Water is not the stuff of business, it is a basic human right. Hama Arba Diallo, executive secretary of the Convention of the United Nations to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), is persuaded that the United Nations is about to formally recognise this principle, possibly by 2008.
Hama Arba Diallo was in Rome at the end of June to discuss the issue with the Italian deputy minister for foreign affairs Patrizia Sentinelli, who will lead a campaign asking the UN to take water away from standard commerce rules by adopting "a binding rule to identify concrete and gradual steps towards a covenant global access to water" by the end of next year.
The initiative follows a recent resolution in the Italian Parliament in support of universal access to safe drinking water and hygiene services, that holds that environmental protection and access to water are two aspects of the same problem.
Why is it so important that water is recognised as a common good and as fundamental human right?
Hama Arba Diallo - Well, it is imperative as a way to help in ensuring that there is a consensus at the level of the international community to recognise access to water as such a fundamental element, that is almost a sine-qua-non condition for life itself. There's no place in Africa where you can go now without being told that the most important concern that everybody has is access to water.
The IPCC (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report is indicating that water scarcity is going to become more and more important as climate change is setting in. If there is any way by which we can help to get this consensus that could ensure that yes, access to water is imperative, we must do that. And the international community is ready to mobilise itself.
This (access to water) is one of the objectives of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), but maybe this objective has to be more precise, explaining what do we mean by 'access to safe drinking water'; this is why we do need a consensus and this is why the Italian Initiative is so important and so timely.
Do you think that the formal recognition by the UN is an achievable goal?
Well, we have to work on it, as on many other issues at the international level; you have to convince the international community that this is important, this is achievable, and up to them to decide if to follow or not. But I'm quite confident that we can succeed. It's time now to start a specific diplomatic action to reach the seventh MDG (halving the number of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water by 2015).
Which are the main water related threats rural Africans are facing?
The rural poor who depend on the land for their livelihood, especially those living in the dry lands, are being hit particularly hard. Rural people are farmers, in Burkina Faso or in Mauritania or in Mali, these are people who cultivate land or have cattle, or people who basically do both. But in Africa farmers have to rely on rain fed agriculture essentially, so these are the ones who are the most affected by what we have been seeing now, the consequences of climate change .where the rainy season pattern is changing, where the quantity of rain is unreliable, and where also the geographical and time duration of the rainy season is made unreliable because of the climate change patterns.
Which are the most relevant social and economic effects of water scarcity?
Lack of access to water is obliging people to spend lots of resources looking for water, either surface water or fossil water. Fossil water is very expensive because you have to go hundreds of metres underground; surface water is more easily available when it rains, but very difficult to get and also the quality of water leaves much to be desired since it is in the open air, is subject to wind, and to all sorts of parasites. Whoever drinks it will get the parasites.
Water related diseases are so extended throughout Africa these are diseases that are also vehicle for gastroenteritis, malaria and so on. If there is a direct source of diseases which are in the tropics, water is definitely the catalytic element that makes it possible.
For us, access to safe drinking water is not only a way to help people survive, but also for people to be healthy, because whoever has access to safe drinking water is more likely to be healthy and to avoid some of those water-bound diseases.
The Convention was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1994, in order "to take appropriate action in combating desertification and mitigating the effects of drought for the benefit of present and future generations." Is it actually having some good impact on poverty as well?
Dealing with the combined well-being of people and the environment, the Convention is a major instrument in efforts to eradicate extreme poverty. If there is one single tool that countries have now at their disposal to combat poverty, this is it.
Through the Convention people can have access to improved land, improved agriculture, and improved livestock. Whatever actions can be undertaken, very easily they are cost effective, they are efficient and they have a direct impact on the livelihoods of the populations directly concerned. So, if you want an instrument helping to combat poverty, to create jobs, to create incomes, to protect biodiversity, to mitigate climate change, the Convention is the tool at your disposal.