24 January 2008
Until only recently, we generally assumed that water trends do not pose much risk to our businesses. While many countries have engaged in waste-water treatment and some conservation efforts, the notion of water sustainability in a broad sense has not been seriously examined.
Our experiences tell us that environmental stress due to lack of water may lead to conflict and would be greater in poor nations.
Ten years ago -- even five years ago -- few people paid much attention to the arid regions of western Sudan. Not many noticed when fighting broke out between farmers and herders, after the rains failed and water became scarce.
Today everyone knows Darfur. More than 200,000 people have died. Several million have fled their homes.
There are many factors at work in this conflict, of course. But almost forgotten is the event that touched it off –- drought. A shortage of life’s vital resource.
We can change the names in this sad story. Somalia. Chad. Israel. The occupied Palestinian territories. Nigeria. Sri Lanka. Haiti. Colombia. Kazakhstan. All are places where shortages of water contribute to poverty. They cause social hardship and impede development. They create tensions in conflict-prone regions. Too often, where we need water we find guns.
Population growth will make the problem worse. So will climate change. As the global economy grows, so will its thirst. Many more conflicts lie just over the horizon.
A recent report by International Alert identified 46 countries, home to 2.7 billion people, where climate change and water-related crises create a high risk of violent conflict. A further 56 countries, representing another 1.2 billion people, are at high risk of political instability. That’s more than half the world.
This is not an issue of rich or poor, North or South.
In China, the mighty Yangtze River no longer reaches the sea. Some experts predict that by 2015 China will not be able to meet the water needs of tens of millions of people living in the countryside.
Water stress affects one third of the United States and one fifth of Spain.
In the Himalayas, melting glaciers endanger the water supply of hundreds of millions of people in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
In my own country of [Republic of] Korea, I used to drink water straight out of the little river near my house. Today, I’d get sick, or worse.
All regions are experiencing the problem.
I saw this for myself, flying over Lake Chad a few months ago. Some 30 million people depend on its waters and river system. Yet over the past 30 years, it has shrunk to one tenth its former size, or less, thanks to drought, climate change, mismanagement and overuse.
Visiting Brazil this fall, I had to cancel a trip up a major tributary of the Amazon River. It had dried up. To the east, over the coming decades, large parts of the rainforest are expected to turn into savannah.
I have spent much of the past year banging my drum on climate change. Last year, the World Economic Forum made global warming a main theme. Now you are turning your attention to water. I welcome this.
I must say, though, that this session is oddly titled: “Time is Running Out on Water”. We can say, more simply: water is running out.
We need to adapt to this reality, just as we do to climate change. There is still enough water for all of us -- but only so long as we keep it clean, use it more wisely, and share it fairly.
This is key to the UN Millennium Development Goals. They call for cutting in half the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water by 2015. When you consider the health and development challenges facing the poorest of the world’s population -- diseases like malaria or tuberculosis, rising food prices, environmental degradation -- the common denominator seems to be water.
We need to start now to better manage this scarce resource. That is why we will gather world leaders at the United Nations this September for a critical high-level meeting on the MDGs, focusing in particular on Africa. We must mobilize world opinion and focus political will. What we did for climate change last year, we want to do for water and development in 2008.
Governments must engage -- and lead. But we also need private enterprise.
For too long, business has been seen as a culprit. The smokestacks of industry contaminate our atmosphere, the effluents from power plants spoil our rivers. But this is a misleading picture. More often than not today, business is becoming part of the solution, not the problem.
All of you in this hall are well aware of the dawning era of green economics. Many of you are part of this great evolutionary wave. Innovative -- and global -- approaches can make a great difference.
Here on this panel, Neville Isdell at Coca Cola has been sponsoring local water projects in developing countries. Andrew Leveris at Dow Chemical has been working on innovative ways of getting water to the poor. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe has made water sustainability one of Nestle’s core business principles.
Last July, a small group of top international executives came together to launch the United Nations Global Compact’s CEO Water Mandate. Their first working session, coming up in March, will focus on waste-water treatment and helping people in rural areas gain better access to clean water. And they will have to report back on progress, so that non-governmental organizations, citizens groups and others can learn from their experience -- and perhaps join the effort.
I understand the World Economic Forum has about 1,000 members. Only about 20 companies have joined the CEO Water Mandate. A drop in the bucket, perhaps, but I like to think it is a small wave that will gather force and spread across the globe.
That’s why it feels good to be here with like-minded people working for the global public good. Thank you and, in the spirit of Davos, let us work creatively together.