Klaus Toepfer
United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director, UNEP

This edition of Our Planet is timed for UNEP’s Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum in Jeju, Republic of Korea, where water and sanitation will be central to many of the debates. Their importance is underlined by a report by the Global Water Partnership that highlights the role of improving the availability of clean and healthy supplies in meeting many of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.

This is, of course, vital if we are, by 2015, to halve the proportion of hungry people and of those living on less than one dollar a day. Water is a key factor in agriculture and other economic activities. But what about gender equality and education, where the aim is to ensure that all children complete primary school and that both sexes have equal access to both primary and secondary schooling?

The report makes it clear that improved water and sanitation means fewer sick children, and thus greater and more predictable attendance, while separate lavatories should also increase the girls’ presence. Meanwhile many girls and young women in developing countries are charged by their families and communities with fetching water each day, a time-consuming and tiring business that undermines school attendance and the ability to do homework. Having water resources and sanitation facilities closer to home also means that they are less likely to be sexually harassed or assaulted.

Reducing risks
The Millennium Development Goals also cover maternal mortality, child mortality, major diseases and environmental sustainability. Cleaner water supplies will reduce risks to both mothers and babies. Managing water better can reduce the spread of diseases like malaria, as well as susceptibility to HIV/AIDS. Sound water management is also critical in conserving the rivers, lakes, wetlands and other freshwater systems upon which so many people depend for resources like fish and drinking water.

The Partnership report considers ‘integrated water resources management’ – balancing the needs of different water users such as agriculture, industry and the public – and the state of national water efficiency plans. The World Summit on Sustainable Development’s Plan of Implementation called for these to be drawn up by 2005 as part of the route map for achieving the Millennium Development Goals.

It highlights real progress in such regions and countries as Central America, Australia, Thailand, Burkina Faso, Poland and Uganda, underlining how nations concentrated on water and sanitation issues throughout the 2003 International Year of Freshwater.

Poverty and the environment
Other issues on the table at Jeju include how to progress the bolstering of UNEP’s science base. A few months ago governments agreed at UNEP’s headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, that two broad issues urgently need more scientific study.

One is the link between poverty and the environment – or, put the other way, the link between a healthy environment and wealth and prosperity. Instinctively, these relationships seem to exist, but quantifying and pinpointing them precisely needs more examination.

The other was the link between environmental degradation and conflict. Unravelling this will become even more pressing in the 21st century as the number of people living on this wonderful blue planet rises beyond the current 6 billion.

One key question is whether a declining environment automatically triggers instability and conflict, or whether there are more subtle, complex relationships between the two. There are cases where conflict has not occurred despite such a decline, and others where it has. So it may be that a degraded environment is a trigger among a suite of factors.

Water, again, may have a central, if counter-intuitive, role. A recent report by UNEP – in collaboration with other United Nations agencies including the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations – found that cases of conflict over scarce water resources are mercifully rare. It seems that squabbling communities and nations may disagree on many things, but still cooperate on sharing water when required. So water can act as a peace broker, rather than a source of additional tension.

This underlines how studying the links between conflict and the environment may pay dividends in delivering a more peaceful and stable world


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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 issues:
Water, 1996
Freshwater, 1998
The Environment Millennium, 2000
WSSD, 2002
Global Environment Facility, 2002