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What kills 2.2 million people a year? Dirty drinking water. Now swallow this...

Water heads the list of biggest environmental problems facing the world. Here Geoffrey Lean assesses the damage

25 August 2002
UK Guardian


What is the problem?

The greatest environmental disaster afflicting the planet is not GM foods or crops, the felling of tropical rainforests, proliferation of dangerous chemicals, or even global warming, but the scourge of dirty drinking water. It kills 2.2 million a year in developing countries. Most victims are children.

Forty per cent of people live in countries where water is scarce: by 2025 this is expected to rise to 66 per cent. About 1.2 billion people do not have safe, clean water to drink. Twice as many do not have adequate sanitation. Hundreds of millions suffer repeated, enervating bouts of diarrhoea and other diseases – sapping their ability to work and grow food.

Poor people – mostly women – walk for hours to fetch disease-ridden water. They trudge, on average, four miles a day carrying loads of 20kg. In northern Ghana women used to risk snakebites during a seven-hour trip every morning to collect water. The provision of handpumps has given them time for their families, to earn money and take part in the political process.

What could the summit do?

In a sane world leaders would ensure that everyone has clean water and sanitation. This would, the UN reckons, cut disease by three-quarters. Two years ago they agreed to halve the number of people without clean water by 2015. Many countries want the same target for sanitation. Hitting the water target would cost £6bn a year; hitting the sanitation one would cost £11bn.

What will summit achieve?

It will probably reconfirm the water target. The US is blocking the sanitation one, but may give way under pressure. Whether either target will ever be met is another matter.

Corporate accountability

What is the problem?

The world's five largest companies together earn more money each year than the combined incomes of the 46 poorest countries. If multinationals were listed in the same wealth tables as countries, they would make up more than half of the world's top economies. They are largely beyond the control of national governments; they can switch production, jobs, capital – and pollution – from country to country to get the regimes that best suit them.

The Rio Earth summit in 1992 decided not to try to bring in rules to regulate them; in the past 10 years such controls as there were have been greatly weakened. The UN increasingly treats big corporations as partners: indeed, some progressive ones have made much of the running on sustainable development since Rio. Multinationals will play a key role at the summit. But pressure groups have made them their main target in Johannesburg.

One example close to home is British Nuclear Fuels, which is accused of turning the Irish Sea into the most radioactive in the world. Monsanto has aggressively promoted GM crops around the world. Union Carbide was responsible for the Bhopal disaster.

What could the summit do?

It could start the process of drawing up measures for corporate accountability. It could begin by adopting a set of 10 "Bhopal Principles" calling on corporations to adopt high standards, protect human rights, end bribery and other improper influence over governments, take preventative action to avoid pollution, and compensate victims.

What will the summit achieve?

Virtually nothing. Rich countries do not want to know about the issue. Developing ones fear they will lose any hope of investment if they raise it.


What is the problem?

Every year more than 20 billion tons of precious topsoil is blown or washed off the land. Seventy per cent of the drylands used for agriculture – nearly a third of the world's land area – is threatened by being turned into desert. More than 110 countries are affected. Most are poor, but about a third of the US and one-fifth of Spain are also at risk.

Desertification, as the process is called, costs the world $42bn (£28bn) a year. By 2020, 60 million people are expected to have left Africa's Sahelian region for north Africa and Europe. The amount of agricultural land available for each person in developing countries has declined from 0.79 acres in the early 1960s to 0.51 acres and is expected to reach 0.39 acres by 2030.

What could the summit do?

Eight years ago the world agreed a treaty to combat desertification. But most developing countries have not made implementing it a high enough priority, and rich ones have failed to provide the aid to make it work.

The UN estimates it would cost $24bn in extra investment to halve hunger, but that this would return $120bn a year in increased productivity as hungry people grew stronger.

What will the summit achieve?

It will almost certainly endorse a change in the rules of the Global Environment Facility – the world's premier environmental aid institution – to allow it to fight desertification. But there is no sign of the concerted drive against land degradation and hunger that is needed.


