Some nations could see EU water aid run dry

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This article is part of our special report Water Policy.

Impoverished people in India, Brazil and other emerging countries could be left in the lurch under EU plans to redirect development assistance to the world’s neediest nations, aid and rights activists say.

While charity and human rights groups welcome Europe's continued commitment to developing countries, they fear draft EU proposals could harm efforts to finance water, sanitation and other projects in Latin America, Asia and possibly some sub-Saharan African countries.

Catarina de Albuquerque is the UN’s first special rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation, and she says the EU’s ‘Agenda for Change’ – which calls for revamping foreign aid – “can be detrimental for the progress of rights” if it leaves some poor communities vulnerable.

“I’m not saying the intentions are bad, I’m saying the outcomes are bad,” the Portuguese lawyer told EURACTIV, saying the EU proposals could harm needy communities of Latin America, a region that has made steady development progress but still has pockets of poverty.

Faced with water scarcity, devastating droughts and growing food needs, many emerging economies are struggling to provide secure water supplies. Some one billion people lack potable water, and more than two billion people live in areas faced with scarcity, UN and EU officials say.

Rights and charity campaigners wary of the EU’s aid proposals say these people need help wherever they live.

Piebalgs plan

Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs in October unveiled plans to overhaul overseas development assistance to better help in the poorest and most vulnerable countries, many of them in sub-Saharan Africa.

Foreign and development ministers from the 27 EU countries acknowledged in May 2011 that water is a critical area because scarcity affects food and energy production and contributes to a range of health problems.

Draft Council conclusions to be presented under the current Danish EU presidency endorse plans to re-direct aid from middle-income countries to address water and other human needs. “Particular emphasis will be on supporting development in Europe’s neighbourhood and in sub-Saharan Africa,” says the 8 February draft.

EU aid for water and sanitation hit a record €1.6 billion in 2009, the latest EU figures available, nearly one-third of global annual development aid for the sector. The European Commission pledged an additional €700 million for water and other development targets to the poorest countries in December.

Agenda for Change would give more attention to the poorest countries as well as the former Soviet countries on the EU's Eastern flank – reflecting a policy priority of Poland, which held the rotating EU presidency when the aid proposal was unveiled.

But in doing so, emerging countries like India and Brazil could see the gradual loss of development assistance, nations with robust economies but serious poverty.

In India, 27% of people are impoverished and nearly half of the country’s poor people have no modern sanitation, according to the 2011 UN Human Development Report. In several middle-income South American and Asian countries that could see aid levels fall, poor water and sanitation compound poverty in urban ghettoes and rural communities.

A drop here, a bucket there

Natalia Alonso, head of EU advocacy office for Oxfam International, says the charity group welcomes the EU’s desire to focus on the neediest countries. But she said Europe should not stop working with other countries based on economic rankings that are based on averages.

The EU needs a “joint strategy” to help nations address inequalities, Alonso said in an interview. “We don’t just think that withdrawing suddenly from these countries is a positive move.”

Other charity groups also question parts of the Agenda for Change.

The EU plan “does not take into consideration the fact that 75% of the world’s poorest live in those middle-income countries,” the Brussels-based Concord confederation of relief and development organisations says in a review of the EuropeAid proposals.

If donors are “serious about reducing and eradicating poverty,” Concord says, they need to ensure that aid “reaches the poorest and most marginalised groups of the population, regardless of the country the live in.”

De Albuquerque, the UN’s water rights rapporteur, also says she understands the EU’s goal of providing more aid in countries with the greatest need.

“But we cannot simply withdraw from other countries, like in Latin America,” she said, “because there are still people – and a significant number of people – living in poverty and our objective, not only in Latin America, should be to make sure that the governments are held [accountable] and empowered to help them.”

“We share the view that environmental problems are inherently social and that, increasingly, social porblems are inherently environmental,” said John Crowley, chief of Unesco’s Ethics of Science and Technology section, speaking at a recent conference in Brussels.

“What we need is provision for a green society and not just a green economy.”

In announcing the EU’s new development aid policy in October 2011, Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs unveiled plans to revamp overseas development assistance to concentrate more help in the poorest and most vulnerable countries, most of them concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa. He acknowledged concerns about shifting aid money from emerging countries.

“But I think it is clear for everybody that we cannot work with India or Brazil in the same way we work with the Democratic Republic of Congo or Mali. Some countries can now afford to fight poverty themselves and, as a result, this will allow us to focus on places that need more of our help.”

Referring to global challenges, the independent European Science Foundation said in a report released on 16 February: “Despite agreements reached almost 20 years ago at the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, little has been achieved in putting the planet onto a sustainable track.”

The scientists call for global action to address “unprecedented and accelerating global environmental change” and say Rio+20 “should be a key step forward for the transitions toward sustainability.”

The EU is collectively the largest aid donor, providing €54 billion, or 56% of the total in 2010, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

EU leaders have traditionally seen overseas aid as an extension of their “soft power,” agreeing to provide annual development aid equivalent to 0.7% of gross national income 2015, and though it is on track to fall well short of that goal, it is well ahead of the United States’ $30.2 billion (€22.4 billion) in 2010, or 0.21% of GNI.

A EURACTIV breakdown of OECD, EU and UN aid figures shows that donors provided more than $8 billion (€5.9 billion) for drinking water and latrines, some 6% of overall development assistance.

Nearly one-third comes from the EU, with Sub-Saharan Africa receiving 28% followed by South Asia with 19%. In late December, the EU promised an additional €1 billion to help 36 poor countries meet the UN Millennium Development Goals, which includes improving access to water and sanitation and other poverty-fighting goals.

  • 12-17 March: World Water Forum in Marseille
  • 22 March: World Water Day
  • 15-16 May: Water Innovation Europe Conference in Brussels
  • 20-22 June: UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
  • 26-31 August: World Water Week , organised by the Stockholm International Water Institute in the Swedish capital

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