Water, water

The ability of government ministers to grab the wrong end of the stick has reached such a level that one could be forgiven for thinking that it was now an essential qualification for a successful political career.
As Prime Minister, of course, David Cameron is allowed to grasp the biggest stick and wave it enthusiastically in the faces of an electorate that, while probably better informed than in any previous generation, is certainly less knowledgeable. While Google provides the answer to any question you care to name, the British public appears quite unable to ask any of the questions which would enable them to hold their politicians to account.
Let us consider a couple of useful bits of information — all of which can be checked by reference to the Internet.
“Polio (also called poliomyelitis) is a contagious, historically devastating disease that was virtually eliminated from the Western hemisphere in the second half of the 20th century.”
In the last 10 or so years the disease has been largely eliminated except from parts of Africa — notably Nigeria where in the backward areas of the country the local Muslim leaders have persuaded the natives that the vaccination is an American plot to sterilise them — and also in the war-torn areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The success has been due in no small part to a concerted effort by a variety of organisations, not least the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Rotary International. Again, check the relevant web sites; they’re not hard to find.
One piece of good news (checkable here) is that the vaccination programme in the Bara area of Pakistan is to resume after a 20-month gap.

Let’s move on.
More than 1 in 6 people in the world don’t have access to safe drinking water.
1 out of every 4 deaths under the age of 5 worldwide is due to a water-related disease.
Nearly 80% of illnesses in developing countries are linked to poor water and sanitation conditions.
These statistics (and more information) are available on the web site of The Water Project
Google will provide over 560,000 links for the phrase “supplying clean water to Africa” but a large (and frightening) number of these links direct people to the usual “give us 10p and we’ll do this …” organisations.
Whatever good work these NGOs do — and it may well be wrong to decry the idea of involving people in the plight of the poor — this is not involvement; this is simply the age-old practice of encouraging people to feel good about themselves without the need for anything that might conceivably hurt their pockets or inconvenience them. What percentage of that 10p ends up in a water project in sub-Saharan Africa? Precious little. How much, for example, of the money donated last year as part of Oxfam’s ‘National Plughole Week’ (I kid you not!) was used for major infrastructure work that would, where feasible, provide the same sort of facility as we are used to in western Europe?
“Oxfam will be using your valuable life saving donations to provide water filtration buckets …” adding that there is more than just buckets and that all donations will go to Oxfam’s water and sanitation work. Once again the web site is intended to make the reader feel he is doing something ‘good’ without necessarily causing any disruption to his normal way of life (just make do with 3½ pints next Friday instead of 4 and bingo! there’s £1.50 for the poor of Africa already).
The scale of the problem is massive but the solutions are well-known and practised by many of the ‘hands-on’ organisations such as WaterAid and to an extent Oxfam though it is important to remember that somewhere along the line it has to pay its Climate Change Policy Advisor and his Policy and Lobby Team who were (in their own eyes at least) so vital to the ‘success’ of Cancun.
The limiting factor, as always, is money but even that could be accessible if the political will genuinely exists. It doesn’t.
Having found nothing in the first half-dozen pages on Google that tried to put any sort of cost on this problem, I tried a different angle. What is the cost of providing clean drinking water and proper sanitation to Africa as against the cost of implementing the Kyoto Protocol?
Even this information is not desperately easy to come by. It hardly pops up and hits you but one figure that came out of independent research in 2007 put the cost of implementeing Kyoto in lost GDP in Germany, Spain, Italy and the UK at 95 billion Euros by 2010. So let’s take that figure as a working hypothesis. Trying to find a figure for the total cost of equipping the whole of Africa with clean water and mains drainage is obviously impossible. For a start there are large parts of Europe, let alone Africa, where the installation of a sewage system as we recognise it in the UK is totally impractical and the idea of a pan-African water grid useless.
Nevertheless some attempt has been made to quantify the costs and the most frequently quoted (which I accept because I have no better information) is that adequate water and sewage facilitites could be provided to “almost all” of Africa for a sum about one-quarter that needed to implement the Kyoto protocol in full. Since it is also accepted by experts on both sides of the global warming argument that implementing Kyoto would never have done more than reduce the likely increase in global temperature by even one-half of one degree it is easy to see that, given the choice, any sane person would have opted for the clean water scenario rather than the tinker with the temperature option.
However on the well-established political principle of “We must be seen to be doing something and it might as well be this” politicians of all stripes made the choice that had fewer beneficial effects but provided better sound bites.
Which brings us back to Cameron.
While Bill Gates promises a further $5bn on top of what his Foundation has already pledged to eliminate polio and provide research funding for new vaccines for a range of other diseases (malaria among them), Cameron has promised £800m of taxpayers’ money for vaccines against, <i>inter alia</i>, diarrhoea, apparently oblivious to the fact that the overwhelming number of cases of diarrhoea are caused by lack of proper clean drinking water and inefficient (or non-existent) sewage disposal. So, not for the first time, a British Prime Minister proudly announces his intention to cure the symptom rather than the disease and use the taxpayers’ money to do it. And when that £800m is spent on inoculating a generation of young Africans, can we expect to fork out another £800m (plus inflation) to do the same for the next generation, or will somebody by that time have done the sums and be spending what is actually needed to solve one of the most vital problems on earth?

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