ENS March 22, 2006

MEXICO CITY, Mexico - An international meeting on the future of the world's fresh water resources is marking World Water Day today with a renewed effort to ensure that more clean drinking water reaches the 1.1 billion people who do not have access to safe water, but the crisis is complicated by the impacts of a warming climate, an world renowned atmospheric chemist told delegates.

In addition to drinking water scarcity, about 2.6 billion people, four out of every 10, lack access to sanitation. This situation is a humanitarian crisis -- dealing with it must move to the top of the global agenda say ministers and water experts meeting here for the 4th World Water Forum.

In his keynote speech to the Forum Tuesday, Nobel Prize Winner in chemistry Mario Molina warned that climate change and inappropriate water management might intensify global warming by the end of this century, creating "an intolerable risk."

If the current global warming trend is maintained, the temperature of the planet will rise eight degrees Celsius during this century, "an increase of historic proportions," said Molina, who shared the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on the destruction of the ozone layer by chlorofluorocarbons.

Molina said intensifying rains and droughts are related to climate change and to the melting of glaciers. Climate change has exacerbated flooding and water scarcity, he said.

The year 2005 "was the warmest in the last thousand years," Molina pointed out, showing charts of "paleo-climate data," extracted from drops of water encapsulated within glaciers and information from the outer rings of trees in ancient forests.

Director-General of UNESCO Koïchiro Matsuura says the theme of Water and Culture is of particular significance for UNESCO, which is leading the activities surrounding this year¹s World Water Day.

"To achieve sustainable solutions that contribute to equity, peace and development, water management and governance need to take proper account of cultural and biological diversity," Matsuura said. "For this reason, UNESCO believes that the cultural dimension of water deserves further exploration so that its many ramifications may become better understood."

Modern approaches to water resource management have tended to be overwhelmingly technology-driven in their attempt to solve the world¹s urgent water problems, he said.

Water-related extreme events, such as floods and droughts, kill more people than any other natural disaster, and water-borne diseases continue to cause the death of thousands of children every day.

Because of its growth and development, the human population increasingly alters the quality and distribution of water. "But the amount of fresh water on Earth, to be shared among all forms of life, remains the same," said Matsuura. "This situation imposes on humankind a responsibility to develop ethically sound systems of water governance."

But, he said, technology alone will not lead us to viable solutions.

"Traditional knowledge alerts us to the fact that water is not merely a commodity," Matsuura said. "Since the dawn of humanity, water has inspired us, giving life spiritually, materially, intellectually and emotionally. Sharing and applying the rich contents of our knowledge systems, including those of traditional and indigenous societies, as well as lessons learned from our historical interactions with water, may greatly contribute to finding solutions for today¹s water challenges."

"The nexus between culture and nature is the avenue for understanding resilience, creativity and adaptability in both social and ecological systems. In this perspective, sustainable water use and, hence, a sustainable future depend on the harmonious relationship between water and culture," the UNESCO director-general said.

"Consequently," he said, "it is vital that water management and governance take cultural traditions, indigenous practices and societal values into serious account."

The global water crisis is growing, UNESCO said in a statement to mark World Water Day. The water crisis threatens the security, stability and sustainability of the planet and consequently, humanity itself. This is why the period from 2005 to 2015 has been declared the International Decade for Action Water for Life.

Reiterating that lack of access to water is a major source of death and disease in the world, World Water Council President Loïc Fauchon announced the launch of the Council's Water for Schools initiative, which seeks to provide access to water in 1,000 schools in 10 countries.

During the Forum's plenary session on Tuesday, the director of the National Water Commission for Mexico Cristóbal Jaime announced an agreement by which an office of the World Meteorological Organization will be established in Mexico.

Jaime reiterated an "urgent call" to the UN Secretary General¹s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation to reduce by half the average number of deaths associated to water related disasters that will take place between now and the year 2015, as compared to the figures recorded for the decade from 1991-2000.

Jaime said emergency aid funds should be established for preventive measures against disasters. "The international community might approve financing early warning systems and educational programs for the most vulnerable countries," he suggested.

The representatives of Asian countries Tuesday announced the creation of the Asia Pacific Water Forum in a region particularly hard hit by disasters. A recent UNESCAP study showed that the Asian and Pacific region accounted for 91 per cent of the world's total deaths due to natural disaster. The average annual economic damage has increased from US$10.6 billion over the past five decades to US$29 billion over the past 15 years.

Ryutaro Hashimoto, former Prime Minister of Japan and president of the Japan Water Forum, and chair of the UN Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation, supported the agreement creating the Asia Pacific Water Forum. He reminded the audience that 60 percent of the world population lives in the Asia Pacific region and explored how to obtain financing for local water projects in his keynote address.

Kim Huk Su, executive secretary for the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), said that there are two major priorities for the new regional forum -- the need for tools to support Integrated Water Resource Management, and "radically" more effective risk management and risk prevention.

Asia and the Pacific is also the world's most disaster-prone region. A recent UNESCAP study showed that the region accounted for 91 percent of the world's total deaths due to natural disaster. The average annual economic damage has increased from US$10.6 billion over the past five decades to US$29 billion over the past 15 years.

Kim said that although the Asia-Pacific region has the highest economic growth rates in the world, it also has the lowest per-capita fresh water availability, and the highest number of people living below the poverty line.

North America has had its share of water disasters. At the plenary conference Tuesday on Risk Management, Carl Strock, chief of engineers of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), told delegates that a critical report on the performance of the government concerning Hurricane Katrina recognized that communication among different levels of government, logistics to deliver aid, and local warning systems did not perform as expected.

"Disasters are now globalized phenomena," said Strock, "that require intervention from everyone."

Tropical storms in 2006 are expected to be even stronger than in 2005, the year hurricane Katrina and storm Stan wreaked havoc on the Mesoamerican region, said Max Campo, executive secretary of the Central American Regional Committee for Water Resources during a session of the IUCN-World Conservation Union at the Forum.

Campos emphasized that, "We must integrate existing knowledge and technology in a systematic way so that citizens, with or without internet access, can receive information on time so that people and their families can escape from catastrophic events."

The African continent has to date developed only 3.8 percent of its water resources for supply, irrigation and electrical power, according to the Regional Document on Africa, "Water Resources Development in Africa: Challenges Response and Prospective," prepared for discussion at the Forum.

Africa's situation implies the need for hefty investment in various areas, and this investment must go hand in hand with changes in regional and national policy and capability, the document states.

Investment in water will spur progress in meeting the Millennium Development Goals. It will mitigate the scourge of malnutrition, food scarcity, poverty and disease that has led African nations to be counted among the poorest of the world, said the Regional Document.

Many developing countries are looking to the World Bank for water investments, and the bank is interested in funding water-related needs.

New investments in water management and development are essential for growth in developing countries, and they need to be sustainable -- achieving the right balance between water security, and social and environmental protection -- said a new World Bank report, Water for Growth and Development, presented at the Forum.

"Simply constructing new infrastructure projects is not enough on its own," said Kathy Sierra, World Bank Vice President for Infrastructure. ³It is essential to manage and govern water resources effectively. Such water investments will lead to responsible growth, embracing both environmental sustainability and social development."

Public financing for basic water security has been and will remain essential, but the scale of needed investments cannot be provided by public funds alone so the private sector will have an important complementary role to play, said the World Bank report. "All investment, whether public or private, should be complemented by robust regulatory and monitoring frameworks, designed with the active participation of water users and civil society."

But privatization of water is just what many people fear, because the essential liquid could be priced out of their reach. Some 10,000 people marched in the streets of Mexico City on Saturday, demanding that water services not be privatized.

Informant: NHNE


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