S. Africa provides model for water access

Wednesday, the UN summit focused on water and sewage.

Joyce Kumalo has turned her ramshackle tin house into a home. The bed is neatly made, and in the living area portraits of her grandchildren hang on the wall along with her daughter's diploma from a small business school.

But a house, she maintains, is still a shack until it has running water and a flush toilet. Although she lives just 20 miles outside Africa's wealthiest city, Johannesburg, Mrs. Kumalo has never had either.

That will soon change thanks to a program by the city's water provider, Johannesburg Water, which is installing a new sewer system in the poor neighborhood, Orange Farm, where Kumalo lives.

"My grandchildren will have a better life," she says, proudly showing where her new toilet will stand.

Wednesday at the 10-day United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) here, the main focus was on how to improve access to water and sanitation for the world's poor. More than 1 billion people worldwide lack clean water, while more than 2 billion lack access to sanitation. In Africa, an estimated 55 percent of people have access to clean water, and the UN estimates that worldwide, more than five million people a year die of waterborne diseases, including 6,000 children a day.

As AIDS ravages Southern Africa, the need for clean water is intensifying. Preventing mother-to-child transmission of the disease are hopeless, say observers, without clean water for formula milk, since the HIV virus, which is linked to AIDS, can also be transmitted through breastfeeding.

"We hope there will be a consensus here about the importance of water and sanitation and that there will be the kind of follow-up necessary to turn that into action," says Sir Richard Jolly, who is leading a new UN campaign called WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene for all).

Delegates are looking to countries such as South Africa, which exceeded coverage targets it set eight years ago when Nelson Mandela's African National Congress government came to power. More than 10 million people have been provided with clean water, and predictions are that by 2008, all of its 43 million citizens will have access.

"If you are interested in how to bring clean water to your own city, look at Johannesburg," says Tim Wirth, president of the United Nations Foundation, which is funding a program to bring clean water to African and Asian cities.

South African water officials and international observers say that South Africa's success is due to a combination of political will, financial resources, and good management.

In a survey conducted just before the Mandela administration took power in 1994, South Africans listed water as their number two priority, behind jobs. A right to clean water is incorporated into the country's constitution. Armed with this mandate, the government mobilized municipalities and provincial governments to spread water infrastructure to new areas, with the goal of providing every family with 1,500 gallons of free water.

While South Africa's water program has been successful, the country is also among the developing world's richest. It has an established water infrastructure and can afford to subsidize water for the poor by charging more to those who can afford it, both of which are obstacles for most developing nations.

Experts say that poorer countries need outside aid and expertise. The UN estimates that it would take $23 billion a year to bring clean water and sanitation worldwide to all who don't have it. Currently, annual spending is at $16 billion.

Two years ago, at the Millennium Summit held in New York, delegates agreed to try to halve the number of people without access to clean water by the year 2015. Here in Johannesburg, water activists are trying to convince countries to commit to a second goal of halving the number of people without access to sanitation.

"If we could mobilize $10 billion a year, we would be a long way to towards reaching that goal," says Mike Muller, director general of South Africa's ministry of water and forestry and the chairman of a side event specifically on water. "But we're a long way from that."

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