Mikhail Gorbachev warned of the severe shortage of fresh water resources around the world, a crisis that demands the immediate and sustained attention of the international community. More than a billion people worldwide—nearly a quarter of the world's population—lack access to clean, fresh water. Gorbachev's organization, Green Cross International, is working to raise consciousness worldwide of this pandemic and develop projects to help ensure access to fresh water resources for all mankind.

Rapid population growth and economic development have increased the world's demand for clean water while also diminishing the supply. "This conflict between man and nature," said Gorbachev, "is one of the major challenges of the 21st century." In the past century, he said, the world's population has grown from 1.6 billion people to 6 billion, and annual per capita water consumption has grown from 300 cubic kilometers to 4,000 cubic kilometers. Pollution from two world wars, thousands of local conflicts, and the arms race has consumed and destroyed resources. Factories are further polluting the environment.

"Only 1/3 of mankind lives in decent conditions," said Gorbachev. "Others live with major shortages of the elementary components of human survival…We're already facing an environmental crisis before we can give decent living conditions to much of mankind."

Gorbachev urged that access to fresh water be made a basic human right worldwide. "Water is an indispensable resource," he said. "The time has come to make access to fresh water one of the central rights of human beings and include it in the Declaration of Human Rights." The water shortage—exacerbated by polluted air, oceans, and rivers, destruction of soil and forests, and the increased strain on natural resources—is severe in developing as well as developed countries. Unless policies change, said Gorbachev, in the next 25 years, water shortages will threaten half of the world's population.

Atmospheric pollution has resulted in global warming which has brought droughts and hurricanes that erode soil and threaten harvests. Scientific advancements can make crops resistant to cold and drought. In addition, scientists concurred during recent Arctic expeditions that Arctic ice is thinning, which can further destabilize the climate.

To preserve the environment, said Gorbachev, scientists agree that the United States must ratify the Kyoto Protocols—a treaty which calls for developed countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon dioxide, in the coming decade. With 5 percent of the world's population, the United States produces 25 percent of the air pollution and consumes 40 percent of the world's energy. Therefore, Gorbachev said, the United States must exhibit strong leadership and make a significant contribution to address this crisis.

Gorbachev cited the need for more financial resources to address the water crisis. And, he urged that countries implement the declaration set forth at this year's World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, which calls for halving the number of people who lack access to fresh water by the year 2015. "We need the will, political mechanisms, and resources to do it."

By 2015, Gorbachev said, Green Cross International aims to achieve that goal, improve sanitation and sewage for the three billion who face such problems, and integrate river basin management. There are 261 shared river basins in the world, said Gorbachev, that require cooperation at the local, national, and international level. Green Cross aims to create bodies to help manage water resources in more than 80 percent of river basins, including half of the transnational basins where 40 percent of the world's population lives. Its projects aim to address such problems on all continents, with emphasis along the Volga, where half of Russia's population lives, and in the Middle East region.

When Gorbachev visited the Middle East, he said Palestinian, Israeli, and Jordanian leaders all conveyed that the current Middle East conflict may pale in comparison to the conflict that may arise within the next two decades due to the water shortage. "Water should be used to save the world and preserve peace," said Gorbachev. "We need leadership for this rather than increasing weapons arsenals."

Before becoming leader of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev was responsible for Russia's agricultural policies, which included dividing water among the regions. He recalled that the regions often disregarded those decisions and major conflicts then erupted, particularly in Central Asia, over the water shortages.

Today, he said, the improper handling of the world's current water resources is a huge obstacle creating a great deal of waste. "We must better understand, manage, distribute, and look for new resources," Gorbachev said. He recommended responsible governance, equitable distribution, and proper use of water resources while developing new resources, including desalination procedures.

Two-thirds of fresh water resources are used for irrigation purposes but irrigated lands serve the vital function of yielding much of the world's food production. To allot more fresh water for human consumption, he advised finding ways to use less water for irrigation while creating conditions for better harvests to avoid diminishing food production. Here again, he cited the importance of scientific advancements in this endeavor.

Gorbachev implored the commitment of businesses, political, cultural, and religious leaders, the media, and young people toward sustainable development. He said, "We need the vision and courage if we want to achieve environmental, social, and political stability on our planet."