Green Taliban, water poverty and gender inequality

By Pascale Palmer
January 4, 2012

I really do hope that when climate change minister Greg Barker calls green campaigners “environmental Taliban” he’s including CAFOD.

I would feel very proud if our lobbying, campaigning and media work - highlighting how UK climate and environmental policies can adversely affect the lives of people in the poorest countries - stands alongside the heft of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, amongst others.

But let’s just say that Mr Barker’s gentle handling of who he evidently views as his adversaries in this fight for survival, especially after Chancellor George Osborne’s gracious comment in his Autumn Statement that “we are not going to save the planet by shutting down our steel mills”, leaves one feeling rather bereft of political hope - on this topic at least - so early in the new year.

But I’ll put Mr Barker to one side for now to concentrate on the issue of water – that abundant, natural resource that in its palatable form we so easily take for granted. We, in the UK, in fact, are so over water that we often now ignore the tap and choose the bottle with its wondrous minerals and ‘I used to be a glacier/cloud’ or ‘I come from deep inside the Misty Mountains’ hype.

I remember once, at the age of about 10, going on far too long a walk up a Welsh mountain in very unWelsh scorching heat. No one had brought water with them – because, you know, this was a family walk in Wales, not a trek to Machu Picchu. So when we all realised we were thirsty, we drank from a stream. And it was sweet and it was clean, and if a sheep had died up-stream (which was discussed because we were that kind of family) it certainly didn’t affect either taste or, luckily, our health.

The thing is – I remember this moment because it is not normal for many people in the UK to take their water straight from source – it has to be processed and cleaned and recycled and even added to with compounds to help our teeth and so on. This, of course, is not so for many people living in poor countries across the world.

In the UK most of us are more aware these days that water is not an unending resource and perhaps you’ve got a dual flush loo, or even a brick in your cistern; perhaps, like me, you don’t let the water run when you’re brushing your teeth, perhaps you shower rather than bath, perhaps you wash your dishes with the plug firmly in the sink, and maybe, just maybe, you use grey water on your shrubs. And well done all and any of us who do try to do something to conserve water.

But away from the UK - 1.7 million deaths happen each year due to poor water, sanitation and hygiene; every 20 seconds a child dies from diseases causes by poor water and sanitation. And when we think of our own attempts to save water we should consider the fact that the average UK person flushes 50 litres of water down the loo every day, while 10 litres is just about what a person in the poorest countries has to survive each day - and we use that much to have a five-minute shower.

The Millenium Development Goals pledged to halve the number of people living without water and sanitation by 2015. And although we’re on track to hit the water goal overall, the individual situation in some of the poorest countries is way off-target. In fact in sub-Saharan Africa we’re missing it by a whopping 20 years.

Right now there are 884 million people living without access to clean water. That is a crisis on an epic scale. And the thing is, it doesn’t just mean what you think it might i.e. people being thirsty and weak and perhaps dying of dehydration or water-borne disease (not that that isn’t bad enough) – lack of water is also a pernicious underminer of human and societal progress, especially if you’re a woman or a girl.

In developing countries women and girls spend an estimated 40 billion hours every year collecting water. This can mean spending as much as eight hours a day carrying and queuing for water. So that’s school out of the window and it also means women can participate less in making a living, or when they can it is on top of the hours spent fetching water. What a way to live. And of course as climate change alters weather cycles and affects water sources, many women and girls are having to travel further and further to pick up their water.

This year’s G8 could put a few of these wrongs right if leaders remember they have to hold true to old pledges rather than offering shiny rhetoric on new ones. The international Sanitation and Water for All initiative was set up in 2008 by the UK and Netherlands to push water and sanitation into the spotlight, raising awareness of countries where the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were most off-track. This was a good move, but with only three years left, more needs to be done to get the world back on target for 2015.

CAFOD has just launched a new campaign called Thirst for Change on this very topic and we’re asking the UK and other G8 leaders to push for an end to water poverty by making concrete political and financial commitments to meet the MDGs and also for G8 leaders to officially back the Sanitation and Water for All initiative. This campaign is running through Lent and beyond this year and we hope to push for the changes that will mean proper progress on ending water poverty, while also raising money to improve water and sanitation access for people in developing countries. Please add your voice to the campaign.

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(c) Pascale Palmer is Senior Press Officer (Policy and Campaigns) for CAFOD.

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