ACCESS TO WATER IS A HUMAN RIGHT
By Mikhail Gorbachev and Koichiro Matsuura
Mikhail Gorbachev is president of Green Cross International. Koichiro
Matsuura is director general of UNESCO.
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
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
For immediate release (Distributed 11/29/01)