Sunday, December 24, 2006

Talking about water rights

Razen Manandhar [Sunday, 24. December 2006]

According to legends and lore, the place where Kathmandu stands today was once a holy lake ten-twenty millennia ago.
It is said that a Chinese saint Manjushri came here, cut an outlet in the hills surrounding the lake with his magic sword letting the water drain out leaving a lush, green valley for people to live.
However, today in this same Valley, which was once a huge lake, people are striving for every drop of clean drinking water.
Kathmandu Valley has been reeling under acute water shortage for a decade now. Today it is being slapped with a new water management system. As per the conditions in the contract with the donors of the dream water project Melamchi, a foreign water management company is going to handle the country’s water authority — Nepal Water Supply Corporation, which has been enjoying monopoly — in at least the big cities, where water can make money.
Water activists have termed this move ‘privatisation’ and this does not fail to raise the government’s ire. However, privatisation or not, it is for sure that water will no longer be as cheap as it is now.
Moreover, the poor will have to pay even more in new system.
In this context, a serious question has been raised by the water activists: Will the new management be able to provide drinking water to poor in the Capital?
A gross estimation by Lumanti Support Group for Shelter states that at least 12,000 families in 60 settlements are living in extremely poor conditions.
Regardless of what the government has done or not done for the poor in terms of water distribution, it is now impossible to neglect their voice. It has now been internationally established that water is not a commodity for anyone to merchandise for profit, but a human rights issue: you cannot deny water to the poor because they cannot afford it.
This is the very reason that Target 10 of the Millennium Development Goals aims to halve the number of people without access to clear water and sanitation by 2015. Target 11 aims to improve the lives of 100 million slum dwellers by 2020. Apart from this, it has been made almost mandatory that all big water projects show their concern for the poor, which is reflected, at least on paper, in our context.
“You cannot talk about water if you do not want to talk about the poor people,” says Dr Roshan Raj Shrestha, chief technical advisor to UN-HABITAT, the United Nation’s Human Settlements Programme.
The access to clean water is not a problem unique to Kathmandu Valley or Nepal. It is a universal problem, but it is one that has crossed all limits in the Asia Pacific region where 61 per cent of the global population and 43 per cent of the world urban population live. The cities are growing rapidly and so is the disparity between the rich and poor city dwellers. Urban poverty is an unavoidable feature of all Asian cities.
In her recent message, Dr Anna K Tibaujuka, under secretary-general of the UN and the executive director of UN-HABITAT said, “Urban poverty is a severe, pervasive and largely unacknowledged feature of modern life.”
She has specially shown interest in improving the water and sanitation situation in Nepal.
The UN-HABITAT is committed to bring new investments of $ 500 million for water and sanitation to the urban poor, and Nepal is going to have $ 2.5 million under its Water for Asian Cities Programme.
A four-day Asia Pacific Ministers Conference held in New Delhi from December 13-16 came up with the historic Delhi Declaration on this issue. The conference was participated by housing ministers from around 35 countries of the region.
The declaration has decided to establish the Asia-Pacific Ministers’ Conference on Housing and Urban Development (APCHUD) as the consultative mechanism on the promotion of suitable development of housing and urban development in the region. All the participating ministers, including Nepal’s Minister for Physical Planning and Works Gopal Man Singh, have shown commitment to formulate plans and policies in the near future to proceed in accordance with the Delhi Declaration.
Though the Nepal government has been seen very smart in being present and professing its commitment to various international conferences, its role in the implementation side has been objectionable. It is yet to be seen what the minister, who posed for a group photograph with a tilted Dhaka topi , will do in favour of the poor living in the dark alleys of slums and squatters’ area in the Capital, and across the nation.