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Bonn Freshwater Conference Looks to Reduce Poverty and Promote Sustainable Development Through Better Water Management

7 December, Bonn, Germany – Growing demand, increased pollution and waste have made the world's scarce supply of freshwater even scarcer, and for the situation to improve, there must be greater commitment to action, according to the representatives of government, business, and non-governmental organizations that gathered in Bonn, Germany for the International Conference on Freshwater in December.

There is enough water in the world for everyone in the world, the conference concluded, but only if it is properly managed. Addressing water concerns, conference participants agreed, is a significant element in promoting sustainable development and poverty reduction.

To properly manage its freshwater resources, and to ensure necessary services to the more than1.2 billion people who now lack access to clean drinking water, and the 2.5 billion people who lack access to proper sanitation, the Conference found that the world will have to more than double its investment in water resource infrastructure. Estimates indicate that a global investment of up to $180 billion a year is needed in water infrastructure, up from present investment levels of about $70-80 billion.

Yet the water needed to meet basic human needs represents only a small part of the bill--$20 billion is needed to meet these needs, up from the $10 billion that is presently available. The largest user of freshwater resources is agriculture.

In Bonn, representatives from 118 countries, including 46 ministers, agreed that a lack of access to freshwater was a major obstacle on the road to a safer, more peaceful, equitable and prosperous world. In a statement containing action-oriented policy implications, the ministers looked to this August's World Summit on Sustainable Development to help generate enough support implement a sound water programme.

The Freshwater Conference is expected to have a major impact on the process leading up to the Johannesburg Summit. Stressing the importance of freshwater as a strategic resource for sustainable development, Johannesburg Summit Secretary-General Nitin Desai told the Conference that he hoped the Summit would borrow some of the key organizing elements of Bonn, such as the way scientific and professional inputs were presented, the integration of social, economic and environmental dimensions, and the focus on concrete steps to achieve conference goals in an open and transparent process.

There was an emphasis on measures that could yield results at the Bonn meeting. The Conference's outcome document stated, "There is often a gap between making such policies and putting them into practice. So this conference focused on practical ideas."

These ideas range from recommendations for better governance, mobilizing more resources, and through increased sharing of technology and knowledge. The conference called on the international community to provide greater assistance, in the form of official development assistance and transfer of technology. The conference also endorsed greater decentralization in implementing policies, and strongly supported efforts to promote gender equity, and that water management policies should allow men and women equitable access to water resources.

The outcome of the Bonn Conference will be presented to the second preparatory meeting for Johannesburg Summit in January by Germany. Hans-Peter Schipulle, Deputy Director General, Germany's Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation, said that the Bonn Recommendations, as they now stand, are neither negotiated nor binding. Nevertheless, since 118 governments, 47 intergovernmental organizations and 73 major groups contributed to the process, there is widespread support for the outcome.

In the ten years since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, water experts have developed a series of ideas that have come to be known as commonly agreed principles on water resource management. Yet poor governance, a lack of resources, and a lack of technology have hampered implementation.

The ministers attending the Bonn meeting agreed that governments have the primary responsibility for ensuring that there is a dependable and fair system for distributing water resources. Acknowledging the tension between the idea that water is both an economic and a social good-many regard access to freshwater and sanitation as a human right-the ministers called on the private sector to play a role in developing water capabilities, but cautioned that privately managed distribution systems did not imply private ownership of the water.

The discussion of poverty alleviation through improved water management, according to Willem Alexander, Prince of Orange, Netherlands, "implies recognition of the rights of the poor." Noting that at an earlier meeting on freshwater resources, in the Hague, stakeholders demanded governments to recognize access to water for drinking and productive purposes as a basic human right, the Prince said, "here in Bonn, we will have to respond to this demand. However, getting water recognized as a basic human right will be a lengthy UN process which won't render immediate benefits. It is therefore important that we simultaneously use our time and energy to work on practical solutions which will benefit the poor in developing countries."

China is one country looking for practical solutions, quickly. Chen Lei, Vice Minister of Water Resources, China, said that the continuous increase in demand for water in his country has become a major restricting factor for China's sustainable economic and social development. With an insufficient water supply in over 400 cities, he said "the demand for water supply will become larger and larger with the improvement of people's living standards and social and economic development. Therefore, the contradiction between water supply and demand will become even more serious."

Ronnie Kasrils, South African Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry, said it is not coincidental that many of the larger environmental problems we face are in countries with weak, ineffective or corrupt governments; neither is it coincidental that there is a clear correlation between good governance, social and economic development and environmental conservation. He said, "The recent tragic events of September 11th emphasize the urgency of addressing the needs of the poor in all sectors to end the marginalization of the excluded - for all our sakes."

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24 August 2006