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Q&A: Water Crisis Could Affect Billions

Thalif Deen interviews GER BERGKAMP of the World Water Council

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 10 2009 (IPS) - The United Nations has warned that about half the world's population – over three billion people by today's count – may suffer water shortages by the year 2025.

Ger Bergkamp Credit: World Water Council

Ger Bergkamp Credit: World Water Council

If current trends continue – including drought, rising population, increased urbanisation, climate change, and indiscriminate waste and mismanagement of existing resources – the world may be heading for a catastrophe.

These growing new problems will on the agenda of a major international water conference – the Fifth World Water Forum – scheduled to take place in Istanbul, Turkey, Mar. 16-22.

In an interview with U.N. Bureau Chief Thalif Deen, Ger Bergkamp, director general of the World Water Council, which is organising the Istanbul conference, pointed out that while the world's population tripled in the 20th century, the use of renewable water resources grew six-fold.

"Within the next 50 years, the world's population will increase by another 40 to 50 percent. This population growth – coupled with industrialisation and urbanisation – will bring with it greater demand for water and have serious consequences for the environment," he warned.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

IPS: The United Nations has warned that over one billion people still suffer from a shortage of safe drinking water. Is this crisis expected to improve or worsen in the next decade – particularly in the context of climate change and its negative impact? GB: Reports from important research centers and international organisations tell us that if human beings do not change their behaviour – from personal habits to industrial processes and public administration – we will have an even greater water crisis on our hands.

We find ourselves at a historical crossroads. We have the capability to reverse the trend and create a new reality. Solutions are at hand – such as rainwater-harvesting, improved storage and conservation systems, more efficient irrigation and drought-tolerant crops.

They must be accompanied by improved 'good enough' governance that will lead to better water resources management and greater access to services by more people.

It's obvious that the unbridled consumption of natural resources – especially water – cannot continue. But we have the know-how and tools to turn things around. What we need now is action. Governments, companies and civil society groups must seize the moment.

IPS: Should the United Nations, and specifically the Human Rights Council, pursue a longstanding proposal for water as a basic human right? GB: Global consumption of water has increased twice as fast as the population in the last century. Growing water demand is a constant when you have population growth, and it has multiplied with rapid urbanisation. Safe water for people stands at the core of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set by the 192 U.N. member states. The target is to cut in half the number of people who lack access to safe drinking water.

Three years ago, the Fourth World Water Forum in Mexico City put the spotlight on the right to water. City mayors occupy the political and administrative frontlines for water and sanitation, and they overwhelmingly expressed their support for the right to water.

Statements made in Mexico also demonstrated strong support for the idea among parliamentarians, private enterprises, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the Women's Caucus, churches and civil society in general. It also marked the first time that the right to water was discussed by ministers from different countries on the international level.

The World Water Council presented the 'Right to Water Report' in Mexico. That document has provided an important tool for people who are attempting to develop national policies. The report also offered an important contribution to the work of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.

In the next edition of the World Water Forum, to be held in Istanbul next week, the right to water will again feature prominently in the agenda. We hope to see commitments on this issue – especially from political leaders who can make things happen at home.

Many water issues need to be solved at the local and national levels. To get water and sanitation services to more people more quickly, we must insist on the right to water. We also need to redouble our efforts to find workable solutions wherever water is shared across national borders. Bilateral and multilateral efforts must be launched to find lasting solutions about how to share water.

IPS: How best can the world's water woes be resolved? What role can the World Water Forum play in alerting the world to the global water crisis? GB: The World Water Forum is a three year process of dialogue and reflection culminating in the world's most important water gathering. Its over 20,000 participants include politicians, scientists, professionals and citizen activists from around the globe.

By working with a wide array of actors through the Forum, the World Water Council can bring together disparate groups and interests to find common ground and practical solutions. The Forum's debates help define the strategic role of water for development, quality of life and security.

The Forum is organised by the World Water Council in collaboration with the host city and host country – this time Istanbul, Turkey. The gathering is preceded by a preparatory process that involves what we might call water dialogues; among other things, the dialogues incorporate regional contributions that address specific challenges in different parts of the world.

The purpose of the Forum is to provide a platform where the water and development community can initiate national, regional and global partnerships; scientists and citizens can offer new perspectives on pressing water problems; politicians and water experts can exchange ideas and develop innovative solutions; world leaders sign agreements on major water issues; media coverage is generated to help give water the prominence it deserves on the world stage.

Large numbers of elected officials – including mayors, parliamentarians, ministers and heads of state – participate in the Forum. This provides a unique opportunity to push wise water management higher up on the political agenda. There is also a Ministerial Conference, around which the World Water Council collaborates closely with the host country and the United Nations.

Amid the rush of all this activity, in my view, we still need to keep our sights on two simple targets: wise management of water resources and access to water and sanitation for everyone.

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