Human development, Canada, and water

Canada ranks #6 in the world according the UN’s annual report on human development. Back in the 1990s Canada ranked number #1, a fact frequently trumpeted by the Canadian government. Today, are Canadians worse off?The human development report ranks countries using an index that combines three aspects of human development: living a long and healthy life (measured by life expectancy), being educated (measured by adult literacy and enrolment in primary, secondary and post-secondary education) and having a decent standard of living (the per capita purchasing power parity adjusted GDP). The index provides a broader view of human wellbeing than economic growth, but it also excludes difficult to measure aspects of development such as respect for human rights, democracy and social inequality.

canada HDI

As shown in the figure above, Canada has actually improved on all these indicators over the past decade, but some other rich countries have improved a little bit more. The difference between Canada and other rich countries is relatively minor, compared to that between the rich countries and other regions.

The big pattern revealed in this graph is that contrary to many people’s expectations, human wellbeing has substantially improved in most places in the world. Trends for individual countries can be explored using an interactive graph on the report’s website. The Swedish NGO Gapminder, founded by Hans Rosling, also has a visualization of data from the 2006 Human Development Report. These show huge changes in child mortality and family size, with some countries in Africa lagging behind the rest of the world.

Every year the report has a theme, last year it was inequality and this year it is water. People need water to maintain their health and dignity, but they also need water to sustain the industrial and ecological systems. About 1.1 billion people do not have access to a minimal amount of clean water, while 2.6 billion people do not have access to basic sanitation. Poor water quality kills more people than the worlds wars, and by limiting people’s life choices traps millions of people in poverty. The report points out that:

“Not having access to clean water” is a euphemism for profound deprivation. It means that people live more than 1 kilometre from the nearest safe water source and that they collect water from drains, ditches or streams that might be infected with pathogens and bacteria that can cause severe illness and death. In rural Sub- Saharan Africa millions of people share their domestic water sources with animals or rely on unprotected wells that are breeding grounds for pathogens.

In the presence of such deprivation clean water and toilets are world-changing technologies. The figure (from HDR 2006) below shows the large reductions in child mortality made by investments in clean water and sanitation.

clean water infant mortality

Unfortunately these investments are not being made. It is primarily poor or rural people who suffer the most from water scarcity, and often poor country governments do not make their needs a priority. The report argues that governments are under-investing in water systems:

Overall spending is low not just relative to national income, but also to other areas of social spending, such as public health. When measured against military spending, the gulf widens to very large proportions. For example, India spends 8 times more of its national wealth on military budgets than on water and sanitation. Pakistan spends 47 times more. In Sub-Saharan Africa low average incomes clearly constrain public spending capacity. At the same time, Ethiopia, one of the poorest countries in the world with some of the lowest coverage rates (and some of the highest child death rates from diarrhoea), still manages to mobilize almost 10 times more for military spending than for water and sanitation. South Africa is one of the few countries that spend less on military budgets than on water and sanitation.

watre vs. military

Today’s water problems are very serious, but there are both many actions that countries (such as South Africa) have taken and many more things that people, in both rich and poor countries, can do. The world is not running out of water, rather there are more people using water in unsustainable ways. The world has the money, technology and social capacity to repeat for the world the advances in sanitation and water use that occurred in rich countries a century ago. This report has some good suggestions on how to meet these goals.

This post above is a slight modification of my first contribution to the Worldchanging Canada website.

One thought on “Human development, Canada, and water”

  1. I have studied the problems with lack of water for people for many years. I still find it very hard to understand how 1.1 billion people still do not have access to water. Can’t the UN make a global pledge to sort this out? It would make sense because individual countries cant seem to manage this.

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