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Providing Adequate  Clean Water is Focus of International Conference - 2003-03-16

More than 10,000 delegates are in Japan searching for ways to bring clean water to more than one billion of the world's poor. Leaders of several countries are among those attending the World Water Forum.

The largest international conference ever concerning water will hold about 350 sessions on efficient water use, climate change, and how to pay for and distribute water to the world's poor.

Japanese Crown Prince Naruhito opened the forum in Kyoto by praising the delegates for their efforts. "We may be able to move step-by-step toward the resolution of world water issues," he said.

The crown prince said those issues include spreading water shortages and water pollution.

Representatives from 160 countries are attending the eight day forum. At least 150 government ministers are taking part, and several heads of state will make appearances.

Delegates from the World Bank and the United Nations say they want the forum to do more than just talk about the problems. They say they will push for action plans complete with funding and implementation deadlines. Some delegates also want the conference to focus on the estimated five million annual deaths attributed to water-related diseases.

Japan's Foreign Ministry says Tokyo will unveil 91 action programs related to water. In all, several-hundred plans from governments and international institutions are expected to be compiled into the forum's portfolio.

Some activists at the forum voice concern about efforts to turn water supply systems over to private companies in many countries. Opponents of privatization argue that it makes water less accessible and more expensive for poor communities.

Another controversial item is the World Bank's call for more hydroelectric dams. A report issued several-years ago by the World Commission on Dams argued that the economic benefits of such projects are outweighed by the environmental and social damage they cause.

A U.N. report released before the forum warns that dwindling water supplies and expanding populations could increase the potential for conflict in arid regions. But the U.N. World Water Development Report shows an encouraging trend, the number of water-related treaties in the past 50 years far outweighs the number of violent encounters over water.

The U.N. report also predicts that close to two-thirds of the world's population could face water shortages by the year 2050.