Negotiations on ways to provide safe drinking water and sanitation for the worlds poor collapsed without agreement at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg yesterday.
The United States was increasingly isolated and came under repeated attack from developing nations for refusing to back a target to halve the number of people in the world without sanitation by 2015.
Dirty drinking water and poor sanitation are recognized as the biggest killers in the world, responsible for 2.2 million deaths a year.
The issue is one of the least contentious in the summit, since all parties agree that providing water and sanitation is essential to relieving world poverty. However, the US has refused to back a firm target to combat lack of sanitation because it is concerned about the cost. The EU has been pushing for adopting the target, and Japan, Canada and Australia switched sides yesterday, leaving the US the only country to oppose it. The issue will now probably have to be settled when the heads of state meet.
Margaret Beckett, the Environment Secretary, told the summit: "Access to water supply and sanitation is vital to peoples livelihoods and the improvement of poor peoples health, particularly that of children. We firmly believe a target is required to focus attention on this issue."
T. R. Baalu, the Indian Environment Minister, said: "To service the human community of India with sanitation and water is a Herculean task. The world community should come forward to help us through the UN organizations."
The summit working paper on water issues stated that "the provision of safe drinking water and sanitation services to more than 1 billion people over the next decade remains one of the most crucial challenges humanity is facing today."
Many people have to drink water from polluted wells or from rivers, leaving them prone to bilharzia, typhus and cholera. In urban areas they often depend on water vendors who sell dirty water.
Previous summits have discussed clean water supplies, but sanitation is recognized as increasingly important. Ronnie Kasrils, the South African Water Minister, said that he was bewildered by an outbreak of cholera in Kwazulu-Natal province although clean water had been provided. The cause was poor sanitation.
Joanne Green, policy officer of Tearfund, a charity that promotes access to clean water and sanitation, said: "Lack of sanitation pollutes water sources. You have to have both together."
The World Bank gave warning yesterday that the growing demand for water, and increasing water shortages in regions such as Africa and the Middle East could lead to war. David Grey, senior water adviser to the bank, said: "This is a very big issue for the world. Unless countries co-operate, it could lead to dispute, and dispute could lead to armed conflict."
The UN insists that the solution is not just to promote access to water, but to promote more efficient use. About half of the drinking water in the developing world is lost to leakage and vandalism.