Environment

Water, sanitation woes loom for Caribbean cities

BY PETRE WILLIAMS-RAYNOR Environment editor williamsp@jamaicaobserver.com

Wednesday, October 31, 2012    

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THE long-term provision of safe water and sanitation is a problem facing Caribbean and Latin American cities where the majority of the region’s people live.

“With 79 per cent of its people living in towns and cities, the region is one of the most urbanised in the world. It faces challenges in providing its burgeoning towns and cities with safe water and sanitation, and in addressing air pollution and the contamination of freshwater, oceans and seas,” cautions the fifth Global Environment Outlook (GEO 5) report of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Published earlier this year, the 528-page report was among documents examined by journalists from across the region at a workshop in Nassau, Bahamas, between October 15 and 16. The workshop, hosted by UNEP, was held under the theme ‘Challenges for the environment and the ozone layer’.

The strain on the natural resources of the region — currently home to 23 per cent of the world’s forests and 31 per cent of its freshwater — the GEO 5 says, is made worse by climate change and population growth.

“Extreme weather patterns and climatic events are increasing in frequency and intensity, and sea levels are rising. The impacts are already affecting the region’s most vulnerable groups, including its small-island developing states and many rural, indigenous and poor populations.

“Thus, it is even more important to use water resources efficiently and to conserve and sustain terrestrial, coastal and marine ecosystems,” the report says.

But all is not lost. According to the GEO 5, which has as its theme ‘Environment for the future we want’, integrated water resources management is one option for achieving solutions to the water and sanitation problems.

Integrated policies, the report says, include:

• strengthened water governance;

• application of economic and financial instruments; and

• improvement of information on water quality and quantity.

“Strengthened governance is both a cause and effect of a holistic view of water management because it implies a balance between public interest and the rights of the individual. Economic instruments and information are key tools in managing complex situations such as water scarcity, water-use conflicts and pollution,” the GEO 5 explains. “Economic instruments include mechanisms to change the culture of water use, such as economic valuation and ‘the polluter-pays’ principle.”

Information gathering, meanwhile, supports the management of supply and demand and also helps to sustain traditional knowledge about the links between water, people and the environment, the report notes.

“In the context of climate change, water-related information systems to prevent disasters and manage risk are increasingly important for the region,” says the GEO 5.

Further, the report says it is important to implement what it referred to as a “drinking water and sanitation policy cluster”, which takes account of:

• freshwater augmentation;

• water quality improvement;

• wastewater treatment and reuse; and

• water conservation.

“These policies require a high level of commitment from government as well as relatively high financial investments. In addition, maintenance costs, lack of technical competence — for example for desalination — and inefficient water-use habits could hinder the expansion of coverage,” the report notes. “International co-operation is needed to finance cases requiring special technical or social development skills that governments cannot afford.”

If the requisite changes are not made, the GEO 5 predicts the region risks not reaching goal seven of the Millennium Development Goals, which targets the integration of the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programmes, and the reversal of the loss of environmental resources; halving by 2015 the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation and achieving by 2015, a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100-million slum dwellers.

In 1990, some 87 per cent of the population in the region had access to improved sources of drinking water, according to UNEP’s Environmental Data Explorer (EDE) 2012, the data sets used in the GEO reports and for other environmental assessments. That percentage increased to about 91 per cent in 2000, but fell to 88 per cent in 2008.

Seventy per cent of the population in Latin America and the Caribbean, the UNEP EDE 2012 said, had improved access to sanitation in 1990. By 2000, it increased to about 77 per cent. However, between 2000 and 2008, there was a decline in the number of people with access to improved sanitation from 77 per cent to about 74 per cent.

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