UN Urges World to Get Serious About Water Issues

BEIRUT, Lebanon June 5, 2003 (ENS) - Water is the world's most precious commodity but many global leaders worry that it is not treated as such. Today United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan urged the world to address global water issues to help "two billion of our fellow human beings who are dying for want of water and sanitation."

In a message marking today's celebration of World Environment Day, Annan said a third of the world's population lack access to adequate sanitation and one person in six does not have access to safe drinking water.

"What is needed, along with fresh water, is fresh thinking," Annan said. "We need to learn how to value water."

Annan's message supported the theme of World Environment Day, which this year highlights the centrality of water to human survival and sustainable development under the theme "Water: Two Billion People Are Dying for It!"

Water related diseases are responsible for some 80 percent of illnesses and deaths in the developing world, Annan said, and kill a child every eight seconds. This situation, the UN Secretary General explained, is "made all the more tragic by our long standing knowledge that these diseases are easily preventable."

Improvement of water services in the developing world over the past two decades have largely been cancelled out by population growth and many parts of the world face continued water scarcity that has been increased by climate change, pollution and over consumption.

Annan says the challenge is "to provide water services to all, especially the poor." Annan

The world cannot afford to continue mismanaging water supplies, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said. (Photo courtesy United Nations)
The true value of water is often not reflecting in its cost, Annan said, and this issue must be examined.

"It is one of the crueler ironies of today's world water situation that those with the lowest income generally pay the most for their water," Annan said.

There are practical solutions worth considering, he explained, including simple and cheap process of rainwater harvesting.

The world needs to maximize water productivity, Annan said, in particular in agriculture, which accounts for the "lion's share of global water use yet is often inefficient in many of its routine water-using practices."

The challenge extends to ensuring that that rivers and groundwater aquifers that are shared between two or more countries are "equitably and harmoniously managed," Annan added.

There is growing concern in particular about the world's groundwater supplies and a new report released today by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) paints a worrying picture of the increasing stress and strain on many of the word's natural underground reservoirs.

Throughout the developing - and industrialized - world, humanity's thirst for water is taking its toll on groundwater supplies, according to the report "Groundwater and its Susceptibility to Degradation."

"Some two billion people and as much as 40 percent of agriculture is at least partly reliant on these hidden stores," said UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer. "Groundwater also supplements river flows, springs and wetlands vital for rural and urban communities and wildlife. Indeed most of the world's liquid freshwaters are found not in rivers and lakes, but below ground".

The report cites cases from across the world to highlight the global threat while also outlining a range of options to help secure and conserve supplies.

For example almost a fifth of the water in storage in the huge Ogalla/High Plains Aquifer of the Midwest of the United States has been removed.

The number of overexploited aquifers in Mexico has increased from 32 in 1975 to nearly 130 by the 1990s and in Spain, more than half of the nearly 100 aquifers are overexploited.

In a finding the report details as "ironic," some cities in very dry and arid regions like the Arabian Gulf are suffering a form of flooding, known as water logging, because of a heavy dependence on desalinated water from the coast which is leaking and becoming trapped in the ground.

A typical Arabian Gulf coast city may be losing as much as a third of its water supplies to leaky mains and even more from over-watering of parks and gardens, according to the report, and this heavy reliance on treated sea water is, in some cases, partly due to these cities having polluted their own underground waters making them unfit for human consumption.

Officials with the UNEP unveiled the report today in Beirut, Lebanon, marking the first time the UN's celebration of World Environment Day has been held in the Arab world. Toepfer says this report will have "particular resonance in a region where it is estimated that in some areas over 90 per cent of the population could be suffering severe water stress by 2032."

The report suggests that a long term approach conserving and sustainably managing groundwaters is vital to overcome political and social challenges of curbing water use. Groundwaters should be managed in tandem with rivers, lakes and reservoirs, the report recommends, in an "Integrated Water Management" approach. Annan

Many consider investments in clean water and sanitation key to improving the lives of the world's poorest individuals. (Photo courtesy World Health Organization)
"Hopefully its findings will ensure that underground water supplies are no longer 'out of sight and thus out of mind', but quite rightly conserved for current and future generations," Toepfer said.

Annan again urged the industrialized world to make firm commitments to increasing development aid to the developing world and pleaded for a doubling of annual spending on safe drinking water and sanitation.

The issue of funding such projects, added Lebanon's Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, is vital at a time when many industrialized countries are focused on security issues. Such a focus is shortsighted, Hariri says.

"Coming from a region trying to achieve sustainable development under the threat of war and aggression, I can testify that resolving conflicts in such a way that safeguards and respects human dignity and national rights, is a prerequisite to achieving sustainable development," Hariri said. "It is particularly sad to witness the spending of trillions of dollars on armament and wars, at a time when international aid for development is diminishing."

"We cannot win a 'war on terror' if we fail to attain peaceful coexistence and wage a war on poverty and injustice," Hariri said.

The UNEP report on groundwater can be found at http://www.unep.org/DEWA/water/groundwater/