Only ripples

Only ripples DELEGATES to the recent international ministerial conference on drinking water and environmental sanitation, held in Noordwijk, Netherlands, on March 22-23, adroitly sidestepped any commitment to deadlines, funding or even a well thought out action plan. Most of the target dates, set in brackets in earlier drafts, did not even come up for breath in the final conference statement.

A similar apathy marked the approach to funding. While participants were unwilling to commit themselves to specific figures, speakers were untiring in their complaints of the huge wastage of money and the need to use it optimally. The delegates recommended cutting subsidies to the more affluent to provide water to the poor.

The Indian environment minister, Kamal Nath, had a more ingenious scheme in mind -- creating a global water fund to meet the water and sanitation requirements of developing countries. Predictably, his suggestion -- a levy imposed on the excessive per capita water consumption in developed countries which could then be used to quench the thirst of water-starved nations -- was scuttled by his Western counterparts.

Any sense of concrete achievement, therefore, was in the minds of the participants. "Apart from the funding, the conference did a good job. We have started viewing water as an economic and social good, which is a major shift", said T G Joseph, a member of the Indian delegation. What Joseph omitted to mention was that precisely the same "breakthrough" was trumpeted at the Dublin conference two years ago.

"Apart from the action side, the NGOs are fairly content," asserted Deborah Moore, a delegate from the USA. According to the Dutch minister for environment, Hans Alders, who hosted the meet, the conference had restored hope for those who lacked safe water supplies.

The so-called action programme that emerged from the deliberations was a collapsed bubble: "Governments should generate public awareness and social mobilisation towards drinking water." For good measure, Alders pointed out that the conference had "put drinking water back on the political agenda". That, as far as most delegates were concerned, was good enough to anchor the conference.

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