In 2005, we will have ample opportunities to examine the progress made towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The 13th UN-DESA Commission for Sustainable Development meeting in New York in April will address policy issues related to water and sanitation (see News).

The UN Millennium Summit in September will examine the progress made since the commitments have been made. Following the decision of the UN General Assembly, March 2005 will be the beginning of a Decade for Action on “Water for Life”.

These international events will help keep water on the global political agenda, but this does not ensure that commitments percolate down to national and local levels. On the contrary, indications are that much remains to be done.

The debate that took place in 2004, on the importance given to water in the national Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSP), provides a good illustration of this. In these papers, countries describe their macro-economic, structural and social programmes to promote broad-based growth and to reduce poverty.

More than 50 developing countries have already prepared their papers, and surprisingly water does not feature very high or explicitly in these papers. This raised concern and triggered a lot of debate in the water community.

Commitment at all levels is clearly a necessity if we want to succeed in reaching the MDGs. To ensure this commitment, three urgent priorities are proposed hereafter.

1. Make water a priority for all social and economic sectors

A lot of effort has been made by the water community to convince decision-makers to make water a priority. However, water has too often been presented as a single issue, as if water could be a sector by itself.

This approach is intrinsically incorrect, water is not an economic sector but a baseline investment, necessary to initiate and permit broad social and economic development. If such baseline investment is not made, poor countries are unable, for instance, to mitigate the effects of drought and floods which may seriously affect their economic growth. Baseline water investment is a precondition for reducing poverty.

To change this, our efforts need to convince decision-makers in all sectors that water should be properly addressed in their development plans. Water investment should not be in competition with investment in sectors such as health or education – it should be part of them. This is valid not only for the PRSPs but as a fundamental component of prioritisation in all sectors.

2. Translate the MDGs into concrete targets at the local level

The MDGs do not make sense at the local level. Providing water and sanitation to half of the world’s unserved poor people is a noble goal, easily endorsed during global summits, but less easily translated into achievable targets on the ground. Besides, it is difficult from a political point of view, to commit to helping only half of the poorest, therefore, it is imperative to examine how the global goals are being translated into achievable targets that can be monitored.

For example, in rural areas, the target should be based on an average distance to the first source of improved water. Such a target could be more easily monitored than a target based on the proportion of unserved people.

Projects have been initiated in various countries to facilitate this translation, they need to be advertised and scaled up.

3. Develop a global monitoring and sentinel system

Raising awareness, promoting water at international summits, translating targets at the local and national level is important, but it is still not enough. There is a critical need to ensure that commitments are transformed into action. For this purpose, there is an urgent need to establish an independent sentinel process that would be based on a global monitoring system and regularly reporting to the UN and the world on how commitments are implemented.

The difficulties in achieving this aim are twofold. Firstly, monitoring activities are still fragmented and lack coherence, thus, despite the large number of existing programmes, we are still lacking an accurate picture of the progress being made.

Secondly, monitoring and performance assessment is not yet a component of most national policies and implementation plans. National monitoring systems are far from being established in most countries. The national level is the critical level for implementing monitoring strategies because this is where policy and financial decisions and plans are ultimately made.

Without clear progress in these three main directions during 2005, it is likely that our capacity to reach the MDGs will be seriously affected.

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