NEW YORK, 20 January (Promotion and Public Services Division, DPI) -- The world's supply of clean fresh water, already threatened by growing levels of pollution, is growing so scarce in some areas that if current trends continue, two thirds of humanity will suffer "moderate to severe water stress" within 30 years, according to a forthcoming United Nations report.
Titled "Comprehensive Assessment of the Freshwater Resources of the World", the report is part of a series of United Nations studies prepared for the Commission on Sustainable Development for its five-year review of progress achieved in sustainable development since the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), also known as the Earth Summit. The Commission was created to follow up on Agenda 21, the programme of action adopted by UNCED, and other agreements approved at the 1992 Conference held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Also part of the series is a companion United Nations study, "Global Change and Sustainable Development: Critical Trends", which reviews key issues over the quarter-century since the ground-breaking United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm, 1972) and suggests the most promising policy approaches to tackle them. The two reports will be considered by the Commission's fifth session (7-25 April) and by the special session of the General Assembly to review and appraise the implementation of Agenda 21 (23-27 June).
The report on freshwater resources warns that the situation not only imperils human health and development on a vast scale, but also the aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems on which much of the earth's life depends. "There is clear and convincing evidence", the report says, "that the world faces a worsening series of local and regional water quantity and quality problems, largely as a result of poor water allocation, wasteful use of the resource, and lack of adequate management resources".
The findings of the water report are echoed by its companion study, which addresses critical trends on sustainable development. It highlights the close linkages between economic growth, human development and good management of the natural resource base and identifies where socio-economic development appears most threatened by environmental degradation.
The report on critical trends states that despite a slowing of world population growth, increases in food production and overall improvements in living standards, the outlook for achieving sustainable development is not encouraging. The gains are being offset by certain negative trends, such as the growing scarcity of fresh water, loss of forests and productive agricultural land and a rise in the absolute numbers of desperately impoverished people.
"Global catastrophe does not appear to be imminent", the report states, but it is clear that "pursuit of business as usual is most unlikely to result in sustainable development in the near future". It recommends that governments design policies based on three key elements: increased investment in people; promotion of clean and efficient technologies through regulatory and economic incentives; and use of price reforms to encourage a shift away from wasteful and destructive consumption patterns.
A third of the world's population already suffers from what the report on freshwater resources calls "moderate to high" stress as a result of over- demand and pollution of water supplies. The report says that by 2025, if all humanity is to have access to safe drinking water and sanitation, the needs of an additional 5 billion people will have to be met. It stresses that it is crucial that there be an international consensus on the potential severity of the crisis. The evidence so far indicates that governments must give water resources a high priority in their national planning.
The growing scarcity of water is also hampering the expansion of agricultural production at a time when demand for food is rising with steady population growth, the report says. It urges that efforts to deal with the water crisis be made in tandem with an international drive to move towards global food security. In some countries, there will be a need to move from food self-sufficiency to greater reliance on food purchases from world markets.
Current levels of water shortages and pollution are causing "widespread public health problems, limiting economic and agricultural development and harming a wide range of ecosystems", the report states. "They may put global food supplies in jeopardy and lead to economic stagnation in many areas of the world", triggering "a series of local and regional water crises with global implications".
- 3 - Press Release EMV/DEV/401 PI/987 20 January 1997
The report acknowledges some bright spots. Some countries, particularly in the developed world, have achieved not only significant improvements in water quality, but "impressive reductions" in use of water for irrigation and for industry and municipalities. But on balance, it adds, "these gains have not reversed either the general trend towards water shortages, nor the widespread decline in water quality".
The report on freshwater resources was prepared by the United Nations through a steering committee representing all the United Nations organizations involved with water issues and a government-supported organization, the Stockholm Environment Institute. The steering committee consisted of representatives from the Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development, Department for Development Support and Management Services, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), the World Bank, World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Meterological Organization (WMO). Financial support was provided by the Governments of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Netherlands and Canada.
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