better to get nature on your side,” said Dag Hessen,
a biology professor at Oslo University.

UNEP’s Steiner also said the world urgently needs a better understanding of the
natural water cycle, under threat from climate change stoked by human use of
fossil fuels, to help manage water from rains to drains.

Global warming may aggravate water shortages for hundreds of millions of
people, for instance by disrupting Africa’s monsoons or by thawing Himalayan
glaciers whose seasonal meltwater now feeds crops from China to India

U.N. estimates show it would cost only about $10 billion a year to reach the
2015 sanitation target. And every dollar spent on sanitation creates spin-offs
worth $7 on average, largely because of less disease.

A 2006 U.N. Human Development Report said rich donor nations gave about
5 per cent of total overseas aid, or between $3-4 billion a year, to water
and sanitation. Excluding big investments in Iraq, the recent trend was down.

Many donors view water investments as too risky, partly because of problems
of accountable financing, it said, adding that sanitation progress since the
1970s had been “glacial”.

Yet many firms stand to benefit from a focus on water and sanitation.

Goldman Sachs sees prospects for growth in the water sector — from drinking water to processing waste.

In rich nations such as the United States, upgrading water and wastewater
infrastructure should bring 4-5 per cent growth and in markets such as China,
new infrastructure should mean 10-15 per cent growth over 5-10 years, it
said in a December 2007 report.

“Longer term, we expect the global water sector to surge towards a global
water oligopoly, where the market for water equipment and services will be
dominated by a few multi-industry companies, including General Electric,
ITT Industries, Danaher and Siemens,” it said.

Suez says it has had successes in cities such as Buenos Aires, Casablanca,
Jakarta, and La Paz. In the 13 years to 2006, it estimates it has helped
connect 5.3 million people to a sanitation network.

One headache is how to pass on the cost of upgrades.

“New systems are often under-funded. So the connections go often to the
rich or medium-income households and the poor do not get it,” said Helen
Mountford, head of the Environmental Outlooks division at the Organization
for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

With the world’s population growing, any advances in improving sanitation
may be only helping the world stand still.

The OECD said this month that more than five billion people — or
67 per cent of the world’s population — are expected to be without a
connection to public sewerage in 2030.

That is up by 1.1 billion from 2000, when 71 per cent of a smaller world
population had no connection.
About 1.1 billion people lack drinking water — another millennium goal is
to halve that proportion by 2015.

“Investments in sanitation if anything have to be more urgent than for
water because the deficit is double,” said Angel Gurria, Secretary-General
of the OECD.


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