Fresh Water Editorial

Our Planet - Fresh Water


KLAUS Toepfer

United Nations Under-Secretary General
and Executive Director, UNEP


In the coming decades, accelerating environmental pressures could transform the very foundations of the international political system. There are at least 25 million environmental refugees today, a total to be compared with 22 million refugees of the traditional kind. They are mainly located in sub-Saharan Africa, the Indian sub-continent, China, Mexico and Central America. The total may well double by the year 2010, as increasing numbers of impoverished people press ever harder on their already degraded environments.

What does the availability of water have to do with securing peace on Earth? Supplies of freshwater are finite. At the beginning of the 18th century, there were less than a billion people in the world, sharing less than a million cubic kilometres of freshwater. In 1900, there were about 2 billion people sharing the same amount. Now there are more than 6 billion people and the freshwater supply has remained constant. Even during the five years since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, 400 million people have been added to the world population - and will subsist on the same volume of water.

The populations of water-short countries, today estimated to be 550 million, are expected to increase to 1 billion by the year 2010. Water shortages will be especially adverse for agriculture in general and irrigation agriculture in particular.

Competition is growing

There is no longer an unlimited supply of freshwater. International competition for this scarce resource is growing. As the demand increases and in the absence of a clear consensus on how best to use shared water resources for the benefit of all, that competition has the potential to erupt into acrimonious disputes. The Nile River Basin is a classic example of increasing demand for water and the need for countries to come together to manage shared water resources for the benefit of all basin states. The Jordan River and Lake Chad Basins are other examples.

Nearly 47 per cent of the land area of the world, excluding Antarctica, falls within international water basins shared by two or more countries. There are 44 countries with at least 80 per cent of their total areas within international basins. The number of river and lake basins shared by two or more countries is now more than 300. In Africa alone, there are 54 drainage basins covering approximately 50 per cent of the total land area of the continent.

There is much that the international community could do to promote human security and avert conflicts over freshwater resources. It must be recognized that an adequate supply of safe, clean water is the most important precondition for sustaining human life, for maintaining ecosystems that support all life and for achieving sustainable development.

water containers

A systematic approach

UNEP will systematically identify solutions to this problem. The first step will be the inventory of the state of freshwater resources. This will also include continuing identification of potential 'hotspots'.

The second stage will assess key priority freshwater issues, including water quality, quantity and allocation to meet and maintain human lives and livelihoods, socio-economic development and maintenance of natural ecosystems.

The third step will focus on the development of innovative economic, legal and institutional instruments for sustainable use, and on greater awareness, education and participation of the general public.

The fourth step will involve pilot projects in key regions to test the effectiveness of these instruments for governments and international organizations.

UNEP's knowledge of the linkages between freshwater resources and a complex web of social, economic and environmental factors, and its experience in brokering important international environmental agreements, give it the necessary expertise to assist governments in reviewing and refining international legally-binding agreements on freshwater resources.

Global interest in freshwater issues has recently sharpened. The conclusions and recommendations of the Comprehensive Assessment of the Freshwater Resources of the World, prepared by United Nations agencies including UNEP, and its consideration by the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) at its fifth session and by the United Nations General Assembly at its special session to review the implementation of Agenda 21 are indications of this trend.

Collaborative action

These consultations underlined the urgent need for bringing together all stakeholders in the water sector and involving decision makers at the national level, to jointly develop a long-term vision on sustainable water resource management. UNEP's preparations for this intergovernmental dialogue, under the aegis of the CSD at its sixth session, hinge on the awareness that inter-institutional collaboration must be substantially improved if rational water management is to be achieved.

One of the challenges of sustainable development is the continuous balancing of opposites and the breaking down of so called barriers between environmental concerns and economic development. At the core of the concept of sustainable development is the requirement that current practices should not undercut future living standards. In other words, present economic systems should maintain or improve the resource and environmental base so that future generations will be able to live equally well or better.

The prudent course to adopt is not the imposition of limits on economic betterment, but rather a fundamental change in current wasteful patterns of production and consumption. We have to find ways to re-orient patterns of growth in such a way that they do not cause irreparable harm to the environment, and ensure that the world's population achieves an equitable though not profligate standard of living.

The intergovernmental dialogue on water will supplement national efforts if it succeeds in motivating the transfer of financial and technological resources to the developing world for the basic needs of the people. The water problems facing us as the new millennium begins can be solved only if we muster the foresight to deal with long-term environmental problems and the willingness to invest in our future.

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