Turning words
into action

Børge Brende says that plans agreed at the World Summit on Sustainable Development are the key to managing the world’s most precious resource

Sound water management is key to sustainable development and to meeting many of the Millennium Development Goals and commitments made at the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development. Water is essential to the viability and long-term sustainability of all the world’s ecosystems. Ecosystem health, in turn, is critical to the quantity and quality of water supply. Human activities, such as infrastructure development, modification of river flows, land conversion (like deforestation), increased agricultural production, the introduction of alien species and the release of pollutants, upset the delicate balance between water resources and environmental sustainability.

Several threats to the overall health of ecosystems, and consequently to their ability to provide the services upon which human life depends, are particularly relevant to water. Climate change – and resulting alterations in weather patterns, water distribution and fisheries – will, for example, seriously affect marine ecosystems and small island developing states. This will stress poor populations, unable to protect themselves from flooding, erosion and water shortages. Loss of species and genetic diversity has impacts on the health of marine and coastal environments as well as of wetlands. And global fisheries, marine ecosystems and coastal habitats are fast degrading as a result of overfishing and contamination from land-based activities. Addressing these threats through improved water management is a key factor in maintaining the integrity of ecosystems.

The need to focus on the planning and management of water resources was recognized at Johannesburg, and a short-term target was agreed: for all countries to prepare integrated water resources management (IWRM) plans by 2005. So – how are we doing? Apparently, not so well. According to a survey of 96 developing countries undertaken by the Global Water Partnership, only 12 per cent are likely to meet the target, while 45 per cent need some support to do so, and 43 per cent need substantial support.

Cause for concern
Clearly, there are also encouraging reports. Uganda and Burkina Faso have, with international assistance, gone through multi-year IWRM planning processes, resulting in new national policies, strategies and laws for their water resources development and management. China’s new water policies, Thailand and India’s water reform processes, and Brazil’s wastewater reform are other examples of IWRM processes. More could be mentioned. But the overall picture gives reasons for serious concern: we do not appear to be on the right track to meet the targets.

Firstly, governance is a crucial issue. At the national level, different ministries need to be mandated to work together, to work on a river-basin scale (for example, through basin committees with various responsibilities), to work with subnational governments and stakeholders, and to provide funding to make these things happen. Programmes and institutions must be established to provide the data needed for analyses, inter-ministerial collaboration, basin institutions, water rights and allocation systems – and to provide policies on IWRM (that include land) and national socio-economic goals to be reached for water resources.
Human activities upset the delicate balance between water resources and environmental sustainability
South Africa’s National Water Act, the key instrument for implementing IWRM, specifies a ‘reserve’ as the tool to ensure environmental sustainability and protect basic human needs for water: this refers to both the quantity and the quality of the water in the resource. The European Union’s Water Framework Directive will be the key tool to ensure the sustainable use of water within Europe: it calls for general protection of the aquatic ecology, specific protection of unique and valuable habitats, protection of drinking water resources and protection of bathing water – all to be integrated for each river basin.

At the international level, UNEP’s water strategy is an important tool when discussing the environmental aspects of water issues. UNEP’s activities relating to the transfer of environmentally sound technologies for water management, and to awareness-raising initiatives in the water sector, are crucial if we are to deliver on our promises from Johannesburg.

In the mainstream
The challenges in dealing with the complex nexus of global environment, development and water resources are to reform policies and to bring environmental considerations into the mainstream of economic decision making. Important lessons from experience suggest that the environmental, social, land and water crises are closely linked, and that single sector interventions related to water can make matters worse. The way towards sustainable development clearly involves integrated, holistic management of land, water and ecosystems. IWRM plans are the key tool to achieve this. They should be integrated into national development strategies – including into poverty reduction strategy papers (PRSPs) – and must be for the people, of the people and by the people. IWRM plans and PRSPs should be part of the national processes of planning and budgeting.

Secondly, financial contributions to water management need to increase from all the main sources of finance, such as domestic governments, donors, multilateral financing institutions, commercial lenders, private investors, voluntary donations and solidarity schemes. Improving the efficiency of resource utilization should be given priority next to developing new funding mechanisms. More finance should be raised locally, through progressive tarification, taxation and local capital markets. Internationally, we should meet the commitments made at the 2002 Monterrey summit and global financial mechanisms should be strengthened.

The Global Environment Facility (GEF) is a key mechanism in supporting our efforts to manage international water resources and protect biodiversity. It supports biodiversity projects related to the sustainable use of wetlands and waters and has an impressive portfolio of international waters projects with about 140 cooperating countries. Through these it has been able to help countries specify what reforms they should undertake and how the IWRM approach could be put into operation, including ways of taking livelihoods and biological diversity into consideration.

Finally, we must focus on water conservation. Many rivers and underground reserves are empty because of the wasteful way we use water. IUCN-The World Conservation Union estimates that 1.4 billion people already live in river basins where water abstractions equal or exceed what is available, and thus lead to serious social and environmental damage. Implementing ‘environmental flows’ in the river basins of the world can repair the damage done and help avoid future conflicts. These ensure that enough water is left in rivers and is managed to ensure downstream environmental, social and economic benefits.

Main challenge
As Chair of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development, I see our main challenge as transforming words into action. The international community and world leaders have defined the problems, taken on the commitments and set the deadlines. Implementation is now the key word. For the next two years, the Commission will devote its attention to water, sanitation and human settlements. We will conduct a thorough review at the April 2004 session. We will identify key obstacles and best practices. In short, we will present an assessment of the progress made to reach the targets – and of the lack of it. And, more importantly, of what needs to be done to get there!

National governments are mainly responsible for managing and developing water and for providing water and sanitation services for all. But we, the international community, need to step up our involvement. Our role must be that of a facilitator: providing funding, making sure that water and sanitation issues stay at the top of the agenda in multilateral fora, upholding the international focus on the poorest. The survey undertaken by the Global Water Partnership indicates clearly that we need to scale up our efforts and take action now.

Water is the world’s most precious resource. Its fair, stable and sustainable distribution must be a priority in all countries, particularly in the fight against poverty. To succeed, we need a wide range of measures and partners. The needs are great, but so are the opportunities, for governments, private companies and the civil sector. We need them all – and we need them now 

Børge Brende is Minister of the Environment, Norway, and Chair of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development.


This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Töpfer | Action for tomorrow | Turning words into action | One hand washes the other | People | Fragile resource | Realizing the dream | Washing away poverty | At a glance: Water and sanitation | Music makes magic – Angélique Kidjo | Targeting sanitation | In a city like Mumbai | Flowing from the bottom up | Books & products | Watering a thirsty land | Peace through parks | Reaching the unheard

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Global Environment Facility, 2002
Børge Brende: Walking the talk
(Mountains and Ecotourism) 2002
Issue on WSSD, 2002
Issue on Freshwater, 2003