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Even the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull could not keep His Royal Highness The Prince of Orange of the Netherlands, who is also Chairman of the UN Secretary General’s Advisory Board on water and sanitation, from joining World Bank Managing Director Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and others to participate in a Davos-style panel discussion of solutions for the 2.6 billion people who still lack access to sanitation and the 884 million lacking access to safe water.
The BBC’s Katty Kay moderated the event, which also included South Africa’s Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, Buyelwa Patience Sonjica,Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator at USAID’s Bureau for Global Health Gloria Steele, Ek Sonn Chan from Cambodia’s General Director of the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority, IFC’s Executive Vice President Lars Thunell, and Inger Andersen, Sustainable Development Director in the Bank’s Africa Region.
“As a child,” said Okonjo-Iweala, “I remember walking for miles to fetch water, and then having to do it all over again the next day. The next day we had to do it all over again. It was one of the most difficult things.”
She cited another personal experience related to sanitation. “I remember growing tired after walking up a flight of stairs, which used to be simple. One day, my husband found me on the floor at the top of the stairs, the baby was crying. I had fainted. At the hospital they found I had masses of hookworms from the village where I had lived. These stories are meant to show you that this event today is not just an academic exercise but a real issue.”
With roughly 4,000 children dying preventable deaths each day because of improper water and sanitation, the panelists were using the Spring Meetings venue as a platform to bring these basic human necessities to the attention of gathered finance ministers and the international news media.
The Bank Group is a key partner in the water and sanitation sector. The Bank is the largest single source of funding for water and sanitation, with $4.3 billion in lending devoted to this area in 2009. In addition, the World Bank-administered Water and Sanitation Program (WSP) provided $30 million in free technical assistance to 25 countries to scale up successful sanitation and water projects.
Jamal Saghir, the Bank’s Director of Energy, Transport and Water (ETW), said in a commentary published in the Global Post that “the first order of business facing Ministers gathered for the Spring Meetings must be the basic, simple, inexpensive, and obvious needs of poor people. Low cost sanitation interventions not only offer basic human dignity, they can reduce disease, malnutrition, and death. If we can summon the will to make this sanitation effort a global priority by allocating the needed resources, we can save millions of lives.”
With 2015 just on the horizon, we know that despite significant improvements, there are only five years left before the world misses the sanitation Millennium Development Goal. The world will likely reach the MDG on water globally, but regionally, such as in Africa, the goal will be missed if current trends continue.
At the panel discussion on Friday, the Prince of Orange highlighted the fact that sanitation is a taboo topic. As Chair of UNSGAB, he is a champion of the sanitation and water sector, and was one of the proponents for naming 2008 the International Year of Sanitation.
“It is good to know that Mrs. Clinton and I are on the same page,” he said in reference to Hillary Clinton’s World Water Day speech at the National Geographic Society in Washington last month. The U.S. Secretary of State cited water as one of the few issues that has bipartisan support and one that will play a key role in US foreign policy towards international peace.
USAID’s Gloria Steele echoed IFC’s Lars Thunell when she said that, if we want long term solutions, we have to look at the private sector, citing that non-bilateral aid has now surpassed bilateral aid. She also cited the U.S. work that complements World Bank and the Water and Sanitation Program efforts in the sector in areas like behavior change and other innovations like creating demand for improved sanitation.
Lars Thunell also cited an Output-Based Aid approach in which donors pay for meters and initial connections, allowing consumers to pay greatly reduced prices.
Minister Sonjica and Ek Sonn Chan also gave first-hand experience from South Africa and Cambodia. “This isn’t about numbers, it’s about people,” said Minister Sonjica. “Access to safe water and sanitation is a right, even for the poor who can’t afford it.”
When asked what she would like to see coming out of the first ever High Level Meeting on Sanitation and Water for All, happening later Friday, the Minister said that water and sanitation must not be an afterthought when funds are allocated. “It should be seen as a priority.”
Ek Sonn Chan was able to bring the percentage of people with access to safe water in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh from 20 percent to 90 percent. When asked how, he said that donors and others outside a country must complement, rather than substitute home grown solutions. “We need to develop our own systems.”
It is too early to tell whether consciousness-raising events like the panel discussion and initiatives like Sanitation and Water for All will have an impact on correcting the course on the sanitation and water goals. As the Prince of Orange observed, “The obstacles are daunting, but the solutions are within our reach.”