UN Makes Two Year Sustainable Water, Energy Plan

NEW YORK, New York, May 5, 2003 (ENS) - Extending access to clean, safe water and abundant energy will be the focus of work for the next two years for a high level United Nations commission now meeting at UN headquarters in New York. Ministers from more than 40 countries attending the 11th session of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development agree that water and energy are the issues of first concern as they attempt to integrate economic growth, social development, and environmental protection on a global scale.

"Access to freshwater is the single biggest contribution to alleviating poverty," said Valli Moosa, South African Minister for Environmental Affairs and Tourism and Chair of the Commission session, explaining why consensus is developing on the water issue.


South African Environment Minister Valli Moosa chairs the 11th Session of the Commission on Sustainable Development in New York through May 9. (All photos courtesy of IISD/ENB-Leila Mead)
The Commission, which meets annually, was created by the United Nations General Assembly to monitor and report on implementation of Agenda 21, the blueprint for sustainable development adopted at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Heads of state and government at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg, South Africa, last September called on the Commission to play a larger role in promoting implementation of decisions agreed at international conferences dealing with sustainable development.

Governments agreed to halve by 2015 the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation, at the Millennium Summit and again two years later at the Johannesburg Summit.

In Johannesburg, it was agreed that the Commission’s future work will be organized as a series of two year “implementation cycles,” consisting of a review year to evaluate progress and a policy year to agree on measures to expedite implementation of concerns identified in the review.

In New York, senior ministers devised a two year work plan focused on water and energy that would allow the Commission to help countries realize some of the 30 plus programs with timetables, targets and goals agreed in the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, which focused on water as a central theme.

Moosa said that water is an important issue that can be best tackled by the Commission because no other international body exists that can ensure an integrated approach towards the problem. "Water has a cross-cutting impact on a whole range of issues from water management to healthcare and gender issues," he said.

Some 1.2 billion people - roughly one-sixth of the world's population - lack access to safe water, and 2.4 billion or 40 percent of the world's people lack access to adequate sanitation services.

"Although we are not negotiating major policies during this session, this is a vital meeting because it will set the tone for the future," said Moosa. "It is the Commission that will determine if this will be a decade of implementation." Focusing on one selected issue every two years would "bolster implementation," he said.


UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social affairs, Nitin Desai of India
Many ministers suggested that, in addition to water, the Commission should tackle issues related to energy. The resolution of problems related to access to electricity and modern energy services, renewable energy and energy related pollution, climate change and transport would be included in the Commission's work program.

As with water, there is currently no international forum that coordinates policy and action on energy.

Building on ministerial inputs, a draft decision covering the Commission's work plan has been issued by the Chairman Moosa, and the details will be worked out by negotiators over the next week.

During a media briefing Thursday, nongovernmental organizations expressed their concern that multilateralism itself may be weakened by the attitude of the United States towards the United Nations as, in the words of President George W. Bush, "irrelevant," with regard to the war in Iraq.

Representing Greenpeace International, Marcelo Furtado said that one of the concerns at the beginning of the Johannesburg Summit had been that multilateralism was at stake, given that one or more countries had threatened not to negotiate. Yet, the Summit had been able to achieve an outcome because the other countries present had decided not to be held hostage by that threat. This year, another threat to multilateralism was the war in Iraq, which threatened the United Nations as a whole.


Marcelo Furtado of Brazil represents Greenpeace International
Some countries are saying that multilateralism could be saved with money, through the World Trade Organization (WTO), Furtado explained, while others said that it should be saved through reinforcing and strengthening the United Nations.

People on the street do not see the United Nations as just the Security Council, but as the organization that changed lives and addressed injustice. The challenge for the UN, Furtado said, is either to answer the people in the street by changing the multilateral system into a system that is more equitable to all, or “throw the towel in the ring” and “rubberstamp” every outcome of the WTO.

Saradha Iyer of the Third World Network said the current session of the Commission on Sustainable Development had paid scant attention to the principles of Agenda 21, implementation of which is the Commission’s mandate.

Nitin Desai, UN under-secretary-general for economic and social affairs, said the ministers have expanded their attitudes towards sustainable development since the Johannesburg Summit last summer, and they have a "much more positive outlook now than the morning after" the Summit.

Successful elements from the WSSD, like Johannesburg's "partnership fair," had been revived for the present Commission session. As a result, a total of US$1.2 billion had been committed to partnerships, and not just between governments, but also between them and private sector or trade partners, as well as labor unions and other organizations, Desai said.

Tzila Katzel, representing The World Conservation Union (IUCN), said that while partnerships have taken off, they should not be a substitute for multilateral agreement.

Responding to a question on what has changed in the years between the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg 10 years later, Desai said the aid climate is better now. After Rio, aid for sustainable development activities had declined. Now, more aid is coming in for projects, such as for partnerships, he said.


Delegates from the major groups, an official category, at the Commission session on Friday
On Friday, nine major civil society groups commented on the ministerial draft decisions to focus on water and energy for the next two years of the Commission's work. The nine groups included farmers, indigenous people, youth, trade unions, women, scientific and technological community, local authorities, business and industry, and farmers, which are those recognized in Agenda 21 as having specific roles and responsibilities in achieving sustainable development.

The farmers' representative said that the draft work organization is really just a list of good intentions. He stressing that a phrase outlining a specific role in implementation for major groups is needed, which would also help groups raise funds for capacity building.

Others recommended different issues for the work plan. The woman’s group wanted to include peace and human rights, and suggested that a gender focal point within the Commission, as well as tools for gender mainstreaming, be set up to integrate gender as a cross-cutting issue that would be taken into account in all environmental fields.

The youth group suggested that education be included, and proposed that consumption and production patterns be included as themes in the two year work cycle.

Several of the major groups said that implementation is often a local affair, yet the term “local” does not appear in the Commission's draft work plan. The scientists’ group urged the Commission to include the term “local” in the plan, especially for monitoring and evaluation.

The indigenous peoples' group stressed that financial mechanisms should be set up so that their group, as well as others, could more broadly participate in the Commission process.

For the remaining week of the session, delegates will be working on more marginal issues based on major decisions already made, including negotiations on a work program and timing. The Commission's 11th session opened April 28 and will end on May 9.