UN Embarks on International Year of Freshwater 2003

NEW YORK, New York, December 12, 2002 (ENS) – Today, four out of every 10 people worldwide live in areas experiencing water scarcity. By 2025, as much as two thirds of the world’s population – an estimated 5.5 billion people - may be living in countries that face a water shortage. To address this crucial issue, the United Nations General Assembly has declared 2003 the International Year of Freshwater.

“Lack of access to water – for drinking, hygiene and food security – inflicts enormous hardship on more than a billion members of the human family,” said UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

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A woman in India collects potable water provided by a solar powered pump. Solar power is being used to pump the water in many wells throughout rural India. (Photo by Harin Ullal, Central Electronics, Ltd.)
Access to fresh, clean water has been "a source of tensions and fierce competition between nations that could become even worse if present trends continue,” warned Annan.

The United Nations, governments and many non-governmental and private sector partners are planning a wide range of events and activities for the International Year of Freshwater, which is being jointly coordinated by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The Year begins today with a kickoff ceremony at UN Headquarters. UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs Nitin Desai, fresh from coordinating the World Summit on Sustainable Development this summer, heads the UN department that will work with UNESCO to facilitate activities and events of the Year.

At a media briefing Desai said the International Year of Freshwater is designed to raise public awareness of the water scarcity problems worldwide.

Desai said water supply and access, and water quality are of immediate concern, and the United Nations will work to facilitate sharing between countries. "We expect droughts are going to worsen," he said.

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Kofi Annan (left) meets with Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov October 21 in Tajikistan. (Photo by Sergey Bermeniev courtesy UN)
UN Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette thanked Talbak Nazarov, the Foreign Minister of Tajikistan, the country which initiated the proposal for the Year of Freshwater.

Desai said, "Much of the driving force behind the Declaration of 2003 as the Year of Freshwater has come from Tajikistan, which is the source of many of the major rivers of Asia."

In March 2003 the Third World Water Forum in three Japananese cities will focus the world's efforts once more on conservation and sustainable use of fresh water.

The 3rd World Water Forum and Ministerial Conference will take place in Kyoto, Shiga and Osaka in Japan from March 16 to 23, 2003, hosted by the Japanese Government. The World Water Forums are an initiative of the World Water Council.

At the 2nd World Water Forum in The Hague in March 2000, over 5,000 participants, discussed their visions of a water secure world and a framework for actions to achieve it. The number of defined commitments to action made at the 2nd Forum was limited.

In March 2003, United Nations will release the first edition of the World Water Development Report, a joint project involving 23 UN agencies. Providing a comprehensive view of today’s water problems, it will offer wide ranging recommendations for meeting future water demand.

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View of Amu Darya River and Tajikistan in background on right (Photo courtesy UNEP)
The report will be launched on March 22, to coincide with the annual observance of World Water Day and the 3rd World Water Forum.

It is the goal of the 3rd World Water Forum that the world's decision makers attending the Ministerial Conference will build on the output of the World Summit on Sustainable Development WSSD and adopt clear timebound commitments to accelerate reform.

The WSSD theme of partnership initiatives is being carried out through the Year of Freshwater.

Alex Matthiessen, who is the Hudson Riverkeeper, took part in the special event as a invited partner with the United Nations in the Year of Freshwater. Calling it a "vitally important issue," Matthiessen explained that Riverkeeper is an independent nonprofit based in the Hudson Valley. It was started in 1966 by fishermen angered by pollution of the river with raw sewage.

Because of Riverkeeper and and other grassroots environmental groups the Hudson River has been almost fully restored back to its original condition. The Hudson is the only large river on the Atlantic coast that retains spawning stocks of all the original native species, Matthiessen said.

Local communities are really the key to protecting freshwater resources, as they rely on the water to make a living, said Matthiessen. Riverkeeper works to empower the grassroots, to help local communities understand the connection they have with their local water resources.

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Ducks feed in a quiet part of the Hudson River. (Photo courtesy NOAA)
"We hope to go and work with local communities to help them design and enact the kind of environmental laws we have in the United States that allow citizens to defend their waterways," Matthiessen said.

The Riverkeeper model has been replicated in 99 other waterways across the United States and around the world including 12 international waterways in Canada, Central and South America, Japan, and Australia.

"Our goal ultimately is to have a Riverkeeper on every major and minor waterway around the world," Matthiessen said. "Only then when you empower local communities to take responsibilities for their local water resources will you have the solution to this problem.

Water songs were presented by folksinger Pete Seeger whose environmental sailboat "Clearwater" plies the Hudson River, and Bob Reid, and the Children's Choir of the UN International School.

The UN process is aimed at establishing targets for providing fresh water, and assisting nations to meet those targets. In September 2000, world leaders pledged at the United Nations Millennium Summit to halve by 2015 the proportion of people unable to reach or to afford safe clean drinking water.

At the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, a matching target was agreed to halve the proportion of people lacking adequate sanitation, also by 2015.

Some $30 billion per year is being spent on meeting drinking water and sanitation needs worldwide, according to UN estimates. An additional $14 to $30 billion per year would be needed to meet the agreed water and sanitation targets.

“Water is likely to become a growing source of tension and fierce competition between nations, if present trends continue, but it can also be a catalyst for cooperation," Annan said. "The International Year of Freshwater can play a vital role in generating the action needed - not only by governments but also by civil society, communities, the business sector and individuals all over the world.”