Don Foster MP


Water Supplies (Developing World)

December 6, 2023 by admin in Charity support, Don in Parliament, News

Mr Don Foster (Bath) (LD): After many years of campaigning on water, sanitation and hygiene, I am grateful for this opportunity to debate the topic. Far too many people in the world lack safe clean water. Globally, just short of a billion people struggle without access to it. That is more than the population of Europe. In places such as Zambia, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Mozambique, I have seen personally that when clean water is not available there are minimal opportunities for good health, gaining an education, looking after crops or animals, or developing a business. If a major part of the day is taken up with walking many miles to collect water, there is no time for a child to get an education, and no time for a parent to earn a living.

Similarly, far too many people do not have decent sanitation or hygiene provision. The figures are frightening. Whereas the number of those who lack safe water is dreadful, 2.6 billion people go without access to decent sanitation. That is twice the population of China. Without decent sanitation or hygiene, the chances of a healthy life are minimal. Diarrhoea is the biggest child killer in Africa. On that continent alone, almost a million children aged under five died from diarrhoea in 2008. Worldwide, some 1.3 million infants die as a result of diarrhoea every year. Ninety per cent. of those diarrhoea cases are down to inadequate sanitation, unsafe water or poor hygiene.

It is clear to me that one of the most important ways in which we can help the poorest people in the world is by providing support in the areas of water, sanitation and hygiene, collectively referred to as WASH. Many of the other targets of our aid provision-education, agriculture, business development and health-need, as a starting point, people to have access to decent water, sanitation and hygiene.

I have seen at first hand the impact that help with those facilities can make. I have seen, for example, a health clinic in the bush in Ethiopia that was almost deserted because of the improvements in the health of local people following the installation of water pumps in local villages. In many other places I have seen the impact of the excellent work done by the UK-based charity WaterAid. I have even done a bit of well building for it in Zambia.

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): I thank the hon. Gentleman for introducing a debate on this important subject, on which I support him. I have to declare an interest: my father spent his entire professional career as a water engineer, building and maintaining water and sanitation projects both in the UK and in many countries abroad. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if we are to ensure the sustainability of projects in the developing world such as those provided by WaterAid, it is essential that community groups and church groups on the ground are trained to maintain the projects commenced by voluntary organisations and ensure their continuity?

Mr Foster: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Like me, she has probably seen examples of totally unsustainable aid development. In Zambia I once saw a brand-new fire engine that had been donated to Lusaka urban district council by another country. Within 24 hours nobody could use the fire engine, because its engine was designed to use a fuel that was not available in Zambia. I have seen video recorders provided by other countries with videotapes in a language that was not understood by the population. She is right: there is no point in installing a water pump without involving the villagers in learning how to maintain it and ensuring that they will be able to get parts for it. They can possibly even go further by making a small charge for the water from the pump, so that there can be paid attendants to ensure that it is well looked after and serviced, and the project is sustainable. I agree that involving local people is critical.

As I said, I have seen some excellent work by WaterAid, but many other charities such as Tearfund and Pump Aid work in the field and deserve our praise. Given the importance of that aspect of the UK’s aid work, I was pleased by the Government’s promise in the coalition agreement, which stated:

“A key aim of our aid is to make sure everyone gets access to the basics: clean water, sanitation, healthcare and education.”

Those words are encouraging, but delivering that aim will not be easy.

One of the United Nations millennium development goals is to halve, by 2015, the proportion of the world’s population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. Sadly, that goal is not going to be met. According to a UN report this year, the number missing out on proper sanitation will actually grow to 2.7 billion by 2015, if current trends continue. Although the safe water target is on track globally, there are parts of the world where it will be missed by miles, not least in sub-Saharan Africa, where it is predicted that 350 million people will remain without access to safe water.

The UN report says:

“the safety of water supplies remains a challenge and urgently needs to be addressed.”

That warning becomes even more pressing in the context of climate change. The problem is not just hotter weather, causing more frequent droughts that in turn limit access to water. Climate change also disrupts weather patterns, resulting in more frequent and powerful floods. Flooding leads to overflowing latrines, contaminated drinking water, waterborne diseases such as cholera and all kinds of other sanitation problems. The problem is extremes of water shortage and water excess, and that problem will intensify as climate change continues to progress. That is part of the reason why we need to do even more.

Rather than discuss the work of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and his Department, however, I wish to concentrate on what I believe the Department for International Development can do. In recent years water and sanitation have not been given the priority that I would wish them to have. As a proportion of the UK’s aid budget, spending on water and sanitation has dwindled to just 2.2%, yet if I am right, and if water and sanitation are a vital plank in delivering all our aid goals, increasing the proportion of aid money dedicated to them would be money well spent. WaterAid made that argument powerfully in its recent submission to the Department-

Mr Foster: The argument was well made by WaterAid, and I hope the Minister has had a chance to read its submission. It considers each of the millennium development goals in turn in the context of WASH.

The first goal is to eradicate poverty. The World Health Organisation estimates that for every £1 invested in WASH, £8 is generated. That is because people save time on water collection, so they can be more productive, and WASH provision limits the number of days lost to illness.

The second goal is universal primary education, but children who are busy fetching water do not have time to go to school. The education of young girls ends up suffering the most, as that task more often than not falls to them. Sanitation also has a role to play in education. Dedicated girls’ toilets and menstrual hygiene facilities are important in making schools accessible for older girls.

DFID already knows that. It published a girls’ education strategy in January 2005, which prioritised