11 December 2002
WATER ISSUES AMONG HIGHEST PRIORITIES OF UNITED NATIONS,
NEW YORK, 12 December (UN Headquarters) -- Following are the remarks by Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fréchette on the launch of the International Year of Freshwater (2003), New York, 12 December 2002:
The idea for the International Year of Freshwater was initiated by the President of the Republic of Tajikistan, and I am pleased to welcome that country’s Foreign Minister here today. Mr. Nazarov, it is very good to have you with us.
Tajikistan’s initiative was very widely welcomed, and with good reason. Freshwater issues are at the heart of humankind’s hopes for peace and development in the twenty-first century. Already, more than 1 billion men, women and children lack safe drinking water and sanitation services. As consumption rises, as unsustainable practices persist, as the effectiveness of water management policies lags badly behind the situation on the ground, the world water situation will grow only more urgent and complex.
The threat -- to health, food security, and the environment; to stability itself -- is clear. If we continue with "business as usual", it will take only a little more than two decades for two thirds of the world’s population to be living in moderate to severe water stress. We cannot let that happen: first, because it would condemn so many people to poverty, poor health and despair; and second, because the investments required to avert this catastrophic scenario are within our means, not beyond.
As we all remember, world leaders pledged in the Millennium Declaration to halve, by the year 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water. They also promised to "stop the unsustainable exploitation of water resources, by developing water management strategies … which promote both equitable access and adequate supplies". The Plan of Implementation adopted at Johannesburg went further still, adding a similar goal for access to sanitation services.
What, precisely, can an International Year accomplish in pursuit of these goals?
First, it can raise awareness. Of course, there is no need to inform people about the centrality of water in our lives; that understanding is a fundamental part of being alive. But we do need to spread knowledge about the scale of current and future water crises, about potential solutions, about the policy changes that are needed, and most of all about the need for leadership on water issues.
Second, the Year should be a platform for creativity. If the world is to meet its challenges, we need new ideas, new strategies, new technologies and new arrangements. The Year can help shine a spotlight on what works, and what doesn’t.
Third, the International Year can promote participation. Real improvements in people’s lives will require the active participation of everyone, from schoolchildren in rural communities to heads of State. Local authorities and community groups, such as women’s organizations and associations of water users, have rich stores of knowledge -- not just raw data about water consumption and demand, but information that can reduce pollution, promote reforestation and preserve ecosystems and biodiversity.
One issue that has sparked considerable controversy in recent years is the participation of the private sector, and in particular the fear that corporate involvement would make water prices rise beyond the reach of people already mired in poverty. Let us be clear here: working with the private sector to solve water problems does not mean that a government would, could or should simply hand over the management of its water resources to the private sector, and let the profit motive run its course. Rather, it implies a dialogue among the government, the private sector and all users, to come up with equitable and environmentally sound solutions. A spectrum of relationships could evolve, with many different options for the role of the private sector. In all cases, the government must be engaged in both oversight and overall regulation.
And fourth, the Year should promote peaceful dialogue. It is often said that water crises and scarcities will, at some point, lead to armed conflict over this precious resource. But water problems can also be a catalyst for cooperation. Two thirds of the world’s major rivers are shared by several States. More than 300 rivers cross national boundaries. Countries with expertise in irrigation or the management of watersheds and flood plains are sharing that knowledge and technology with others. Scientists from many nations and disciplines are pooling their efforts. The United Nations is one obvious place where such dialogue can take place.
Water issues are among the Organization’s highest priorities. Next March, the United Nations will issue the first edition of the World Water Development Report, a joint effort involving 23 United Nations specialized agencies and other entities, that provides a comprehensive view of today’s water problems and offers wide-ranging recommendations for meeting future water demand. The Secretary-General, for his part, has initiated the Millennium Development Goals campaign, in which water issues figure prominently.
The International Year is not an end in itself, but rather a beginning -- the start of more intensive efforts to address one of the major challenges of our times. For the sake of the women and girls who must walk farther and farther each day in search of water, using up time that could be better spent on education or building better lives for themselves, their families and communities; for the sake of those who lack what so many others take for granted; for all of us who are vulnerable to water crises, whether we realize it or not; let us make the International Year a great success.
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