6 November 2009
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference on Key Issues Relating to Climate Change, Sustainable Development

Calling for more attention to be paid to water management, two experts warned this afternoon that the main effects of climate change would revolve around water use.

Speaking at a Headquarters press conference, Colin Chartres, Director‑General of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research at the International Water Management Institute, said some countries might get more rainfall as a result of climate change, but those depending on snowmelt could expect water levels to drop by up to 30 per cent.  He was accompanied by Aaron Wolf, Programme Director in Water Conflict Management and Transformation at Oregon State University.

“We really do have a paradox,” said Mr. Chartres.  “We have 2.5 billion more mouths to feed by 2050, and it looks to me as if we’re going to have to do that using about 10 per cent less water.”  There was not enough investment in sub‑Saharan Africa to build the infrastructure needed to deliver water for drinking and irrigation, he said, adding that sub-Saharan Africa and India needed investments amounting to $270 billion, according to estimates calculated by the International Water Management Institute in partnership with the International Food Policy Research Institute.

He said funding for research and development was either in decline around the world or “flat-lining”, and required a three-fold increase to lift agricultural productivity.  The Consultative Group on Agricultural Research, a partnership of organizations providing support and financing to agencies such as the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), had received half a billion dollars in 2009, but closer to $1.5 billion would be needed annually to raise agricultural productivity.  By comparison, $10 trillion had been spent on tackling the financial crisis in a single year.  “The amounts to solve some of these critical agriculture and water investment issues, which are facing a lot of people -- and if we don’t solve them have very great security, social as well as starvation problems -- are quite miniscule compared to what we spent on our financial sector,” said Mr. Chartres.

Responding to a journalist’s question, he said funding for research and development in agriculture, as opposed to water, had not suffered significant cuts, but the amount involved was still not enough.  The Consultative Group on Agricultural Research believed it should rise from $142 billion to $209 billion annually, and that non-governmental groups such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation could turn out to be among the promising new donors besides Governments.

Mr. Chartres explained that the world’s archaic system for governing water use needed updating to fit twenty-first century needs.  Societies needed better ways to store water, make better use of groundwater and clean up waste water.  Farmers needed to practise conservation tillage -- a method of slowing water movement and reducing soil erosion -- and to improve plant varieties so as to make them more drought-resistant and heat-tolerant.

Mr. Wolf said the water crisis was bigger than the crises brought on by HIV, malaria, tsunamis, earthquakes and all the wars put together in a given year, yet the world’s response to water issues had been surprisingly minimal.  Some 2.5 billion people lacked access to water and sanitation, 1 billion had no access to safe drinking water, and 2.5 to 5 million people died every year as a result.

Where watersheds were divided by political boundaries, tensions often abounded, whether those boundaries were municipal, state, provincial or international, he continued.  However, the response to such tensions was nuanced ‑‑ 80 per cent of the world’s water came from one of 265 international water basins shared by two or more countries, requiring that States cooperate in managing shared water resources.  Furthermore, water agreements tended to be resilient, contrary to frequently-touted “water wars” scenarios.

He pointed out that the world had 3,600 water-related treaties, which tended to survive conflicts.  Some regions had organizations to oversee shared river basins, including those formed by India and Pakistan, and by Israel and its Arab neighbours, which had remained intact for decades.  The last time two countries had gone to war over water was in 2500 B.C. in ancient Mesopotamia where the city‑States of Lagash and Umma had fought it out.  More recently, out of 37 cases of violence in the last 50 years, 27 had been fought between Israel and Arab nations, and the last shot had been fired as long ago as 1970.  Even in the Jordan water basin, which “has run out of water”, the population had grown in the absence of violence over water resources.

The source of tension was not scarcity but poor capacity to deal with changes in the water basin, Mr. Wolf explained.  Where people were losing access to water, due to over-use or pollution, they moved to cities, which were often straining to support already burgeoning populations.  “What this more nuanced relationship between water and stability means is that [...] poverty alleviation is an explicit strategy for dealing with the insecurities of the world.”  In that sense, water was “an explicit security concern”, he said.

Many important rivers originated from the Himalayas, supporting 1.3 billion people he said.  At the moment, experts knew very little about how climate change would affect those billions, or whether existing river-basin organizations and institutions would survive the test of climate change.

Nikhil Chandavarkar, Secretary of UN-Water, and Chief of the Communication and Outreach Branch in the Sustainable Development Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, said climate talks did not focus enough on water, which was the medium through which climate change would affect most people.  A resolution on water was pending before the General Assembly’s Second Committee (Economic and Financial) which was expected to pave the way for a review conference in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, and a high-level dialogue scheduled for New York on 22 March 2010.  It would also call for a review of the “Water for Life” Decade in June 2010.

UN-Water would support the enactment of “hard legislation”, such as a convention on trans-boundary waters, to strengthen inter-agency work, he said.  At the moment, however, there was no movement towards ratification of that convention.

Asked about the diversion of water to biofuel crops, both Mr. Chartres and Mr. Chandavarkar stressed the importance of “context”.  Some countries used un‑irrigated land to grow biofuel crops like maize or sugarcane, while others used methods that set those crops in competition for water with food crops.  Turkey sought to use Brazil as a model for growing its own biofuel crops in Anatolia, but in such a way that they would not compete with food crops.

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For information media • not an official record