By Robert Lalasz

Significant new freshwater agreements and initiatives were one of the highlights of last August's World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa—-a momentum upon which many policymakers and nongovernmental organization representatives are seeking to build as they head to the Third World Water Forum next month in Kyoto, Japan.

In this meeting, ECSP brought together a broad range of officials, researchers, and activists to discuss how Kyoto should begin to implement the efforts begun at Johannesburg.

The Challenges at Kyoto
Mutsuyoshi Nishimura, the Japanese government's Ambassador for Global Environment, reminded participants that global water supplies had not kept up with 20th century global development and population increases, precipitating a widespread water crisis.

"Water tables are declining," the ambassador said. "Many rivers now do not reach the sea. Biodiversity is imperiled, and for billions, clean water and sanitation are unavailable. Yet access to these things is an inalienable human right."

Ambassador Nishimura praised the United States for announcing a renewed commitment to global aid at Monterrey last year, but he said that overseas development assistance continues to decline and that donor activities tend to overlook the countries and groups most in need of basic water services.

"For the Millennium Development Goals [which call for cutting in half by 2015 the number of people without access to clean drinking water or adequate sanitation] to be met," the ambassador said, "we must double our total global investment beginning today."

And while the private sector is becoming more involved in providing such services to developing countries, Ambassador Nishimura said that these efforts often are either too expensive for or never reach the poor. "A new mechanism must be introduced to reduce risks and insure equitable safe water resources for the poor," he said.

He argued that equity must be a key issue at the Kyoto conference, which will also address water issues ranging from water and energy to irrigation, pollution, hygiene, drought-relief, and transboundary disputes. "Even if titanic action is taken and the [Millennium Goals] are met," he said, "half of our intended beneficiaries will still be without clean water and sanitation."

"We will one day win this battle, but the winning strategy remains elusive," the ambassador added. "The road ahead is by no means bright, but individual efforts are yielding tangible results. Yet I cannot help but wonder if victory can only be achieved by a decline in world population."

The U.S. View
Anthony F. "Bud" Rock, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, followed by telling participants that the United States considered global water an issue of national as well as global security.

"There are those who will say this is a developing world issue," Rock said. "But water is important to sustainable economic growth, the health of populations, and agricultural productivity. The lack of those things creates instability in regions of the world that in turn creates rising tensions."

Rock called the Johannesburg Summit a "landmark event" and a "turning point" in the struggle against global poverty and dispossession. "Johannesburg emphasized that all governments have to take a responsibility in the development process," he said. "It also recognized that there is no way to address these issues without new partnerships—especially public/private partnerships."

And he argued that Kyoto would be crucial in the maturation of those partnerships. "The World Water Forum will be less about negotiating an agenda and more about implementation," he said. "Every aspect of the population to deal with water issues will be there. My hopes are high."

Rock also said that the United States would continue to push efforts at Kyoto such as the West Africa Water Initiative (a $40 million public-private partnership to provide potable water and sanitation to rural villages in Ghana, Mali and Niger) as well as stress the need to establish "enabling environments"--a supportive climate for good water management that involves social education, legislative and regulatory frameworks, investment and financing opportunities, and transparency.

In addition, Rock touted point-of-use sanitization programs as an underutilized but necessary complement to simply increasing clean water supplies to the underserved. "They do not answer the questions of access, but we need to address these efforts with equal enthusiasm to laying pipe," he said. "They provide great health benefits for low investments and technology."

Rock concluded, however, by cautioning that partnerships were not the sole answer to the world's enormous water problems. "Pooling funding mechanisms with a revolving-fund-guarantee approach is needed because of the lack of credit worthiness of some developing countries," he said.

Breakout Sessions
Following the keynote addresses, participants gathered in breakout sessions that discussed how Kyoto should approach water vis-à-vis (a) sanitation/health, (b) food security, and (c) the better coordination of institutions.

Notes from the Breakout Sessions:

  • Water, Sanitation and Health
  • Water and Food Security
  • Water and Institutions

  • UNICEF's Vanessa Tobin, who chaired the sanitation/health session, reported that participants wanted Kyoto to focus on implementation, partnerships, and affordability—-not new technologies—-in meeting basic needs. Tobin also said the group stressed prioritizing water issues at the highest political levels.

    Adela Backiel of USDA and Alfred Duda Global Environment Facility, co-chairs of the food security group, said that their session's difficulty in agreeing on one or two foci for Kyoto reflected what would be the conflicting cross-sectoral issues at Kyoto. Backiel and Duda reported their group's emphasis on the importance of integrated water-resource management (involving both land use and watersheds) as a way to get to the issues of hunger and sustainable agriculture.

    Henry "Hank" Habicht of the Global Environment and Technology Foundation and USAID's Franklin Moore reported that the water and institutions group focused on how water has become both a regional issue (typically within international river basins) and a local issue (as provincial and urban authorities assume responsibility for delivering water services).

    Habicht and Moore's group concluded that the solution to global water problems lies not in new institutions but in (a) new mechanisms and frameworks to better align existing institutions, and (b) media campaigns that create the political will to address water issues.

    This meeting was made possible by a grant from the USDA Foreign Agriculture Service and is part of an ongoing series of meetings under the ECSP Navigating Peace Initiative, which is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.