12/12/2002
Press Release
ENV/DEV/713
OBV/319



Launch of the International

Year of Freshwater 2003


FRESHWATER ISSUES AT ‘HEART OF HUMANKIND’S HOPES FOR PEACE AND DEVELOPMENT’,


SAYS DEPUTY SECRETARY-GENERAL AT EVENT TO LAUNCH INTERNATIONAL YEAR


Freshwater issues were at the heart of humankind's hopes for peace and development in the twenty-first century, Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fréchette said at the launch this morning of the International Year of Freshwater (2003), proclaimed by the General Assembly in December 2000.


Speaking at the event entitled "The Challenges of Freshwater:  A Dialogue", Ms. Fréchette said that already more than 1 billion men, women and children lacked safe drinking water and sanitation services.  Continuing with "business as usual" meant that, in little more than two decades, two thirds of the world's population would be living in moderate to severe water stress.  For the sake of women and girls who walked farther each day in search of water, for the sake of those who lacked what so many took for granted, and for all who were vulnerable to water crises, she said “let us make the International Year a great success”.


Concerning fear that corporate involvement would make water prices rise beyond the reach of people already mired in poverty, she said that working with the private sector to solve water problems did not mean that a government would simply hand over the management of its water resources and let the profit motive run its course.  Private sector involvement implied a dialogue among all users to come up with equitable and environmentally sound solutions.  In all cases, the government must be engaged in both oversight and overall regulation.


The idea for the International Year had been initiated by the President of Tajikistan, whose Foreign Minister, Talbak Nazarov, today told participants of the meeting that water problems were not limited to scarcity.  Also necessary was to address global warming and rising sea levels.  Tajikistan supplied the majority of water resources to Central Asia, but it had been suffering from three years of unprecedented drought.  The lack of water was affecting agriculture, which supported a large percentage of the population.  He called for an informal focus group to discuss water at the highest political level.


Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs Nitin Desai said the issue of freshwater had been very high on the agenda of the Johannesburg Summit because that was absolutely essential to human existence.  Indeed, the planet was inhabitable because it had water, and getting water management right was a strategic objective requiring getting a lot of other things right, such as land use and agricultural, industrial and energy policies.  The real issue was the

availability of water when it was needed by the people who needed it.  Getting that right meant addressing issues of water scarcity, quality and access.


The challenges facing the Small Island Developing States could be summed up in one word -- vulnerability, stressed the Vice-President of the General Assembly June Clarke (Barbados).  Despite their best efforts, those countries faced the negative impacts of reduced rainfall levels, extended periods of drought, the potential degradation of water quality, accelerated erosion and loss of wetlands, and the potential for salt water intrusion into freshwater resources.  They continued to need the help of both the United Nations system and the international community to implement measures to promote integrated water resource management, build human resource capacity, control water pollution, and promote conservation by fostering changed attitudes to water use.


On behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, Milos Alcalay (Venezuela) called access to fresh drinking water an inalienable right.  Unfortunately, however, the majority of the world’s people did not have such access.  In the Group of 77, more than half of the diseases were related to contaminated water supplies.  Solving the problem of freshwater access was among the Group's priorities.  He called for a global sharing of information technology and communication, technologies involving storage procedures, recycling and sanitation.


Executive Director, Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council, Gourisankar Ghosh, said that people, and not just governments, had to be involved from the start in improving their quality of life through access to clean water and sanitation.  The private sector should also be involved in ensuring the sustainability of water delivery to the poor.  Meanwhile, he urged men, and not just women and girls, to learn to carry water on their heads.  Stunted growth in South Asia, for example, had more to do with proper hygiene and sanitation, and not the lack of food, he said.


Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information Shashi Tharoor introduced the panellists and moderated the meeting, in which specialized agencies, civil society groups and water resource management experts also participated.


The event, organized by the Department of Public Information in cooperation with the Department for Economic and Social Affairs, also included a video presentation, as well as a performance of water songs by Pete Seeger and Bob Reid, and the Children's Choir of the United Nations International School.


