STOCKHOLM - A weeklong international conference here has transmitted a strong political message to next week's U.N. summit meeting of world leaders: what good is the fight against poverty, hunger, maternal mortality and child deaths if water and sanitation are not given the high priority they deserve?
When Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the European Forum last week that the number of hungry people worldwide has risen above a billion "for the first time ever", he also unwittingly turned the spotlight on water.
By current estimates, nearly 70 percent of water use worldwide is for agriculture, irrigation and food crops.
So, why is water given the cold shoulder on the agenda of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), particularly at a time when hunger is escalating?
A statement unanimously approved by over 2,500 water experts at the conclusion Friday of the Stockholm international water conference pointedly says: "We urge the participants of the high-level plenary meeting on the MDGs to recognize fully, and act upon, the fundamental roles of water resources, drinking water, sanitation and hygiene for achieving the MDGs."
The experts also said the management of water resources, water services and sanitation are some of the most cost efficient ways to address the MDGs.
According to U.N. estimates, over 2.6 billion people have no access to basic sanitation while over 800 to 900 million people have no access to safe drinking water.
Continuing to neglect water and sanitation, the statement affirmed, "is a recipe for disaster, and the failure of all MDGs."
Anders Berntell, executive director of the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), which hosted the conference, told IPS that water has definitely not received the priority it deserves in the outcome document or plan of action that will be adopted at the summit next week.
"Good management of water resources and provision of drinking water and sanitation is a prerequisite for fulfilling all the MDGs," including poverty, hunger, maternal health and child mortality (which is related mostly to water-related deaths), he added.
Maude Barlow of the Canada-based Blue Planet Project told IPS water is at the heart of everything: "No clean water, no food; no clean water, no health; no clean water, no schools; no clean water, no equality of rights; no clean water, no peace."
Water and sanitation should be far higher on the priority list as an essential goal without which none of the others can be achieved, she added.
The path to a water secure world is a huge part of the answer to conflict, climate crisis, poverty and injustice, said Barlow, who also served as a senior advisor on water to the president of the U.N. General Assembly two years ago.
She challenged the statement in the outcome document that there has been positive movement on the goals on water and sanitation.
"While I acknowledge, of course, the hard work of many non- governmental organisations (NGOs) and some governments to dealing with this crisis, the simple fact is that the U.N.'s own agencies and others are telling a different story - one in which the crisis is deepening all over the world," she said.
Barlow pointed out that a recent World Bank report found that by 2030, demand for water will outstrip supply by 40 percent.
And the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) says that right now, one in three Africans do not have adequate access to water and sanitation, but that at current rate of demand, and in the next one to two decades, one in two Africans will not have access at all.
"This is a direct contradiction to the statistics we are seeing from the MDG report," she said, adding, "Finally, I have long been concerned that the MDG goals do not take into account ecosystem protection and restoration."
Success of the goals is defined by the number of pipes built and the number of people who technically have more access, in spite of the fact that often this water is either not safe or not affordable because it is beyond the price range of much of the population.
At the same time, said Barlow, very little attention is paid to the fact that humans are pumping groundwater far faster than it can be replenished and extracting and polluting our rivers and lakes to death.
There is not enough groundwater for all even if the MDG goals were to succeed brilliantly, without a major new commitment to protecting source water and rebuilding ecosystems. This, of course, would totally challenge the doctrine of unlimited growth and unregulated global trade all governments are so keen on and that is the heart of the problem, she said.
"The MDGs on water? Too little, not focused properly, not put in the larger context that would lead us to a more just and sustainable world and a solution to all of the other MDG goals as well," Barlow declared.
Meanwhile, at the Stockholm water conference last week, Charity Ngilu, Kenya's minister for water and irrigation, told delegates: "We are in a situation where there is not enough water for all uses, whether for power production, agricultural, industrial or domestic use."
She said access to water is a dream to millions of people in Africa's arid and semi-arid lands who have to cover long distances to get it. In many instances, the source is already compromised in terms of quality.
They get water from polluted sand and surface dams, and untreated and contaminated point sources. The situation is aggravated by catchment degradation due to poverty, she pointed out.
Globally, she said, fresh water resources are rapidly diminishing. In modern times, water pollution is on the increase and gross quality deterioration is evident in many water bodies.
"Water stress has led most often to conflicts at local and regional levels. More conflicts and tensions are likely to arise within national borders, in the downstream areas of distressed river basins," she warned.