Rescuing the source of life

OUR PLANET 9.4 - Fresh Water

Rescuing the source of life


describes how UNEP and the GEF are working
together to assess the state of the world's
waters and to solve their problems

Water issues, both fresh and marine, are now prominent on the international agenda. That is as it should be, for few things are more important to humanity.

Water covers most of our planet, supports all life on Earth, makes our crops grow and provides clean energy through hydropower. The oceans provide a great deal of the world's protein and serve as liquid highways that are becoming increasingly important with the globalization of trade. The apparent recent increase in the frequency and severity of El Niño events has brought the issues of too little water (drought) or too much (floods) to the forefront of public notice, and the threat of sea-level rise in a warmer climate is also getting increasing attention.

1998 has been designated the International Year of the Ocean by the international community, with an Oceans Expo in Lisbon in September. The United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development is focusing on freshwater this year and oceans in 1999. Last year saw the completion of a Comprehensive Assessment of the Freshwater Resources of the World by the United Nations agencies in collaboration with the Stockholm Environment Institute, while the report of the Independent World Commission on the Oceans will be released later this year.

The current preoccupation with water related issues reflects not just their importance, but also the growing global crisis over the health and well-being of aquatic systems. Rivers are dammed, wetlands drained, industrial discharges continue unabated, countries are subsidizing their fishing fleets to overexploit living resources and persistent contaminants are appearing in such remote ecosystems as the Antarctic. The growing threat of freshwater scarcity is even more critical from the human perspective. Two out of every three people are projected to be suffering from water stress by the year 2025, posing a danger of armed conflict and representing a very real threat to global security.

Scientists and managers have been warning of growing threats to the aquatic environment since the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. These threats had not abated and, in some instances, had become reality by the time of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, 20 years later.

people in boats

Facing water problems

If water related problems are so widespread, well recognized and immediate, why are we apparently incapable of addressing them? The answer lies, at least in part, in the sectoral way in which society is organized, with different groups having defined roles and responsibilities which they vigorously defend out of self-interest. Bringing together all stakeholders in the coastal zone jointly to plan resource use and development, for example, is a challenging, if not impossible, task.

The response of governments to these growing threats has been conditioned by their institutional structures, which treat economic sectors independently of one another; thus fisheries, coastal tourism, aquaculture, maritime trade and transport and off-shore mineral exploitation often come into conflict. The problems are even greater over shared freshwater basins since water use is rarely coordinated between neighbouring states that depend upon the same river system - even if it is planned in an integrated way within national boundaries.

UNEP was set up in 1972 with a mandate to coordinate the environmentally related actions of the international system. The United Nations system reflects the national level organization of its member states, and water related issues are handled by many different agencies and programmes. UNEP was intended to catalyze rather than fund action and the need for a global environmental fund led to the establishment in 1991 of the GEF as a pilot project.

In the 1970s the environment was seen as merely another 'sector' in the economy rather than being an integrated component of all sectors. It was only following the publication and wide acceptance of the findings of the Brundtland Commission - and a growing realization in the 1980s that human actions were affecting global systems such as climate and the ozone layer - that the need to integrate environmental considerations into development decision-making became obvious. Agenda 21 is replete with calls for integration - integration of environment and development, between sectors, and of management structures. Yet, almost six years later, little progress has been made towards achieving these goals.

Addressing water related problems in an integrated way is not easy; at present we do not have an objective and cross-cutting scientific basis for prioritizing problems in international waters, nor a clear idea of the spatial limits within which to coordinate appropriate preventative or remedial actions. For water issues 'global' is too big, and 'national' too small, and the paradigm of thinking globally and acting locally may not be appropriate; coordinated, multi-country action is required. Furthermore, our ability to value environmental goods objectively is neither well developed nor well integrated into economic development planning.

Understanding linkages

Recently developed regional approaches within the GEF's International Waters Portfolio have begun to produce the tools needed to make possible a broad but detailed analysis of the problems, stakeholders, uncertainties, options and costs of water related environmental actions. The most notable example is the Transboundary Diagnostic Analysis (TDA), an analytical tool that attempts to link environmental issues and problems with their societal and economic causes.

Such approaches assist in understanding the linkages between environmental issues and actions, and in developing action-oriented Strategic Action Programmes. For example, if a sea suffers from nutrient enrichment a TDA should identify and quantify the relative importance of the sources of the pollution. If the major source is agricultural run-off then the solution may lie in altering economic policies (by removing fertilizer subsidies) and land-use patterns, rather than in a technological fix, which is difficult to apply to such diffuse sources.

Global assessment

UNEP, with the support of the GEF, is initiating a Global International Waters Assessment (GIWA) which will employ an approach akin to that of the TDAs. Working closely with existing mechanisms, the project will elaborate the first assessment of its kind ever attempted on a global scale. It has a framework that identifies 22 principal issues grouped into five major areas of concern (freshwater shortage; pollution; habitat and community modification; unsustainable exploitation of fisheries and other marine living resources; and climate change) - and is based geographically on marine basins and their associated freshwater drainage basins: the 66 geographic units of assessment are grouped into nine 'mega-regions' for management purposes. The basic tool will be a 'causal chain analysis' reflecting and analyzing the sequence of causality from the identified environmental issue to the societal driving forces and the constraints on action.

From UNEP's earliest days the Regional Seas Programme has worked in a similar way. Regional conventions and action plans have been developed in some 14 regions. They commit participating governments to addressing the problems facing the marine environment in a collaborative framework. The Programme is underpinned by a philosophy which recognizes shared responsibility for the marine environment, where one country's waste becomes another's problem. The 1990 assessment of the State of the Marine Environment by the joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environment Protection (GESAMP) concluded that 80 per cent of all marine pollution resulted from land-based activities. The 1995 Washington Declaration and the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities represent an overwhelming response of maritime states to this problem.

Shifting focus

The focus has shifted over the last 20 years from assessing the problems and imposing end-of-pipe solutions to addressing the primary sources, on land, of aquatic environmental problems. Recognizing this important linkage, UNEP merged its freshwater and Regional Seas Programmes in 1996. The challenge is to produce mechanisms to assist governments in developing more integrated approaches to managing the aquatic environment, and for the Regional Seas Programme and participating governments to undertake concrete action and investment.

The GWIA - unlike many past assessments - analyzes the linkages between freshwater and marine systems, and thus will serve as a fundamental starting point for national and international actions to implement the Washington Declaration. It will also perhaps help to link the many water related conventions. Its outcomes will provide a basis for determining priorities in allocating scarce resources, within both the GEF and the wider donor community; this is particularly important at a time when investments in environmental action are declining worldwide. It thus represents one of the most exciting challenges in environmental assessment in the last decade of the millennium.

John C. Pernetta is Senior Programme Officer in charge of International Waters in the GEF Coordination Office of UNEP.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are his and do not necessarily reflect those of UNEP.

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