Water Editorial



United Nations Under-Secretary General
and Executive Director, UNEP


One of the great contradictions in human nature is that we value things only when they are scarce. We only appreciate the water once the well runs dry. And the wells are running dry not just in drought-prone areas but also in areas not traditionally associated with water scarcity.

It is estimated that 30 years from now approximately one-third of the world's population will suffer from chronic water shortages. The reasons for this are clear: greater demands on freshwater resources by burgeoning human populations; the diminishing quality of existing water resources because of pollution; and the additional requirements of servicing our spiralling industrial and agricultural growth. Each year global water consumption rises by 2-3 per cent, while the total supply of fresh water remains relatively constant.

The consequences of this scarcity will largely be felt in the arid and semi-arid regions, and will also be experienced in the rapidly growing coastal regions and megacities of the developing world. Evidence suggests that many of these cities already are, or will be, unable to provide safe, clean water and adequate sanitation facilities for their citizens - two fundamental requirements for human well-being and dignity. Let us not forget that about 80 per cent of all diseases and more than one-third of all deaths in developing countries are caused by contaminated water.

With finite freshwater resources on the one hand, and increasing demand, both in quantity and variety of uses, on the other, the need for water resources protection and management has never been greater. Major clashes over dwindling supplies of water may well constitute the source of future conflicts between nations.

Policy makers, engineers and scientists are facing increasing pressures to improve environmental performance and reduce the risks to human health. Because water pollution is an insidious and all pervasive problem, cleaning it up is a matter of great urgency. It involves complex scientific, technological, economic and political factors that cut across national, regional and international borders.

Just as environmental issues must be viewed in an holistic manner, so water issues have to be tackled in an integrated fashion and the linkages with other environmental issues set out. Conserving freshwater resources requires groups or agencies to work together in a coordinated manner. Some of the current obstacles to effective water management include the promotion of short-term rather than long-term perspectives in decision-making; values and attitudes that underestimate the community's skills and intelligence; and lack of the funding necessary to implement policies and decisions. Education, training and the strengthening of local organizations and decision-making authorities can help to overcome some of these obstacles.

UNEP has initiated a number of programmes and activities aimed at alleviating the looming water crisis. Three key issues are being addressed. These are the integrated management of freshwater resources; greater efficiency and equity in the distribution and use of available water resources; and improving water supply and sanitation. UNEP is also playing a leading role in global efforts on water, such as the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade and, more recently, as the designated Secretariat for the Global Programme of Action for Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-Based Activities and as the lead agency on water for the new United Nations Special Initiative on Africa.

In a very real sense, water is life. Life on Earth started in water and without water life as we know it cannot continue. The water problems facing us as the new millennium begins can be solved if we muster the foresight to deal with long-term environmental problems and the willingness to invest in our future.

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