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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Water Dialogues

Air Date: Week of

The fourth international World Water Forum just wrapped up in Mexico City. Elisabeth Malkin, who covered the forum for the New York Times, says that with representatives from NGO's, governments, the UN and the corporate world, it was hard to find common ground. She speaks with host Bruce Gellerman from Mexico City.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. If you could fit all of the Earth’s water into a gallon jug – the accessible fresh water, the stuff we actually can drink, would measure a little more than a teaspoon. Potable water is precious stuff. No water, no life. But planet Earth is in a precarious situation. Pollution, poverty, and the increasing demands of an expanding population are stressing the world’s water supply. These were some of the issues on the agenda at the Fourth World Water Forum just concluded in Mexico City. Elisabeth Malkin covered the meeting for The New York Times.

Hello, Elisabeth.

MALKIN: Thanks very much, I’m pleased to be here.

GELLERMAN: So, put a headline on this story for us, if you would.

MALKIN: Well, that’s a little difficult because I think the forum was a very diffuse event. It was enormous – it lasted six days – and there were apparently, according to the organizers, 11,000 people. There was no clear focus, but what continued to be stressed at the forum was the enormous number of people who don’t have access to running water, or an adequate water supply even, and sanitation. And so, if you had to put a headline the headline would be, you know, “Despite all efforts, more than a billion people don’t have access to a suitable water supply.” And a third of the world’s population, 2.6 billion, don’t have access to a proper toilet.

GELLERMAN: So, why have these types of summits – they seem to be very good at enumerating the problems, less good at actually coming up with some kind of methodology or way of solving it?

MALKIN: I think because you have so many interests involved. So you have industry, government, UN and other international organizations, the World Bank, and NGOs. Everybody has such a different agenda that in the end, it’s a lowest common denominator declaration which doesn’t come up with a very strong solution.

GELLERMAN: In one of your articles for The New York Times you wrote about this question of private water versus public water. Do you see that shift back to the public utilities providing water?

MALKIN: Yes. I think there is definitely a shift. And UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, in 2003, he convened a special advisory board to come up with solutions for, you know, how to reach these millennium development goals. And their recommendation was, you know, these are the agencies that have always provided water and these agencies need to be strengthened, and the way to do that is just to help them provide more information to channel the funding to them, to require more accountability. So that is, I think, the interesting shift that came out of that.

GELLERMAN: We tend to think of these water problems as being like “over there,” Africa or Southeast Asia. I was reading that Europe, 18 percent, or over 40 million people, live in countries without access to safe drinking water.

MALKIN: Yes, and I think that water…I mean, one of the things that struck me personally covering this is that water is really a low priority even in countries where it’s a big problem. And it does seem to be a low priority for national governments. It’s usually seen as a local problem, a municipal problem. And so I think that’s why you find even in developed countries that people don’t always have the access you would expect.

GELLERMAN: Mexico City was the site of this year’s summit, and I’m just wondering, it seems ironically appropriate as a place, considering that it has a drought, it floods often, and it sits on a dried lake bed.

MALKIN: Yes, that’s right. Perhaps one positive thing, speaking as someone who lives in Mexico City, is that there’s been a little bit more awareness of the problem of water for this city. This city is pumping water out of its aquifers twice as fast as they’re naturally replenished, and it also has to pump water uphill from a dam system about two hours away. So it’s fantastically expensive to get it here and it’s not being conserved properly. Nearly 40 percent is lost to leaks in the pipes. So it’s an ironic place, but perhaps there’ll be a good effect coming out of it at least in Mexico City.

GELLERMAN: Elisabeth Malkin covered the World Water Forum Summit for The New York Times. Elisabeth, thank you very much.

MALKIN: Thanks a lot. It’s been a pleasure.



Official Site of the World Water Forum


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