Anna McMorrin (Cardiff North) (Lab)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) on securing this important debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), who has done so much work in this area, and who continues to fight for proper funding for WASH, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), who speaks eloquently about the need for access to clean water close to home and about flooding issues.
It is a pleasure to follow such powerful contributions from across the House. I also want to put on record my thanks to WaterAid and the many other organisations across the world fighting to put water accessibility at the top of the agenda and continuing their fight for a global solution to a global challenge.
Water, and access to water, is at the very core of who we are. It fuels humanity and is the driving force of advancement and progress. Water is the thread that binds us, weaving together people and places across the globe; it is the universal language, but today we have heard Members across the House raise alarming issues, emphasising that in our rapidly changing world, when it comes to water we are no longer equal. Whether because of dwindling resources or access, water is at the centre of the rising crises around us, from climate to conflict to covid. We have a water emergency.
A large portion of the world is on a collision course. Whether through drought, or scarcity, or water weaponisation by rogue actors, 3 billion people across the world are affected by water shortages—half of those as a consequence of climate breakdown. When the wells run dry we learn the true value of water. But it is no longer just the wells; the once great lakes, and the roving rivers that bring fresh water to communities, to fields for crops, and that support jobs and livelihoods, are also drying up.
How lucky are we, then, to have such easy access to water when so many have none—to live in a society where we celebrate the discovery of water on distant planets, yet access for so many is becoming ever more distant. And it is the world’s most vulnerable who bear the brunt, whether that is in conflict zones, in fragile states, or because of climate breakdown.
Last week, I was fortunate to speak to some incredible women—Rose, Rosemary and Comfort, from communities in Kenya and Uganda, three extraordinary women leading grassroots responses to climate breakdown in their own communities. Rosemary, who educates women and girls in rural Kenya to build sustainable water infrastructure, shared her experiences with me. She spoke of the women in her communities who walk for miles to find water, meaning that there is less time to think about how to intervene in, adapt to and mitigate these crises. This means that their daughters must spend more time looking after the household and their siblings, so they are unable to go to school. “It is always the women,” she said, “They are the ones disproportionately affected by the climate crisis and water emergency. They are the ones who have to pick up the pieces. They are the ones who have to find the dwindling supply and lean on daughters for support. Where is the international community for help?”
Rosemary is talking about the importance of aid and development money, making sure that money reaches the people who need it, that girls have access to education and are not forced to stay at home, that the necessary equipment is built for new wells closer to home, and that there is money in place for preventive measures. We know, however, that this Government have announced severe and damaging cuts, which will have a direct impact on Rosemary.
As well as scarcity, there is the increasing weaponisation of water. Naza, a young Syrian woman, told me, “It is always the innocent that suffer.” After 10 years of war in Syria, nowhere is that more true than in Hasakah in north-east Syria, where Turkish authorities break international law by restricting water for half a million people. Worse still, they have had their aid access cut at the border crossing. This must urgently be reauthorised by the Security Council this year.
The Prime Minister chaired the most recent UN Security Council meeting, which looked at water access, and just this week said that tackling climate breakdown is his top priority. Yet his actions do not match his words. Let us look at what this Government are actually doing. Where water scarcity is most acute, the Government have spent upwards of £4 billion on funding fossil fuel projects in developing nations since the Paris climate agreement. Despite promises of a phase-out and a consultation, which by all accounts the Government seem to have already prejudged, we are still waiting for action to be taken. Meanwhile, they continue to green-light projects polluting water sources, fields and food chains. This is unacceptable.
Although distribution of an equitable vaccine through COVAX is essential for fighting covid, it is unlikely that that vaccine will be available in those low income, water-stressed nations until 2023. Water and sanitation are vital for maintaining good hygiene and preventing the spread of the virus. How do we beat a mutating virus when one in three people does not have access to safe drinking water, and two in five people do not have basic hand-washing facilities?
Aid and development spend is our first responder and last line of defence to keep our world safe and secure. It really sticks in the throat that the Minister will no doubt rise to tell this House about problems across the world when it is this Government’s politically motivated cuts to aid that will undo the resilience necessary to tackle them. When the Government are slashing aid by one third, how do they hope to lead at the G7 summit? How will they address the £1 billion shortfall in the funding needed to build the basic infrastructure for water sanitation and hygiene?
The Foreign Secretary has set out seven core priorities for the aid budget for the year ahead, but they do not exist in a silo. When the Government are cutting £5 billion from the aid budget, where do they draw the line? All the issues overlap, driving inequality, scarcity and poverty collectively. Which projects are the Government going to cut? Which person’s lifeline are they choosing to withdraw—Naza or Rosemary? What message does this send as we host COP26 this year? Will the Government give those from climate-vulnerable, low-income nations a voice, as Labour has called for, and a long overdue seat at the table, so that the voices of those I have raised today are given equal weight?
Ambition without action is fantasy. Now it is time for the Government to start leading through the power of their example. They should not turn their back on the most vulnerable when they need us most.