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The Guardian/UK

Water Not War

Peter Tatchell

More than 1 billion people on our planet are forced to drink foul, infected water, which has killed at least 22 million people in the last decade. They could all have safe, clean water within 10 years, for just a tiny fraction of the cost of global military spending. Why isn't it happening?

Most governments, especially rich white ones, would apparently rather buy weapons to kill other human beings than build water facilities to save the lives of black, brown and yellow poor people.

According to the Stockholm international peace research institute, in 2006 total global military expenditure topped $1.2tn; with the US accounting for $528.7bn of this spending and the UK for $59.2bn.

At a cost of about 5% of the world's military budgets, over a period of 10 years clean, safe water could be provided to every person on earth. But this won't happen because while the poor are deprived, the rich are depraved.

Mega-rich individuals, corporations and nations rule the world. They worship the false idols of celebrity, money, profits, consumerism, speculation and conspicuous consumption. Love, compassion, mercy and human solidarity are largely alien ideals in the ruthless, cut-throat world of free markets and stockmarkets. The super-wealthy know the price of everything and the value of nothing. People are commodities, just like sacks of maize or barrels of oil. Human needs are not important. Money is everything, and since the poor don't have it, they are held in contempt. Hundreds of millions of non-white people are condemned to drink muddy, stinking water. If the have-a-lots care, they don't show it. Their unspoken message seems to be: let them drink shit.

While children are dying all over the world every day from contaminated water, the rich world carries on regardless. And we, the people, are to blame. We let the rich get away with their greed. We keep electing governments who, at the drop of a hat, find billions to wage illegal, immoral wars, but who can't bring themselves to even marginally downsize their armaments budget to finance a truly just battle - the battle to give everyone on this planet what we, in Britain and the west, assume is a fundamental right: easy access to drinking water that tastes good and won't harm us.

Our government would not tolerate people dying of waterborne diseases in the UK. So why should we tolerate such needless deaths in developing countries? Isn't a human being a human being, whoever they are and wherever they live on this planet? Aren't all people's lives equally precious? Apparently not, otherwise there would be concerted international action to tackle the shame of dirty water and the resultant obscene waste of human life.

I recently interviewed Nick Edmans of the charity WaterAid for my online TV series, Talking With Tatchell. He confirmed that in the eighth year of the 21st century, at least 1.1 billion people have no fresh, safe water to drink.

Before this day is over, 5,000 children will die from infected water, leaving up to 10,000 parents grieving - tonight, and every night.

All in all, around 2.2 million people - 1.8 million of them children - are killed each year by waterborne diseases.

A further 2.6 billion people have no secure, hygienic toilet facilities. They use rudimentary holes in the ground which breed disease. The human waste leaches into the soil, often contaminating the groundwater that supplies wells and despoiling rivers where people bathe, wash and fish.


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This morning I woke up and walked 12 feet to my kitchen tap. I drank a large refreshing glass of pure water. Alas, the easily accessible, clean, safe water that we take for granted in the west is only a distant dream for one-sixth of the world's population, especially in Asia and Africa.

Hundreds of millions of poor people have to trek for many miles and hours every day to fetch often foul-smelling, diseased drinking water that can cause deadly dysentery, cholera, typhoid and intestinal worms and parasites.

The lack of safe water supplies frequently impacts worst on marginal social groups, such as lower castes and ethnic minorities, who may be denied access to the best water sources and be forced to pay premium prices to private suppliers.

Some tourist developments in developing countries, such as big hotels and golf courses, involve the private owners sinking their own bore holes to extract water from below ground. This often results in the depression of the water table, drying up wells and causing water crises in the surrounding villages.

Water shortages and a lack of affordability in developing countries have, in some cases, been exacerbated by privatisation, which has usually benefited urban dwellers to the neglect of their rural counterparts, and has usually resulted in private monopolies and price hikes, to the detriment of low income families.

With global warming and rising populations, the prospect looms of future disputes - even wars - over shortages of fresh water supplies. A foretaste of such disputes can be seen in the friction between Israel and the Palestine over Tel Aviv's diversion of water from the Jordan river to meet Israeli demand, leaving the West Bank under-supplied.

It strikes me as utterly immoral that in the midst of a world of immense wealth and plenty, billions of people have so little - not even the basics of life like safe water to drink.

Surely, it is time for a major global effort to redistribute wealth from rich nations to poor ones and to divert investment in weapons and wars to health-sustaining, life-saving development projects such as the universal provision of cheap, accessible, clean water?

Safe water is a human right. Give them water, not war.

Peter Tatchell is a human rights campaigner, and a member of the queer rights group OutRage! and the left wing of the Green party.

© 2008 The Guardian

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