WATER IS NOT JUST A COMMODITY, BUT A COMMON PUBLIC GOOD, SAYS UNESCOJohannesburg/Paris - Preliminary results of the most extensive United Nations undertaking to assess the world's freshwater resources will be presented on September 3 at the Water Dome (2p.m. to 4.30p.m., rooms 3 and 4) during the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg.
Twenty-four United Nations agencies have joined forces to produce a World Water Report, which will be finalized in 2003. UNESCO is taking the lead in the programme, entitled the World Water Assessment Programme (WWAP), which will provide comprehensive evaluation and monitoring of the planet's hydrological resources. It will include, for example, the first global map of groundwater resources, recently produced by UNESCO, the International Association of Hydrogeologists and the Commission for the Geological Maps of the World.
"Groundwater is going to be increasingly important in the future. More than one billion people lack access to safe drinking water and more than 2.4 billion are without adequate sanitation. At the Johannesburg Summit, governments are, once again, pledging to reduce these numbers by half by 2015. To meet these goals, we must better assess and manage groundwater supplies, which offer tremendous potential but are nevertheless extremely vulnerable to pollution and over-use," says Andras Szollosi-Nagy, Director of UNESCO's International Hydrological Programme (IHP).
"There is also an ethical issue which must be recognized at Johannesburg," says Mr Szollosi-Nagy, who is participating in the Summit. "Access to water should be recognized as a basic human right. For UNESCO, water is not just a commodity but a common public good. It is, however, essential to recover the costs of providing people with water in order to manage the demand. At the core of any discussion on privatization, there should be a firm legal recognition that the resource is a common public good."
IHP aims to provide the scientific studies, policy-advice and training required for better management of national and international water supplies. It covers a wide array of issues - from the ethical use of fossil water (which can be thousands and even millions of years old) to flood control in Europe.
"Ten years ago, we were in a better position to monitor hydrological conditions than today," says Mr Szollosi-Nagy. "Many governments reduced monitoring and research budgets. But this short-term approach ends up costing them more, as is so clearly seen with the catastrophic flooding events in Europe, for example. There is considerable speculation that the floods were related to climate change. It is too soon to confirm this. However, there is no denying anthropogenic or man-made factors aggravated the situation. To begin with, better monitoring that means better predictions. In addition, there is a lack of infrastructure to deal with periodic floods
"The situation is even worse in developing countries. In 20 years, Africa will lose half of its reservoir space to sedimentation. Silt from the rivers is accumulating at dramatic rates because of deforestation, erosion and poor land management. If the current rates continue, many of the major reservoirs will be so filled with silt that they won't be able to operate properly, provoking major cuts in electricity, irrigation and drinking water supplies," says Mr Szollosi-Nagy, referring to an IHP database that is tracking sedimentation flows in rivers around the world.
UNESCO's Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura will participate in the WWAP presentation, as will the WSSD Secretary General, Nitin Desai, and several government ministers of environmental and water affairs. The event will also provide a platform to launch the International Year for Freshwater 2003, of which UNESCO is the main organizer.
UNESCO will hold a roundtable on international water conflicts with the non-governmental organization Green Cross International, founded by Mikhail Gorbachev. Experts will present innovative approaches to resolve brewing conflicts on five international river basins: the Okavango, Volta, La Plata, Jordan and Incomati. Each presentation will be followed by a debate.
UNESCO and Green Cross have launched a major project on water diplomacy, entitled From Potential Water Conflicts to Co-operation Potential, which is part of the larger WWAP framework. The roundtable will take place in the Water Dome on September 3 (2p.m. to 4p.m.).
World Water Assessment Programme presentation -
"Monitoring Global Progress"
September 3, 2pm to 4pm
Room 3 and 4 of the Water Dome
"Water for Peace" panel discussion
September 3, 2pm to 4pm, at the Water Dome
Contact in Johannesburg:
Amy Otchet, Bureau of Public Information
Cell phone: (+27) (0)828 580 718
Isabelle Le Fournis, Bureau of Public Information
Cell phone: (+33) (0) 614 6953 72