5 December 2001


BONN, 3 December (DESA/DPI) -— As supplies of freshwater grow increasingly scarce, particularly in the developing world, government leaders, policy-makers and other experts are gathering today in Bonn, Germany for the beginning of the week-long International Conference on Freshwater, to address the crucial issues of better-managing the world’s limited supplies of clean water.

It is expected that the recommendations of the International Conference on Freshwater, taking place from 3-7 December, will be incorporated into the preparatory process for the World Summit on Sustainable Development, which will take place in September 2002 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

"Managing the planet’s limited supplies of freshwater is one of the most important issues we face in building a sustainable future", said Nitin Desai, Secretary-General of the World Summit on Sustainable Development, also known as the Johannesburg Summit. "It is crucial to understand that freshwater is an essential element of life on earth. Clean water can also be strategically used as a tool to improve standards of living, especially in rural areas. A well managed supply of clean water supports crops, sustains livelihoods, reduces disease and ensures that ecosystems are safeguarded for the future."

Water Use Today

Mr. Desai pointed out that the problem in the world today is not a lack of sufficient supplies of fresh water, but serious deficiencies in how water is used and managed. About 1.2 billion people, mostly in rural areas of Asia and Africa, lack access to safe and affordable water due to inadequate investments in water supply and sanitation.

Households account for a relatively small proportion of the amount of water used around the world. Agriculture, on the other hand, accounts for about 70 per cent of all freshwater use, and in some areas, such as North Africa, West Asia and South Asia, agriculture accounts for between 85 to 95 per cent of all water use.

International Action on Water

The Bonn conference is not the first time the international community has addressed the issues of freshwater. The subject was included as a chapter of Agenda 21, the global plan of action for sustainable development that was adopted at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.

The difference, according to Arthur Askew, Director of the Hydrology and Water Resources Department for the World Meteorological Organization, is that freshwater is now considered a "crucial" issue. "Freshwater is a serious issue for the world today, one that will become even more challenging in the future", said Askew. But, he explained, the positive development is that there is now a greater interest from many players, including many developed countries, to address the crucial questions of availability and ongoing management of the world’s freshwater supplies.

One of the chief issues to be settled, he said, is whether water will be viewed as an economic good. "Some cultures and religions have difficulty with this, but we need a proper realization of the value of water."

Manuel Dengo, Chief of Water and Natural Resources and Small Island Developing States for the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), said he expected the meeting to address the challenges of promoting dialogue between the various sectors of society, governance, financial issues, capacity building, and technology transfer. Noting that disputes often led to conflict over freshwater supplies, Mr. Dengo said he hoped the conference would provide leadership on conflict resolution mechanisms, adding "I do hope they will be able to come up with a set of tangible outputs that will be taken forward and make a real difference in many parts of the world".

Other issues on the agenda in Bonn include the role of gender in water management and the effects of corruption of the proper management of supplies.

Johannesburg Summit

The Johannesburg Summit 2002 — the World Summit on Sustainable Development — will bring together tens of thousands of participants, including heads of State and government, national delegates and leaders from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), businesses and other major groups in September 2002. The Summit will address the challenges of sustainable development, which calls for improving the quality of life for all of the world’s people without increasing the use of our natural resources beyond the earth’s carrying capacity. Preparations for the Summit are underway, and additional information is available from the official Web site of the United Nations Secretariat for the Summit, www.johannesburgsummit.org.

For more information, please contact Dan Shepard, United Nations Department of Public Information (DPI), (212) 963-7704; fax (212) 963-1186; e-mail: mediainfo@un.org.

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