Statement by Mr. Sha Zukang, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs to the Opening of the 5th World Water Forum
Istanbul, Turkey, 16 March 2009

Mr. President,
Your Imperial Highness,
Excellencies,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for the opportunity to address this distinguished forum. It is a timely occasion for all stakeholders to focus attention on the progress made in water and sanitation, and on the many water management challenges that remain.

Water and sanitation issues are critical to achieving the Millennium Development Goals. Access to clean water and sanitation is essential for productive lives and livelihoods, for our health and for food security.

The world is lagging behind in reaching its MDG target to reduce by half the proportion of the population without access to basic sanitation services. At current rates, the world will miss this target by 500 million people. And although the target for drinking water may be achieved globally, current trends suggest sub-Saharan Africa will not meet it until 2035. These failings have serious consequences for health, human dignity, the environment and economic growth.

I am addressing you today, on behalf of the United Nations Secretary-General, to highlight the opportunities we have through engaging in this dialogue and strategic actions that need to be taken jointly to accelerate progress.

The World Water Forum serves an important role in bringing the policy community and civil society together to elaborate strategies on water issues. Its theme, “Bridging Divides for Water”, captures its emphasis on fostering open dialogue among all stakeholders at all levels to better manage this key resource.

Engagement and consultation between policy makers and civil society was pioneered by the United Nations at the global summit on environment and development held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and has grown in the UN global conferences and summits since then. I am very pleased to see this concept being put to work in this event, with a focus on water issues. We need to make use of these bridges, where ideas and experiences can be exchanged and common solutions found.

Intergovernmental discussions on water are centred in the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development, which serves as an important bridge between research and policy. The deliberations and recommendations made here at the World Water Forum will serve as an important and timely input to the Commission’s 17th Session in May, focused on agriculture, rural development, land, drought, desertification and Africa. Water is a cross-cutting issue for all of these thematic areas and at the core of the sustainable development.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me suggest four strategic actions on bridging divides for water, for your consideration this week.

First, given the strong relation of water issues to food production, to our energy supply, our health and our environment, there is a pressing need for the water community to engage with other policy communities.

For instance, one area requiring urgent action is the nexus between water challenges and climate change. The impacts of climate change are already visible in the water sector – and include the increased variability in rainfall patterns, an increased frequency and magnitude of extreme events, such as droughts and floods, and a loss of natural freshwater reservoirs due to the melting of glaciers and decreasing snowfields. These impacts pose additional challenges to achieving poverty eradication and ensuring food security and public health. It is therefore important, for progress on both water and climate issues, that the outcome of the Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change includes a specific focus on water.

Second, to accelerate progress in climate change adaptation, we need to make an intensified effort to tap our experience in disaster reduction and water management.

This includes applying the lessons from disaster reduction in strengthening the livelihood opportunities of vulnerable sections of society. It also includes building strong institutions, in which divides over how we manage scarce water resources between different sectors can be effectively bridged. We need to apply the principles of Integrated Water Resources Management, recognizing that water is finite and vulnerable and needs to be protected, and calling for a participatory approach, giving a voice to the poor and, particularly, engaging women and protecting children.

Third, in order to apply the lessons we have learned and scale up successful practices, we must also improve human and institutional capacity, backed by adequate financial resources.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution. The involvement of all stakeholders in designing adequate solutions is urgently required to identify policies that can ensure the enabling environment needed to provide water and sanitation for all, and to manage our water resources equitably and efficiently.

Adequate financing is a major challenge for meeting the MDG water and sanitation targets, as underscored by the Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation. Yet, in the midst of the current global financial and economic crisis, it is as important as ever that we keep these priorities clearly in sight. Cutting budgets for water and sanitation would be a serious mistake. It would not only undermine the MDG progress thus far, for which water serves as a key factor to eradicate poverty, secure healthy lives and ensure environmental sustainability. It would also limit the resilience of vulnerable populations to deal with the economic downturn and its impacts.

Fourth, during this time of multiple unprecedented crises, the water community must seek to share its strengths and past successes with the world community.

Consider the history of transboundary waters, the focus of this year’s World Water Day, which will be celebrated on 22 March, the last day of this Forum, under the theme “Shared Waters, Shared Opportunities”. Human civilization began in river basins. Today, the world counts 263 basins that are shared by two or more countries. Forty percent of the world’s population live in these basins. And in the vast majority of the cases, the sharing of water has taken place in the spirit of cooperation and peace.

These experiences have shown that, in order to build understanding and prevent conflicts, we need strong institutions, a flexible policy framework, political will and the involvement of all stakeholders. Cooperation to manage water can bring unity and will help us ensure that this vital and precious resource is managed well, while also offering valuable experiences upon which to build in many other areas where international cooperation is needed.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I look forward to the outcomes and recommendations of your discussions and to the Ministerial Statement to be released at the end of the week. Your views and recommendations will feed into the intergovernmental discussions and decisions on water through the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development.

I assure you of the firm commitment of the United Nations to support country efforts and initiatives to achieve national objectives as well as the internationally-agreed goals and targets for water and sanitation. I wish you a productive and successful week.

Thank you.