We can no longer view freshwater as an unlimited resource. International competition for this scarce resource is also growing. As the demand grows, and in the absence of clear consensus on how best to maximize the benefits of water for all who need it, that competition has the potential of erupting into bitter disputes.
Water is a powerful indicator of sustainability. It also is an indicator of the level of social development in a particular community. It is an indicator of poverty and of social tensions. Water is also an issue that is linked with health, nutrition and many other factors that affect our society, including the condition of nature itself! It is not an exaggeration to say that Water is Life.
This year's celebration of World Water Day spotlights our supply of groundwater which constitutes 97 per cent of all the freshwater found on the planet. Invisible though they are to most, these groundwater sources which supplied water for human consumption for several thousand years are now coming under increasing pressure. Groundwater reserves, particularly in arid areas, are being overexploited.
Compounding the problem of unsustainable exploitation, in the urban areas groundwater is also increasingly being polluted by human activities. These vary from improper sewage systems, to industrial contaminants, to pollutants and wastes that drain from cities and from agricultural fields following rainstorms.
The associated human and environmental costs are enormous in the urban areas as well as rural settlements particularly affecting the poor. Approximately 80 to 90 per cent of all human diseases, and more than one third of all deaths in developing countries are believed to be related to contaminated water. And absolute scarcity is not the only water constraint. Pollution of existing water resources also limits the range of possible human uses, without necessitating expensive, and often time-consuming treatment, thereby constituting a water "scarcity" of a different type, but with similar consequences.
The need for protecting our water resources and managing them sustainably has never been greater.
Safeguarding freshwater resources requires all of us, since we are all "water users" to work together in a coordinated manner. Education, training and the strengthening of local organizations and decision-making authorities can help to overcome some of these obstacles.
Recently, there has been an increased global interest in freshwater issues. Indications of this trend are the conclusions and recommendations of the "Comprehensive Assessment of the Freshwater Resources of the World", prepared by United Nations Agencies, including UNEP. It was discussed by the Commission for Sustainable Development at its Fifth Session and by the United Nations General Assembly's Special Session in its review of the status of the implementation of Agenda 21.
Ironically, freshwater sources, properly managed, should be more than adequate to meet the present and projected needs of all people. We must use the opportunity of special days such as this one to reaffirm our commitment to protecting this precious resource. Our determination to protect freshwater resources should begin with us, human beings who are, after all, 80 per cent water!
Remember, we can make other things; we can't make water; we can only work to conserve and protect it. If not, nature will take care of the problem for us, and sometimes, nature is a cruel taskmaster.
For more information:
Deputy Director, Water
P.O. Box 30552
UNEP News Release 1998/12