European countries set targets for giving everyone access to safe and affordable water and sanitation

Copenhagen, Geneva and Bucharest, 23 November 2010

Reducing economic barriers to access to safe drinking-water is one of the key objectives of the Second Meeting of the Parties to the Protocol on Water and Health, which starts today in Bucharest, Romania. Representatives from 34 European countries, including both Parties and non-Parties to the Protocol, meet to review their progress in providing cleaner water and better sanitation to more people, especially in times of economic constraint. Water and sanitation bills can threaten strained household incomes, in rich and poor countries alike, hampering access.

“Public health cannot advance without safe water for everybody. This meeting is a further milestone in a process to increase the number of European citizens with access to safe drinking-water and basic sanitation, thus reducing the more than 330 000 cases of water-related disease that are reported on average every year in the WHO European Region,” says Ms Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe. “We therefore call on all countries to be bold in adopting measurable targets for the significant reduction of the current burden of water-related disease and the fulfilment of the human right to water.”

Access to an improved water supply and sanitation has in general increased across Europe, resulting in an 80% decrease in diarrhoeal disease in young children from 1995 to 2005. Nevertheless, more than 50% of the rural population in eastern countries still lives in homes that are not connected to a safe drinking-water supply, and this proportion is growing in some countries. Sanitary equipment is insufficient in some areas of Europe, and about 85 million people (including more than 20 million in the lowest-income groups in the European Union) still lack toilets in their homes. The Protocol on Water and Health is the first international legal agreement adopted to ensure access to safe drinking-water and the provision of sanitation for everyone.

The Protocol recognizes that access to safe water can only be achieved if water resources are adequately protected and wisely managed. “In the pan-European region, industrialization, intensification of agriculture, urbanization and increased demands on recreational waters, as well as the anticipated negative effects of climate change, threaten our waters. The solutions to these problems lie beyond the water and health sectors. They lie in the formulation and implementation of policies, the effectiveness of institutions, the translation of political will into action, the allocation of resources at the national and international levels, and the capacity of countries. The Protocol is a powerful tool to guide countries towards modern and effective governance,” says Mr Ján Kubiš, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).

Extreme weather events are growing in frequency and intensity, and affect both the quantity and quality of water resources, raising concern among policy-makers and citizens alike. The number of extreme events in Europe increased by 65% between 1998 and 2007, with overall economic losses doubling to €13.7 billion from the previous decade.

To respond to these problems, the Protocol provides a comprehensive framework for mutual assistance between Parties, including technical guidance and financial assistance.

Over 150 rivers run across national boundaries in Europe, so international cooperation is crucial to ensure the sustainable use of these resources. The recent sludge spill in Hungary, resulting in 9 deaths and over 150 injuries 10 years after a similar accident in Romania, is a reminder that risk from currently used and heritage industrial sites is common to many countries and can cross borders. The Protocol on Water and Health, with its parent Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes, can support action to identify and remediate contamination that can harm health through polluted water, and the Meeting in Bucharest offers a unique opportunity to discuss options.

At the Meeting, Parties will report on all water- and health-related aspects for the first time. They will review progress in achieving national targets and plan for the challenges ahead. In addition, the participants will discuss the wide variety of topics addressed over the past three years, including the ratification and implementation of the Protocol, development of integrated strategies for water and health, the specific challenges of small-scale water supply, and access to information and public participation under the Protocol.