What is the problem

We are already consuming 20 per cent more natural resources than the planet can produce each year. Most of the consumption is in the richest countries. The 15 per cent of the world's people who live in them are responsible for 56 per cent of its consumption; the 40 per cent who live in the poorest ones account for 11 per cent. The world's economic output grew by over a third, from $31,000bn (£20,000bn) to $42,000bn, in the 1990s; but per capita incomes dropped in 80 countries. The average African now consumes 20 per cent less than 25 years ago. The US is by far the most enthusiastic devourer of resources: it has 5 per cent of the global population but accounts for nearly a quarter of global consumption. The 1992 Rio Earth summit concluded that "the major cause of the continued deterioration of the world environment is the unsustainable pattern of consumption and production". But over the past decade it has only got worse.

What could the summit do?

Many studies have shown that wasteful consumption can be curbed without harming the quality of life. Rich countries could enjoy the same standard of living using a quarter of the resources they do now in the short to medium term, and a 10th in the longer term, leaving space for poor countries to develop. Leaders could adopt these targets and set up serious programmes to conserve energy and water and recycle waste.

What will the summit achieve?

Virtually nothing. The United States, Canada, Australia and Japan have refused even to allow these issues to be discussed seriously.


What is the problem?

About 2.5 billion people cannot get any form of modern energy, but rely on burning wood, crop wastes and animal dung for heat and cooking. This is the second biggest killer after dirty water. The smoke from their fires contains a cocktail of poisonous chemicals, which swirls around their homes, killing more than two million people a year – half of them children under five. Taking the wood and wastes from the land reduces its fertility and increases erosion, but the practice is steadily increasing because a growing population has no other option. In rural India, for example, only a third of all households have access to electricity. The rest depend chiefly on wood, but deforestation and development are rapidly depleting supplies.

Meanwhile, 80 per of all the energy used comes from oil, gas and coal. This emits pollution that causes lung disease and acid rain, and is the force behind global warming. The world's energy consumption is expected to double by 2035 and treble by 2055.

What could the summit do?

Greatly increasing the use of renewable energy, almost everyone agrees, is the answer. A task force set up two years ago by the leaders of the G8 nations, the world's richest, proposed measures that would bring it to 800 million poor people by the end of the decade. Brazil has proposed that countries should get a 10th of their energy from renewable sources by the end of the decade. Endorsing these targets would be a good start.

What will summit achieve?

Virtually nothing. Opec countries have managed to persuade the rest of the developing nations – against their interests – to join them in insisting that no big decisions should be made.


What is the problem?

The world is heading for the biggest extinction since the one that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Mammal and bird species are disappearing at 100 times the natural rate. In some ecosystems – such as coral reefs, wetlands and tropical rainforests – the rate is estimated to be at up to 10,000 times greater. The golden lion tamarin (below) is one of many species endangered by the destruction of the Atlantic Forest in Brazil, which now covers only 7 per cent of its original one million square kilometres. Conservation projects have brought the tamarin's numbers up from the near-oblivion of 200 in 1970 to about 1,000 now.

It is too late for a fifth of the world's freshwater fish species, which have vanished for ever. And about three- quarters of the wild relatives of crops, which are vital for preserving and increasing food supplies through interbreeding, have been lost over the past century.

More than half of the world's wetlands have been drained; 80 per cent of those in Europe are now dry. About a quarter of the world's coral reefs have been destroyed; another quarter are threatened. An area of forest the size of Venezuela has been felled over the past decade. Global warming will make things worse by dramatically changing the climate.

Yet about 40 per cent of the world economy is based on biological processes and products. Drugs based on plants are worth $90bn (£59bn) a year in industrial countries alone. And poor people, living in rural areas of the Third World, depend on biodiversity for survival.

What could the summit do?

It is impossible to save everything, but much could be done by concentrating on 200 or so different areas in the world which are home to 90 per cent of its species. The summit could draw up a plan for conserving and managing these areas, which often straddle national boundaries.

What will summit achieve?

Not a lot. There are some rather woolly proposals around for promising to reduce or reverse the extinction trend by 2010, but even these are hotly contested.

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