Statements


LOUISE FRÉCHETTE, Deputy Secretary-General, said that freshwater issues were at the heart of mankind's hopes for peace and development in the twenty-first century.  Already more than 1 billion men, women and children lacked safe drinking water and sanitation services.  As consumption rose, as unsustainable practices persisted, as the effectiveness of water management policies lagged badly behind the situation on the ground, the world water situation would grow more urgent and complex.


Continuing with "business as usual", it would take only a little more than two decades for two thirds of the world's population to be living in moderate to severe water stress, she said.  That could not be allowed to happen as that would condemn so many people to poverty, poor health and despair, while the investments required to avert that catastrophic scenario were within means.  The world pledged in the Millennium Declaration to halve, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water.  The Plan of Implementation adopted at Johannesburg went further still, adding a similar goal for access to sanitation services.


In pursuit of those goals, the International Year could raise awareness, be a platform for creativity and promote participation and peaceful dialogue, she said.  One issue that had sparked considerable controversy recently was the participation of the private sector, in particular the fear that corporate involvement would make water prices rise beyond the reach of people already mired in poverty.  Working with the private sector to solve water problems, however, did not mean that a government would simply hand over the management of its water resources and let the profit motive run its course.


She added that private sector involvement implied a dialogue among government, the private sector and all users, to come up with equitable and environmentally sound solutions.  A spectrum of relationships could evolve, with many different options for the role of the private sector.  In all cases, the government must be engaged in both oversight and overall regulation.  Indeed, water issues were among the Organization's highest priorities.  Next March, the United Nations would issue the first edition of the "World Water Development Report", a joint effort involving 23 specialized agencies and other entities.  The report would provide a comprehensive view of today's water problems and offer wide-ranging recommendations for meeting future water demand.


For the sake of women and girls who must walk farther and farther each day in search of water, using up time that could be better spent on education or family care; for the sake of those who lacked what so many others took for granted; for all who were vulnerable to water crises, she said, "let us make the International Year a great success".


TALBAK NAZAROV, Foreign Minister of Tajikistan, said the idea for the International Year of Freshwater had been initiated by his country’s President.  Noting that the initiative had been welcomed throughout Asia and the Pacific, he stressed that water problems were not limited to scarcity.  It was also necessary to address global warming and rising sea levels.


He said that his country supplied the majority of water resources to Central Asia.  Nevertheless, it had been suffering from three unprecedented years of drought.  The lack of water was affecting agriculture, which supported a large percentage of the population.  Also of particular concern was the shrinking of the Aral Sea, which was, in part, due to harmful irrigation practices.


He hoped the Third World Water Forum and other conferences would help to achieve progress in finding coordinated approaches to resolving freshwater problems.  He also called for an informal focus group to discuss water at the highest political level.  Such a group would establish channels of communication and education between States that would address water conservation and management.


SHASHI THAROOR, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, said water scarcity was the result of increasing demands, pollution and global warming.  There must be more drinking water and an extension of sanitation services to meet the needs of the world's population and to distribute resources equitably.  That required the mobilization of financial resources, flowing from innovative partnership arrangements. 


Today's discussion was about what the United Nations, national governments, and civil society could do together, he said.  He drew attention to the presence in the room of water resource management experts and other stakeholders and introduced the panellists:  Nitin Desai, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs; Vice-President of the General Assembly June Clarke, Permanent Representative of Barbados; Milos Alcalay. Permanent Representative of Venezuela and Chairman of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China; and Gourisankar Ghosh, Executive Director, Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council.


NITIN DESAI, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, said his Department was working very closely with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in organizing the year's events.  The issue of freshwater had been very high on the agenda of the Johannesburg Summit because that was absolutely essential to human existence.  The planet was inhabitable because it had water, and getting water management right was a strategic objective requiring getting a lot of other things right, such as land use and agricultural, industrial and energy policies.   


