Water
is life

 
HRH Prince Talal Bin Abdul Aziz al Saud
describes how the International Year of Freshwater provides an opportunity for governments and individuals to take stock of what they can do to resolve the global water crisis

Having been named by the Director General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as Special Envoy for Water during this very special International Year of Freshwater, I feel a personal responsibility to mobilize awareness about the importance of caring for our freshwater resources if we are to ensure the well-being of societies everywhere. The message is a simple one.

Echoing the Director General’s own words on the occasion of the Year’s launching ceremony: ‘For the sake of international peace, human security and sustainable development, we must be caring, sparing and sharing in all we do regarding freshwater. Let us now spread this message far and wide.’

Coming from Saudi Arabia, a desert kingdom with no perennial rivers, streams or permanent freshwater lakes, and where rainfall is both scarce and infrequent, I have a deep appreciation of the value of freshwater.

Not so long ago, when a traditional way of life prevailed in my country, small towns and nomadic societies were able to flourish here because they were well adapted to this water-scarce environment. They did not waste water and they did not consume more than they had. But today, this delicate demographic balance has shifted. In the wake of changing lifestyles and expectations, Saudi Arabia, like many other parts of the world, is experiencing stress.

Scarce resource
The increase in water demand due to population growth and expansion of industrial, agricultural and urban areas has outstripped our limited resources. The arable land area in the country is very small. So now we are facing serious problems of water supply and our future development may be at stake. Yes, we have made the desert bloom, using precious groundwater for irrigation to help produce wheat, barley, tomatoes, melons, dates, citrus fruits, mutton and poultry – but at a price. Some of our irrigation practices can be wasteful, our drainage systems are often inadequate – thus increasing the salinity of the soil – and unplanned and unmonitored pumping have led to a significant lowering of the groundwater levels and in some cases have caused springs to dry up.
Education, training and creative partnerships are assuming a central place in the effort to build a better and more secure future

In its World Water Development Report – Water for People, Water for Life, released in March 2003, the United Nations World Water Assessment Programme (WWAP) has drawn attention to these very issues, and especially to the trade-offs involved when many users are competing for the same, scarce resource. It speaks of ‘inertia at the leadership level’ and warns us that the global water crisis will reach unprecedented levels in the years ahead, with ‘growing per capita scarcity of water in many parts of the developing world', unless action is taken now.

This Report is itself a sign of commitment and political will: it represents the first time that the 23 United Nations agencies and commissions dealing with water have worked together to monitor progress against water-related targets in such fields as health, food, ecosystems, cities, industry, energy and risk management. It is fitting that the World Water Development Report be addressed to national policy-makers and others in a position to influence the water agenda.

Specialization and competence
Within this collective effort, each agency has its own areas of specialization and competence. This diversity is the United Nations’ greatest strength. In the freshwater domain, UNEP, for example, is particularly concerned with water quality through the GEMS/WATER Global Environmental Monitoring System which is a collaborative effort with the World Health Organization (WHO), and inputs from the World Meteorological Organization and UNESCO. In a broader environmental context, it looks at biodiversity issues, climate change, land degradation, water flows and the interactions between environment and development.

UNESCO has a mandate to promote peace, human development and security through its fields of competence. Its interest in water is grounded in a long-standing engagement with scientific investigation of the hydrological cycle, but has never been limited to science for its own sake. Thus, by creating the International Hydrological Programme (IHP) in 1975, it pioneered efforts to provide a scientific basis for evaluating global water resources and formulating ethical and socioeconomic principles to guide water management and development practices. Today, the roles of education, training and creative partnerships are assuming a central place in the effort to build a better and more secure future.
Each of us in our daily lives can make a difference; each community and each region too

Setting goals
In September 2000, world leaders pledged to halve the proportion of people unable to reach or to afford safe drinking water. Then at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, a matching target was agreed to halve by 2015 the proportion of people without access to adequate sanitation.

Meeting these targets requires coordinated action, not just from governments, but from all of us who use water – and abuse it. Each of us in our daily lives can make a difference; each community and each region too. The International Year of Freshwater therefore provides us with the rare opportunity to take stock of our actions and behaviour.

We have a saying in Arabic that ‘Water is Life’. Let us remember this simple phrase each time we turn on the faucet or take a drink of water. Let’s get the message out


HRH Prince Talal Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud is UNESCO’s Special Envoy for Water during the International Year of Freshwater 2003.

PHOTOGRAPH: UNEP/Topham


This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | World Environment Day | Water is life | The water century | Taking it at the flood | Renewing the commitment | Waterless cities | Keeping pollution at bay | People | At a glance | Changing agenda | Nor any drop to drink | Bridging troubled waters | Books & products | Getting there | Sinking fast | Waste not | Water – the poor’s priority | Atomic power

 
Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Water, 1996
Issue on Freshwater, 1998


AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Freshwater
Freshwater wetlands
Mangroves and estuaries