Sustained action

OECD Observer

Mr Brende leaps into action. © Norwegian government and OECD (inset).

Remember the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development? Norway's minister of the environment, Børge Brende, chair of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development since May 2003, is determined to make sure that commitments made at Johannesburg and at other meetings are not mere souvenirs.

We interviewed Mr Brende ahead of the Round Table on Sustainable Development at the OECD in March.

Observer: Mr Brende, you are chair of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development. How would you assess the balance sheet of progress since the 2002 World Summit at Johannesburg?

Minister Brende: The overall picture is a mixed one. Few countries are actually on track to meet the Millennium Development Goals concerning poverty reduction. The situation is particularly worrying in Africa where many countries have made little progress.

In the water and sanitation area, we see both improvements and setbacks. On the positive side, half of the world's countries are on track to meet the drinking water supply target. During the 1990s, we witnessed that the number of people with access to improved drinking water increased by about 900 million, from 78% of the global population to 82%. Many countries in Asia are on track, but most countries in other regions are not. Again, Africa remains the key challenge.

On the negative side, only a third of the countries are on course to meet the sanitation target, and just a quarter in the least developed countries. We know that 90% of wastewater in the developing world is untreated. South-Central Asia and East Asia are the biggest challenge. And over the next decade, rural India will pose the largest sanitation challenge, followed closely by China.

To be sure, the international community has set itself ambitious goals for sustainable development. Important commitments and goals were agreed at every meeting, from the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 to Johannesburg in 2002. What we need now is to implement those agreements. At CSD12, which is the UN’s shorthand for the commission I chair, we will concentrate our efforts on implementation of a limited number of issues. So, at the two forthcoming sessions we have put water, sanitation and human settlements on top of the agenda.

What do you, Minister Brende, as chair of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development hope to achieve over the next few weeks and months?

I hope that CSD12 will prove to be a benchmark for future CSD review sessions. With only three main items on its agenda, our commission will hopefully become more solution-oriented in its approach. I have invited a broader range of ministers, some of whom have not traditionally viewed CSD as their “area”. Ministers responsible for the focus areas of water, sanitation and human settlements, as well as for international development and finance, have been invited to attend. I am also planning to conduct the session itself as an open and interactive dialogue between participants, involving relevant international bodies, experts and representatives of civil society, with special emphasis on best practices and principles.

Several key issues call for action, though I think achieving the integrated water resources management target by 2005 is among the most important. The “International Drinking Water and Sanitation Decade” (1981-1990) taught us that, unless strategies for the exploitation and management of water resources are integrated with other plans and strategies for the community as a whole, the results are unlikely to be sustainable. Most analyses indicate that the “water crisis” is primarily an institutional problem. So, it is of crucial importance to develop integrated water resource management plans by 2005 in order to make progress towards the 2015 goal.

There is a risk of public disquiet over SD, of not getting enough points on the board, letting targets slip. Can policy-makers really make a difference?

A good question. As a politician, I do of course believe policy-makers can make a difference. In the water and sanitation sector, as in many other areas, the primary responsibility for ensuring access to services rests with governments. Let there be no doubt about that. Governments provide the regulatory framework and hold the responsibility to ensure that the poor get the required service and are protected from excessive costs. However, I think we too often find ourselves involved in ideological debates concerning who shall provide the service. I think it is more important to ensure that the service actually gets delivered. A key concern to me is how we can develop the local private sector to provide water and sanitation services. Civil society organisations have a vital role to play in this area.

In Pune in India, a partnership between the municipal corporation, NGOs and community-based groups has resulted in the construction of more than 400 community toilet blocks, improving access to sanitation for more than half a million people. The inhabitants of Pune were fully involved, not only in design and construction, but also in the financing.

What do you despair over, and where do you see grounds for optimism?

Looking at the targets makes it seem like a daunting challenge indeed. Globally, one out of five people lacks access to safe drinking water. More than 2.4 billion, or two in five, lack access to proper sanitation. Still, I am an optimist by nature and believe the targets are feasible, and not always with huge investments either. Cultivating better attitudes and habits can contribute enormously. Even the simple act of washing hands with soap and water can reduce diarrhoeal disease by almost 50%. Ordinary acts like these can help improve the lives of millions of people.

The subsidy issue is where I become more alarmed. We know that close to 70% of water and sanitation spending comes from government budgets. Too often we see that such subsidies primarily benefit middle and high-income urban consumers connected to the public water supply network, whereas the urban poor, who are often not connected to the piped network, have to rely on more expensive sources of supply, such as private vendors. If we can change this pattern, targeting subsidies to the poor and the people who are most deprived would be a giant step. We have the means. The challenge is to use them more effectively.


The UN Commission on Sustainable Development, CSD, 12th session, will take place in New York, 16-30 April 2004. Please click here for more info

©OECD Observer No 242, March 2004

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