He highlighted four sets of problems:  water scarcity, quality and access, and linkages between getting water resources “right” and getting other things right as well.  About one third of people in the world suffered moderate to severe shortages, and that figure was expected to grow by twothirds by 2025.  The real issue was not the global measure, but the availability of water when and where it was needed by the people who needed it. 


MILOS ALCALAY (Venezuela), speaking on behalf of the Group of 77 and China, said that access to fresh drinking water was an inalienable right.  Unfortunately, however, the majority of the world’s people did not have such access.  The problem was clearly illustrated by the fact that, in the countries of the Group of 77 and China, over 50 per cent of diseases were related to contaminated water supplies.


Solving the problem of access to freshwater was one of the most important themes discussed by the Group of 77 and China.  However, the States in that group were increasingly engaging in South-South cooperation to find solutions.   He expressed interest in the use of information technology and communication to increase access to freshwater.  Such technology, involving storage procedures and recycling, was indeed available and needed to be applied to programmes that would provide drinking water and sanitation services to communities throughout the world.


Referring to the Summit of Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, he said that it represented a step forward in providing freshwater to every human being on the planet.  In that context, he appealed to the international community to meet the goals agreed upon at the Summit.  He also emphasized that the Group of 77 and China would work with other institutions to make the Millennium goals a reality.


JUNE CLARKE (Barbardos), Vice-President of the General Assembly, said the challenges facing the Small Island Developing States could be summed up in one word -- vulnerability.  Given that water was of fundamental importance to all social and economic activity and integral to sustainable development, it was not possible to separate the challenges of freshwater with other concerns facing Small Island Developing States.  Economically, the hallmark of those States was their small economies, which were constantly at risk from external shocks.  Those countries also suffered from low levels of aggregate gross domestic product (GDP) and had a limited capacity to absorb such shocks.  Socially, they faced a rising demand for services, which put added strain on limited financial, institutional resources, including their water resources. 


She said, however, that considerable progress had been made with regard to the delivery of quality freshwater, for which the United Nations system deserved much credit.  Global conferences had led to an intensification of action and given new life and meaning to the importance of improving approaches to water management.  While the Small Island Developing States had not implemented as many actions as they would have liked, owing to insufficient resources, the global conferences had not been in vain.  Indeed, freshwater resources were very high on the agendas.  At the same time, institutional capacity must be developed and particular attention should be paid to human resources development, leading to useful analyses and assessments of the problems.


Despite their best efforts, Small Island Developing States faced the negative impacts of reduced rainfall levels, extended periods of drought, the potential degradation of water quality, accelerated erosion and loss of wetlands, and the potential for salt water intrusion into freshwater resources, she said.  They, therefore, needed the help of both the United Nations system and the international community to implement measures to promote integrated water resource management, build human resource capacity, control water pollution, and promote conservation by fostering changed attitudes to water use.  Also required was the implementation of a land use policy designed to avoid undue pressure on the quality and adequacy of freshwater, as well as the creation of mechanisms to project long-term needs. 


GOURISANKAR GHOSH, Executive Director, Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council, said there was very little difference in opinion with respect to water issues.  Nevertheless, not much was being implemented.  That was because governments were attempting to tackle water issues on their own.  They were not involving their people.  Calling for greater public involvement in water-related issues, he stressed that water and sanitation were life.


He said stunted growth among South-Asians had little do with lack of food.  Instead, the lack of proper hygiene and sanitation were to blame.  He also

stressed that free water delivery was ultimately not sustainable.  Thus, the private sector had to be involved.  Addressing urban droughts, he said that the problem was management, not supply.  New flush systems had to be promoted.


Information about hygiene needed to be included in school curricula throughout the world.  After all, a government could provide free latrines, but people who were not educated in the area of hygiene would not use them.  People also had to be told that they had to protect their own water supplies in order to reduce the poverty around them.


Floor Participation


Participants from the floor raised several issues for discussion.  Concern was expressed that the rich wasted water, and that the poor, who were not connected to municipal supplies, actually paid more for their water.  It was also stated that water was not free in African villages, as many people seemed to think.  In fact, much intensive labour was involved in fetching it.


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