Water is life [Archives:2008/1143/Opinion]

April 3 2008

By Ban Ki-moon
At the United Nations, March 22nd is World Water Day. We don't expect people to stop what they are doing and observe a moment of silence – but maybe they should. Every 20 seconds, a child dies from diseases associated with a lack of clean water. That adds up to an unconscionable 1.5 million young lives cut short each year.

More than two and a half billion people in the world live in the most abysmal standards of hygiene and sanitation. Helping them would do more than reduce the death toll; it would serve to protect the environment, alleviate poverty and promote development. That's because water underpins so much of the work we do in these areas.

Water is essential to survival. Unlike oil, there are no substitutes. But today, fresh water resources are stretched thin. Population growth will make the problem worse. So will climate change. As the global economy grows, so will its thirst.

As with oil, problems that grow from the scarcity of a vital resource tend to spill over borders. International Alert has identified 46 countries, home to 2.7 billion people, where climate change and water-related crises create a high risk of violent conflict. A further 56 countries, representing another 1.2 billion people, are at high risk of political instability. That's more than half the world.

This is not an issue of rich or poor, north or south. China is diverting hundreds of millions of cubic meters of water to drought-prone Beijing ahead of the Olympics, but shortages are expected to persist for years to come. In North America, the mighty Colorado River seldom reaches the sea. Water stress affects one third of the United States and one fifth of Spain.

The water system of Lake Chad, in central Africa, supports some 30 million people. Yet over the past 30 years, it has shrunk to one-tenth of its former size, thanks to drought, climate change, mismanagement and over-use. Visiting Brazil this fall, I had to cancel a trip down a major tributary of the Amazon. It had dried up.

I have spent the past year beating the drum on climate change. We've seen the results in the “Bali Roadmap,” which charts a course for negotiations on a legally binding treaty limiting greenhouse gas emissions to take over when the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. This year, I will make a similar effort to raise public awareness about the Millennium Development Goals.

Among other things, the so-called MDGs set a target of cutting by half the number of people without safe access to water by 2015. This is critically important. When you look at the health and development challenges faced by the poorest of the world's population)diseases like malaria or TB, rising food prices, environmental degradation)the common denominator often turns out to be water.

This September, I will gather top-level officials from across the world at a summit in New York on how to reach the Goals, particularly in Africa. In the meantime, we need to begin thinking about better strategies for managing water)for using it efficiently and sharing it fairly. This means partnerships involving not just governments but civil society groups, individuals and businesses.

We are at the early stages of this awakening. But there are some encouraging signs, especially in the private sector. Corporations have long been viewed as culprits. The smokestacks from power plants pollute our air, the effluents from industry spoil our rivers. But this is changing. More and more today, businesses are working to become part of the solution, rather than the problem.

Earlier this month, members of the UN Global Compact, the world's largest voluntary corporate citizenship initiative, gathered in New York for a meeting on water. The companies in that room had a total worth of about half a trillion dollars with employees in some 200 countries.

The main theme: moving beyond the mere use of water to stewardship. This translates into a commitment to engage with the United Nations, governments and civil groups to protect what is becoming an increasingly scarce resource and ensure that local communities benefit.

Every journey is comprised of myriad small steps, and they spoke about those, too. A major textiles company told how it was working with local governments and farmers to conserve watersheds in growing cotton. A jeans designer is planning to change its labels, calling for washing in cold and hanging dry as a step to save water.

A drop in the bucket, yes. But I see it as the first wave in a tide of change.

The writer is Secretary-General of the United Nations.