UNESCO sets alarmWater no longer flows naturally [Archives:2003/630/Health]

April 7 2003

By Koichiro Matsuura*
copyright UNESCO

The following article is a summary of the author's intervention for the Twentieth-Century Talks recently organized by Jerome Binde at UNESCO for the International Year of Freshwater, and in anticipation of the 3rd World Water Forum due to take place in Kyoto. [Other experts taking part in these talks were Mahmoud Abu-Zeid, Egyptian Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources and President of the World Council on Water, scientists Claude All'gre and Charles Virismarty, and Michel Camdessus, former General Manager of the IMF and Chair of the International Panel on Financing Water Infrastructure.

Water has made a noticeable entrance in the international political arena. With this a new awareness has dawned: what if this apparently perpetual gift from the skies were yet not inexhaustible? It is also the end of symbol: what if this source of life, which is at the heart of so many rituals and hygiene practices, no longer stood for regeneration and purity?
We must face the facts: water resources are growing scarce, and water quality will have an increasing cost. As for purity, it is now difficult to keep count of the regions where soiled water generates death rather than health. UNESCO, responsible for the creation of the pioneering International Hydrological Programme in the Seventies, had long anticipated this new water deal, which has been recognized by the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg as one of the most critical challenges facing the world today.
Whether in the Northern or the Southern hemisphere, access to clean drinking water is essential to human security and to sustainable development. It is considered more and more to be a right. However, 1.2 billion people still have no access to drinking water and 2.4 billion are deprived of water purification services. And yet, the world has enough freshwater resources to cover most needs in drinking water; but the uneven distribution of water resources shows great disparities, both social and geographical. The problem, therefore, is less to do with quantity than with availability. Water quality is also a growing concern.
Water resources, given their extreme sensitivity to human activity and intensive exploitation involving highly technical engineering, are less and less natural – in a way, water no longer flows naturally. This indicates the need for a new water culture, which could combine caring, sparing and sharing. It is high time we responded to the needs of a growing population for food, health and energy by adopting a more “sober” attitude. As with any right, the right for access to water also sets obligations: the obligation for public authorities to ensure distribution, the obligation for users to prevent wastage.
Agriculture alone is responsible for two-thirds of the consumption of water drawn from natural reservoirs. To improve yields, to install drainage systems, to prevent excessive irrigation responsible for ecological disasters, these are our goals. Furthermore, global water withdrawals have increased sevenfold, and industry-related water consumption has been multiplied by 30 in a century.
Implementation of scientific research could bring considerable changes in these areas as well as others, providing information were circulated and changes of behavior followed. Science and education are therefore conditions for these improvements, which prove more and more urgent as city needs increase – not an example of thriftiness, since wastage is estimated to represent 40% of urban consumption!
This wide range of problems cannot be addressed efficiently without reinforced political willpower, strong involvement on the part of civil society, and a better form of synergy between public and private sectors.
As well as this, waste water production has been multiplied by twenty over a century. As for diffuse pollution related to agriculture (nitrates, pesticides , industry and urban development, they are a continual threat to water reserves. Food safety is at risk, ecosystems are being disrupted, water-related diseases cause millions of deaths each year, especially in developing countries – pollution is henceforth regarded as a major public health concern. If we fail to react, this could jeopardize the future of these resources and with it, the quality of life, and even the survival, of future generations.
In order to eliminate disparities and protect water, freshwater must be recognized on an international level as a common good and heritage. This conception, which emphasizes the importance of sharing, is also a contribution to peace. For water, that increasingly vital issue, has also become a strategic one. In the world 261 river basins are divided between different States, generating a risk of “water wars”.
The international community must prevent conflict over water allocation from overcoming dialogue by providing solid legal instruments, especially in areas where water shortage is combined with political tensions.
Water has become part of the economic circuit. Given the huge investments required by waterworks, free access to water is no longer to be considered. But access to drinking water for all cannot be guaranteed without taking into account the income and needs of users in order to adjust price scales: this new water culture is also ethical. The search for equity should preside over decision-making processes concerning great water projects.
It is common, for instance, for large dams, which are often necessary to stabilize river flows or produce energy, to have a very high social and human cost: many disasters could doubtless be avoided by promoting dialogue. This, again, implies an effort towards education, information and training.
UNESCO has decided to define water as one of its main priorities over the next few years. In this area our competencies are an asset: besides providing support for prospective studies in the area of water, for research in hydrology and for innovation, the Organization can federate on the international level the commitment towards education which is vital to the process of sustainable development.
If we delay in setting up a real sense of eco-citizenship, by fostering thrift and public-spiritedness for one thing, the day may come when the Earth can no longer be dubbed a “Blue Planet”.

* Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)