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International Year of Freshwater 2003

“No single measure would do more to reduce disease and save lives in the developing world than bringing safe water and adequate sanitation to all.”

     - UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan

        Millennium Report

2003 is the International Year of Freshwater

In recognition of the central importance of water resources to the planet’s future, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the year 2003 as the International Year of Freshwater.

·        1.1 billion people lack access to safe water, roughly one-sixth of the world’s population, and 2.4 billion or 40 per cent of the world’s people lack access to adequate sanitation services.

·        Some 6,000 children die every day from diseases associated with unsafe water and poor sanitation and hygiene – equivalent to 20 jumbo jets crashing every day.

·        Unsafe water and sanitation cause an estimated 80 per cent of all diseases in the developing world.

·        Women and girls tend to suffer the most as a result of the lack of sanitation facilities.

·        One flush of a Western toilet uses as much water as the average person in the developing world uses for a whole day’s washing, drinking, cleaning and cooking.

·        Water use has grown at twice the rate of population during the past century. The Middle East, North Africa and South Asia are chronically short of water. 

·        In developing countries, as much as 90 per cent of waste water is discharged without treatment.

·        Overpumping groundwater for drinking water and irrigation has caused water levels to decline by tens of metres in many regions, forcing people to use low-quality water for drinking.

·        Losses of water through leakage, illegal hook-ups and waste amount to about 50 per cent of water for drinking and 60 per cent of water for irrigation in developing countries.

·        Floods affected more than 75 per cent of all people impacted by natural disasters during the 1990s and caused over 33 per cent of the total estimated costs of natural disasters.

“Water is probably the only natural resource to touch all aspects of human civilization —from agricultural and industrial development to the cultural and religious values embedded in society.”

     - Koichiro Matsuura, Director-General, UNESCO

Freshwater: A precious commodity

Freshwater is the single most precious element for life on earth. It is essential for satisfying basic human needs, health, food production, energy and maintenance of regional and global ecosystems.  Although 70 per cent of the world’s surface is covered by water, only a fraction of that  — 2.5 per cent — is freshwater, of which 70 per cent is frozen in ice caps.  The remainder is present as soil moisture. This leaves less than one per cent of the world’s freshwater resources accessible for human use.

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(Graph: Global water availability)

If present consumption patterns continue, two out of every three persons on Earth will live in water-stressed conditions —moderate or severe water shortages— by the year 2025.

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Get involved: Use water wisely!

The International Year of Freshwater provides the world community an opportunity to raise awareness, promote good practice, motivate people and mobilize resources in order to meet basic human needs and manage water in a sustainable way.

Link your activities to the website. The website will be used as an interactive site to exchange information and activities taking place at the international, regional and national levels.

“The plight of the world’s poor cannot be alleviated without addressing the quality of the resource base upon which they depend – land and water resources. The improvement of water use is central for all of the other dimensions of sustainable development.”

     - Nitin Desai, Secretary-General of the World Summit on Sustainable Development

What needs to be done?

Several strong targets have been set to spur action and guide the way forward. World leaders at the United Nations Millennium Summit agreed to halve by 2015 the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water. At the 2002 Johannesburg Summit, they reaffirmed that commitment and added a corresponding target to halve the proportion of people lacking access to basic sanitation by the same year. They also agreed to develop national water management and efficiency plans by 2005.

To reach these goals is a huge endeavour, requiring substantial resources and coordinated action, not just from governments but also from people who use water and those who invest in this precious resource, especially at the national level. Needed actions include:

·        Changing behaviours in water use, sanitation and  hygiene;

·        Mobilizing the energy and participation of communities, particularly women’s groups;

·        Setting national targets and plans to generate investment;

·        Putting in place policies and regulatory frameworks for water management that take into account both public health and ecosystem needs;

·        Forming partnerships between private companies, bilateral donors, development agencies, banks, civil society and local communities.

There is encouraging news. In Johannesburg, over twenty water and sanitation partnership initiatives — committing over one billion dollars in resources — were announced by governments, international agencies and banks, non-governmental organizations and private partners. Now we must keep up the momentum to reach the goals and make the best use of our water resources.

For further information, please contact:

Division for Sustainable Development
United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs
2 United Nations Plaza, DC2 - 2020
New York, NY 10017, U.S.A


World Water Assessment Programme,
c/o UNESCO, Division of Water Sciences, Room B6.25
1 rue Miollis, 75015 Paris, FRANCE
Tel: +33 1 45683904; Fax: +33 1 45685829

Media queries:
United Nations Department of Public Information

Photo credits: FAO, UNEP, UNICEF and Swynk Productions B.V.

Published by the United Nations Department of Public Information

DPI/2283/Rev.1—December 2002—30M