Provision of Clean Water Threatened

By Joy Elliott

UNITED NATIONS, New York—From bribes of a few dollars to kickbacks and embezzlement running into the hundreds of millions of dollars, corruption relating to water is undermining the health and well-being of billions of people around the world.

Dr. Huguette Labelle, Chairwoman of Transparency International.

That’s the conclusion of a book-length study by Transparency International, an organization with headquarters in Berlin that has been tracking corruption in business and government for years.

In the new study, “The Global Corruption Report 2008: Corruption in the Water Sector,” Transparency International concentrated for the first time on water. The theme of its global report last year was corruption in the judiciary.

Problems with water, such as shortages and pollution, are often attributed to a changing environment or to mistakes, carelessness and deliberate abuse by manufacturers, governments and ordinary people.

But in its worldwide study, made public at United Nations Headquarters in June, Transparency International cited greed as a viral core running through virtually every problem related to water.

The study was a benchmark. Transparency International said it was the most comprehensive examination to date of corruption relating to water.

“For the first time we are looking at the problem in an integrated way,” said Huguette Labelle, the chairwoman of Transparency International.

As part of the presentation of the study, Dr. Labelle joined several other experts in a panel discussion moderated by Joseph B. Treaster, the Knight Chair for Cross Cultural Communication at the University of Miami. Mr. Treaster, a former foreign correspondent and domestic reporter for The New York Times, moderated a similar panel a day later in Washington at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

Dr. Labelle, who is also the chancellor of the University of Ottawa, told the United Nations audience that Transparency International found corruption in projects involving sanitation, irrigation and hydro electricity, among others.

Sometimes, she said, the corruption involved bid-rigging. Sometimes it was bribery or embezzlement or plain theft of equipment and material. Often corruption becomes a drag on national development, she said.

Corruption could be reduced by strengthening water regulation, improving training of inspectors, insisting upon integrity in inspections and by providing better public access to financial records on water projects, Dr. Labelle said.

Adopting some of these guidelines, the United Nations Development Program has been setting up pioneering anti-corruption programs in developing countries, according to Andrew Hudson, the United Nations Development Program’s Water Governance team leader.
In the study, Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan Nobel Prize winner for work on the environment, wrote that those involved in corruption “break the rules that preserve habitats and ecosystems.” They “plunder and pollute” water sources that the entire world depends upon and “steal the money that is meant to get water to the poor.”

One panelist, Dr. Håkan Tropp, a director of the Stockholm International Water Institute and a leader of the Water Integrity Network, an ally of Transparency International, said it would be difficult—if not impossible—for poor countries to improve their standards of living without addressing corruption relating to water.

The study included detailed reports from 34 countries and the Palestinian Authority and it described a far-reaching global problem. 
“More than one billion people around the world do not have guaranteed access to water and more than 2.6 billion live without basic sanitation,” the study said.  “Failure to tackle corruption in the water sector exacerbates these dire conditions and raises social and economic costs.”



Dr. Huguette Labelle, Chairwoman of Transparency International.

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