A Cause for Optimism After the MDG Summit
October 13, 2010
Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Global Health Policy Center and Senior Fellow, Americas Program
From the backseat of a taxi stalled in mid-town Manhattan, idling as motorcade after motorcade carrying high-level officials sped by, it might have been difficult to believe that developing world environmental health challenges would get much play at last month’s MDG Summit. However, the high-profile focus on the need to reinforce global efforts on sanitation and the launch of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves offered a cause for optimism, even as the challenges loom large.
Heading into the summit, there was good news that the world is on track to meet the target of reducing by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water by 2015 compared to the baseline year of 1990, contained in Goal 7 to Ensure Environmental Sustainability. Within 5 years the United Nations estimates that 86% of the population in developing regions will have access to an improved source of drinking water. That’s up from 71% in 1990, a fairly impressive achievement when one takes population growth into account, even if significant urban-rural disparities remain.
'But progress on the effort to reduce by half the proportion of people without access to basic sanitation by 2015 is a different story. Right now 2.6 billion people lack access to improved sanitation, such as a toilet or a latrine. The UN warns that even at present levels of effort, that number could be even higher by 2015, making it unlikely the world will reach the sanitation target without new energy and fresh resolve.
To raise delegates’ awareness of global sanitation challenges, the Republic of Korea, Liberia, Senegal, Tajikistan, and the United States convened a high-level side event on September 22. The goals were to focus on the Sanitation and Water for All Global Framework for Action and to underscore the importance of reaching the water and sanitation targets as a means of fulfilling the broader range of health and gender-related MDGs. Speaking at the meeting, the Crown Prince Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, who heads the UN Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation, emphasized the importance of researching and scaling up interventions to reach the poorest of the world’s poor.
Sanitation issues were featured in the UN Summit’s outcomes document, as well. In the text, world leaders committed to “redoubling efforts to close the sanitation gap through scaled-up, ground-level action, supported by strong political will and increased community participation, in accordance with national development strategies....” Recognizing that providing basic sanitation was one topic on which there had been “slow progress,” the text outlines a global effort to realize “Sustainable sanitation: the five-year drive to 2015.”
The launch of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves on September 23 focused on the challenge of reducing the exposure of family members to indoor air pollution created by burning wood and other biomass for heating and cooking in the home. At least 3 billion people worldwide lack access to improved energy sources and rely on traditional cookstoves or open fires for preparing their food each day. The World Health Organization (WHO) identifies indoor air pollution as the fourth greatest health risk in the developing world and estimates that nearly 2 million people die each year as a result of exposure to harmful smoke and toxins. Women and small children, who spend the most time inside tending to domestic duties, bear the brunt of such exposure, suffering from burns and respiratory infections as well as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Beyond the health and gender challenges associated with indoor air pollution, the collection and burning of wood for fuel contributes to deforestation and climate change, as well.
To contribute to efforts to “save lives, improve livelihoods, empower women, and combat climate change,” the Alliance, a public-private partnership, aims to ensure 100 million households adopt clean stoves by 2020 by promoting a market for clean cookstoves, and mobilizing the resources of government, international organization, NGO and private sector partners to raise awareness and identify solutions in diverse contexts. Founding partners include the United Nations Foundation and the Shell Foundation, along with agencies within the governments of Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Peru, and the United States, and within the UN system, including WHO, the World Food Program, UNEP, UNIDO, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
At the September launch, high-level speakers emphasized the importance of coordinated and inter-sectoral efforts to address the multiple challenges linked to traditional fuel use patterns. Head of the UN Foundation Tim Wirth moderated the session, which featured remarks by Peru’s First Lady Pilar Nores de García; Former Prime Minister of Norway and Chair of the World Commission on Environment and Development, Gro Brundtland; María Neira, head of WHO’s Environmental Health section; and Melanne Verveer, U.S. Ambassador at Large for Global Women’s Issues.
While the Alliance continues to recruit partners, and its plan of action remains to be developed, the launch in New York was a good step in raising public awareness about the importance of improving access to improved household energy sources and in catalyzing action to address a problem that, like lack of access to basic sanitation, significantly affects the health and well-being of the world’s most vulnerable sectors.