Fight over clean water

August 30, 2002

THE U.S. government is about to announce it is earmarking $970 million to improve access to potable water in developing countries.

Meanwhile, this country is the lone holdout in Johannesburg negotiations that would set global targets for providing uncontaminated water to the 1.1 billion people currently without it. The reason for Washington's resistance is its worry about being obligated to cover the high costs.

Smart economics, maybe. But politically, that position isolates this country in a way that could have extraordinary political consequences.

The European Union supports the goal of halving the number of people without clean water by 2015. Even Japan, Canada and Australia, which initially joined the U.S. government in opposition, have switched sides.

At Johannesburg's World Summit on Sustainable Development, where the water and sanitation issues are discussed, stark divisions have emerged between the wealthy industrialized nations and poor countries. The more the United States allows itself to be isolated on important symbolic resolutions, the more it conforms with critics' charges of imperial arrogance.

The reality of the matter is that numerical water and sanitation targets will probably never be met. The reasons: gargantuan costs (estimated at $25 billion a year), out-of-control population growth, urban sprawl that plays havoc with construction plans, and sparseness of convenient water resources. Yet access to drinkable water and basic sanitation must be a global policy goal.

U.S. support for the goal wouldn't bind the nation to unwieldy financial outlays it can't afford, but opposition helps to brand this country as uncaring about the developing world.

Over the weekend, roughly 100 presidents and world leaders will stream to Johannesburg for the ceremonial signing of 78 pages of summit declarations. The United States, again marching to its own beat, is planning to send Secretary of State Colin Powell, a decision critics regard as a slight.

Perhaps huge international palavers are not that productive. Certainly many of the good intentions of Stockholm's pioneering U.N. Conference on the Human Environment remain unrealized three decades later.

Nevertheless, the United States should view these forums as opportunities to build bridges and solidify alliances by getting on the record in favor of the right things. That's why its unnecessarily antagonistic position in Johannesburg is self-defeating.

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