The largest-ever international meeting devoted to the world's worsening water problems is set to begin in Kyoto, Japan on Sunday. During its weeklong agenda (March 16-23, 2003), the 3rd World Water Forum will bring together more than 10,000 participants from 180 countries, including water experts from government, industry, academia and the environmental community. The forum will address a wide range of health, economic, and environmental problems associated with the growing global scarcity of fresh water.
Consider these facts: More than one billion people lack access to a reliable supply of fresh water. More than a third of the world's population, 2.4 billion people, do not have access to proper sanitation. Freshwater ecosystems around the planet have been severely degraded. About half of the world's wetlands have been lost and more than 20 percent of the world's 10,000 known freshwater species are extinct.
Water experts have come to the World Water Forum not to deliver more technical reports on global water problems but to present ideas for solving them.
William Cosgrove, the vice president of the World Water Council, the international research group that created the World Water Forum in 1997, says a major focus of the meeting will be to act on international commitments like those agreed to at last year's World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.
Cosgrove:"To move them [the commitments] a step further into concrete action plans."
Skirble:"[To address] two of those commitments, the global community has set targets to cut in half the number of people without access to safe drinking water and [to cut in half] the number of people without proper sanitation by 2015. These are the kind of commitments that you are taking about. But, what is it going to take to get there?"
Cosgrove:"That is exactly the point, that these commitments tend to make people feel very good, but that hides the reality that within each country, every country has to have a plan on how it is going to do it. It has to decide who is going to do it. The industrialized world has to decide whom they are going to help. And this is exactly the kind of concrete action by non-governmental organizations [NGO], by governments, by U.N. agencies, that we are asking them to commit to here during the Third World Water Forum."
Skirble:"What can you hope to accomplish in a conference as large and diverse as this one?"
Cosgrove:"The reality is that while [it] is large and diverse, [the participants] can commit to specific actions. One example that I know of is an NGO that has been working with traditional techniques for developing wells. They can discuss this with other people in the session, share the information and get others to commit to adopt the same process. In the session on climate and water, we are going to have the 18 regions and basins where climatologists, meteorologists and water managers have been working together will be discussing their experience. They will be sharing that with people within their region and from other regions who hopefully will adopt and follow up with the same practices so that we can do more to avoid some of the disasters and tremendous losses, economic and development losses, that occur through droughts and floods."
Natural disasters claim thousands of lives each year and disrupt the social and economic fabric of many nations. William Cosgrove says the poorest nations "will face hunger if they can not get the resources to import the food they cannot grow."
United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization Director General Jacques Diouf says water-poor countries must manage their scarce resources better.
He says rural Africa, for example, could benefit greatly from small scale, low-cost initiatives. "I believe that Africa should try to help poor rural communities mobilize their labor with the technical assistance of rural engineering departments," said Mr. Diouf. "I believe that we should also, where there is a temporary or permanent river, help the same farming communities. They could put in small canals of irrigation and drainage, using the local masons, but also using the local labor that is available, particularly after the rainy season until the new season comes again."
The Third World Water Forum is also about raising global awareness of the problem of water scarcity.
A new multi-agency U.N. report on the state of the world's water supplies predicts that close to two-thirds of the world's population could face moderate to severe water shortages by the year 2050. The report says water scarcity will continue to worsen until political leaders muster the will to turn things around.
Ingar Andersson, a water policy expert with the U.N. Development Program, a U.N. agency that contributed to the report, says, as wealthier countries begin to feel the impact of declining water resources, awareness of global problems will increase.
"And that is what is [happening] today, I think," he notes. "We have severe problems in Northern Europe. We have problems in the United States when it comes to water resources management, and many of our resources are over-exploited."
Skirble:"Is this [water] crisis inevitable?"
Andersson:"No I think we can do a lot. I think many solutions can be found if we think more in decentralized ways of managing water, managing sanitation, leaving more to households and communities and neighborhoods, trusting local governments more than we have in the past to find solutions." Participants at the Forum will discuss these efforts in the context of water rights, new pricing schemes, and balancing water needs of cities with those of agriculture, energy and the environment.
The World Water Forum runs through March 23.