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By Mikhail Gorbachev and Koichiro Matsuura

Mikhail Gorbachev is president of Green Cross International. Koichiro Matsuura is director general of UNESCO.

GENEVA -- On Dec. 3, in Bonn, a major international conference on fresh water is opening. At the invitation of the German government, and in preparation for next years World Summit on Sustainable Development, ministers from all over the world will discuss and it is hoped address the world's most pressing water problems.

This is a formidable challenge, and we cannot afford for them to fail. We face a global water crisis, with water resources deteriorating in many parts of the world.

The two major legacies of the 20th century -- the population and technology explosions -- have taken their toll on our water supply. One in five people do not have safe drinking water, half the world lacks sanitation, and millions die every year from waterborne diseases. Deteriorating water resources particularly affect the poor and greatly increase the risk of species extinction, natural disasters and even conflicts.

Modern technologies have allowed us to harness much of the world's water for energy, industry and irrigation -- but often at a terrible social and environmental price. The water crisis exists on a global scale, but most of the solutions must be developed and implemented locally and always with the view that it is not a substance to be taken for granted or unjustly distributed. For it is an indisputable fact that people who live without reliable access to water live greatly reduced and impoverished lives -- with little opportunity to create better futures for their children.

This is not the first time that nations have gathered to discuss this crisis. In March 2000, a ministerial declaration was signed in The Hague recognizing that "access to safe and sufficient water and sanitation are basic human needs and are essential to health and well-being, and to empower people, especially women, through a participatory process of water management.'' This statement did not go far enough -- and we must continue to push for the recognition that access to clean water is a universal human right and, in so doing, accept that we have the corresponding universal responsibility to ensure that the current forecast of a world where, in 25 years' time, two out of every three persons face severe water stress is proven wrong. But even such words of recognition will not be enough on their own: meeting this responsibility will cost money.

At The Hague, ministers neglected to financially commit their governments, and the question of financing was tackled only vaguely. The World Water Council estimates that $180 billion should be mobilized every year in order to meet the basic human needs of the majority of the world population. At the moment, less than $80 billion are invested in the water domain.

There is an urgent need for major investments and the promotion of democratic and integrated management systems to tackle the world's dire water situation. Without substantial investments, the world will drift into a global water crisis that will certainly jeopardize the quality of life of all humanity. The future of our children -- and their children -- depends on leadership shown now. We strongly urge the ministers meeting in Bonn to mobilize additional financial and human resources to protect the world's freshwater ecosystems and provide clean water for all.

In our increasingly precarious and interdependent world, water is also a security issue. Without water security, social, economic and national stability are all imperiled. This is magnified where water is shared across borders -- and becomes crucial where water stress exists in regions of religious, territorial or ethnic tension. In some cases, as between India and Pakistan over the Indus River, successful cooperation with water resources can be cited as proof that even states with difficult relationships can work together. In other cases, the opportunities to improve regional relations via a common watercourse have not yet been grasped. The competition over precious shared resources could increasingly become a source of tension -- and even conflict -- between states and sectors.

The Middle East, and particularly the Jordan River Valley -- shared by the people of Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon -- is one such example. Although agreements exist, both between Israel and Jordan and between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the allocation, use and rights to the increasingly scarce water resources of this volatile region remain sensitive. But we should notice that during the current intifada no water infrastructures and utilities were bombed or jeopardized. The access to clean water remains a priority even during conflict.

There are no unilateral solutions to these essential transboundary water problems. This is as true in the Middle East as it is regarding the watercourses shared between the United States and its neighbors. In all of the world's 261 international basins, joint management should be built on a system of effective interdependence, a pooling rather than a restriction of each nation's sovereignty. This is the reason why UNESCO and Green Cross International have decided to join their forces to examine the potential for shared water resources to become catalysts for regional peace and development through dialogue, cooperation and participative management of international river basins.

The challenges are indeed formidable, but so are the opportunities. There are many experiences around the world that can be built on. What is needed is for us all to work together, to develop collaboration and partnerships, to build a secure and sustainable water future. We will, individually and acting together, strive to achieve this and stimulate and facilitate the contributions of society as a whole. We hope that the ministers gathered in Bonn will consolidate their previous declarations of good intent with concrete commitments in order to accelerate the process of providing water security for all.

(c) 2001, Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services
For immediate release (Distributed 11/29/01)