Precious, finite and irreplaceable

Precious, finite and irreplaceable


call for environmentally sustainable management
of freshwater resources, and outline UNEP's
work to achieve it

boat Fresh water - the basic ingredient for supporting terrestrial life systems - is the most precious of our planet's physical resources, apart from oxygen. It is also the fundamental natural resource constraint for socio-economic development and the resulting improvement of human livelihoods.

The Earth contains approximately 1.4 million cubic kilometres of water, but about 97.4 per cent of this is sea water or brackish, and so not readily available for most human uses. About three-quarters of the remaining 2.6 per cent is locked up in icecaps and glaciers, leaving only a fraction of a percentage point of the world's total water resources as fresh water in such surface waters as rivers and lakes or in underground aquifers.

Even so, this available fresh water would seem at first sight to be enough to supply all fundamental human survival needs, if divided by the total population of the Earth. Indeed - although the exact water volume necessary to fulfil human needs is still a matter of debate - it is estimated that theoretically there is sufficient fresh water on the planet to support about 20 billion people. Unfortunately it is not distributed evenly, as the large arid and semi-arid regions testify. And, thanks to seasonal weather patterns, it is sometimes not available when most needed, or arrives in excessive amounts, causing widescale flooding and loss of human life.

Freshwater resources support ecosystems and life, including people. They are also a fundamental requirement for economic development. The environment both supplies the fresh water (and other natural resources) needed as raw materials to fuel economic development and represents the ultimate sink of human wastes and by-products inherent in the development process.

We put our freshwater resources to an enormous number of uses. We use water for quenching our thirst, cooking our food, and cleaning our clothes and homes. We use it to grow food, livestock and fish, as a basic ingredient in industrial processes, and as a means of removing wastes and by-products. We use it to produce hydroelectric power, to move many of our products and commerce, and even to put out fires. Fresh water is also used for many recreational purposes, including fishing and swimming, and has aesthetic functions, providing breathtaking vistas for human consolation.

There is virtually no substitute for fresh water, either for basic human survival needs or for economic development. One cannot make paper with milk, or produce steel with orange juice: both processes need adequate supplies of fresh water, as indeed would producing the milk and the orange juice in the first place.

Virtually all economic development seems to have an associated environmental price tag, and fresh water is perhaps the most sensitive of affected natural resources: almost all the activities listed above work to pollute or otherwise degrade it. Increasing human activities require more fresh water and can result in it being increasingly misused and polluted. We must therefore devote attention to the protection, conservation and long-term environmental sustainability of our finite, available freshwater resources. It has become abundantly clear that it is usually less expensive to address these concerns before polluting or otherwise degrading the water, rather than waiting until after the damage has occurred.

Managing the whole

What is needed is integrated management of freshwater resources. 'Integrating' basically means making a whole out of the parts, a concept at the core of integrated management. Many complex, and sometimes conflicting, components must be addressed to ensure an equitable supply of fresh water. The 'parts' of integrated management comprise a complex mixture of scientific, technical and engineering factors on the one hand, and social, economic and legal factors on the other.

Effective management obviously involves considering the supply and quality of freshwater resources within a given river basin. In rural areas, people may live close enough to available water supplies, such as nearby streams or wells, readily to get sufficient supplies for most uses. There is a continuous danger of pollution, though people can be shown how their daily activities can degrade common water supplies. Some destructive practices may be deeply ingrained: it is difficult, for example, to convince farmers to change unwise water use practices without clearly demonstrating that this will not involve additional financial, labour or time requirements.

Providing safe freshwater supplies to urban dwellers, on the other hand, typically requires governmental authorities to identify, transport, treat and distribute water. These are largely engineering activities, but considerable attention must also be devoted to the many non-technical (and sometimes competing) factors that can affect the environmentally sustainable supply and quality of fresh water, and often prove to be of primary importance. Effective management of freshwater resources on a national level can require accurate knowledge and consideration of such disparate factors as the country's development plans, institutional structure, legal framework, educational characteristics, social structure, economic possibilities and political base - which can fundamentally affect how a country's inhabitants use the resources - as well as the more traditional engineering focus on water supply and demand.

fishing nets

Fair shares

Ensuring equitable and environmentally sustainable freshwater resources within a single nation is difficult enough: it is even harder for internationally shared waters. These comprise rivers or lakes representing common boundaries between countries, groundwater aquifers underlying two or more nations, and rivers or lakes flowing from one country to another. Relations can be especially difficult if an upstream nation does not pay adequate attention to the needs of the downstream country, or countries, into which its water flows. Unwise water consumption, water pollution, or the discharge of wastes into waters that flow into other countries provide a basis for potential conflict.

Integrated management is essential in multiple riparian situations. All riparian countries must give proper consideration to the need for equitable and environmentally sustainable supplies of freshwater resources. International river or lake agreements that provide for the protection and conservation of such shared freshwater resources are especially useful.

UNEP's contribution

UNEP has been involved in a number of international water projects, stressing its programme of Environmentally Sound Management of Inland Waters (EMINWA). This incorporates the notion of integrated management of freshwater resources as a means of ensuring sustainable development while taking into consideration all the factors that can affect it. First there is a comprehensive diagnostic phase so as to characterize accurately the general environmental condition of a drainage basin or groundwater aquifer and the factors affecting it. Then an action plan is agreed by the riparian countries, outlining the actions needed to correct the problems thus identified.

To date, UNEP has cooperated with riparian countries in EMINWA efforts in a variety of regions, including the Zambezi River Basin and Lake Chad Basin of Africa, the Mekong River Basin of southeast Asia, the Aral Sea Basin of southcentral Asia, the San Juan River Basin of central America, the Lake Titicaca Basin of South America, and in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of northwest China. EMINWA projects are ongoing or planned for the Caspian Sea Basin of eastern Europe, the Nile River Basin of Africa, and within the Hunnan Autonomous Region of southwest China. Considerable efforts are needed to complete implementation of some of these activities, but they nevertheless mark a significant advance in ensuring the equitable and environmentally sustainable use of such freshwater systems on an international scale.

A continuum

A final (and recent) consideration is the integrated management of both freshwater river basins and the downstream coastal and marine systems into which they drain. As noted in the following article on the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-Based Activities (GPA), efforts are under way to consider the hydrological linkage between land, freshwater river basins and coastal waters as a 'water management continuum'. This is emphasized by UNEP's recent amalgamation of its freshwater and oceans programmes into a single integrated Water Branch, the adoption of the GPA by 109 governments in late 1995, and UNEP's designation by governments as the Secretariat for its implementation. This approach can either include protection of the marine environment as a fundamental goal of river basin management efforts, or consider pollution sources and land-based activities in inland river basins extending beyond artificially defined 'coastal zones'. Ideally both approaches should lead to similar results.

The world's freshwater resources are finite and irreplaceable, they are sensitive to human uses and misuses, and they are part of a larger land-freshwater-coastal hydrological linkage. UNEP is working to incorporate these interrelated components into its integrated environmental management efforts, in order to ensure the continued viability of these precious resources within the context of sustainable development

Jorge Illueca is Assistant Executive Director/Programme and Walter Rast is Deputy Director, Water Branch, UNEP.

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