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World Water Day - International Conference on Water and Sustainable Development

Paris, 21 March 1998 - Statement by Mr. Klaus Töpfer, Executive Director, UNEP,at the International Conference on Water and Sustainable Development

Mr. Prime Minister, Madam Minister, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, dear friends from far and near

It is an honour and a privilege for me to have been given this unique opportunity to address this International Conference on Water and Sustainable Development. I want to express my deep gratitude to the Government of France for the remarkable job they have done in preparing for this meeting, and for the warmth and generosity with which we have been welcomed here.

The economic and environmental challenges which France is tackling with characteristic vigor mirror the range of issues which this Conference will be addressing. And the initiatives which France has taken, the leadership, the dedication, have set an enlightened example to the international community.


We have gathered today on a day which symbolizes a breath of hope for the survival of life on our planet. The World Water Day which we celebrate today is a day to bring our focus towards something that cries for attention 365 days a year - our precious, finite, life- giving freshwater resources.

The world's cultures are linked by a factor common to all of us: dependence on water. The Tukano of the Amazon compare water in the earth to the blood in people's veins. In Yemen, one can find etched into the walls of a Mosque, the Arabic words, "Life is water, do not waste a drop".

Ladies and Gentlemen

I speak to you on behalf of the United Nations Environment Programme and the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements both headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya, in this great fantastic continent of Africa, this thirsty continent - this continent of hope, not of desperation - two of the United Nations family, who share with you similar ideals of a harmonious world free of diseases, wants and war - of shared but different responsibilities, of a common future also for coming generation.

The missions of UNEP and Habitat are closely linked together.

Simply put, there can be no global sustainability built of the vital pillars of economic development, social stability and environmental responsibility without sustainability in our settlements, our villages, especially in our fast-growing mega cities.

Water is an indicator of sustainability. Its quality and availability indicate the level of social development within a community. It is an indicator of poverty. It indicates social tensions and it is also a proven indicator of the quality of the environment.

Every day 25,000 people die as a result of poor water quality. 3.8 million children die each year from preventable water borne diseases. The problem of drinking water is not limited to the developing world, according to UNEP's Global Environment Outlook.

At the beginning of the 18th century there were less than a billion people in the world, sharing less than a million cubic kilometres of fresh water. Now there are more than six billion people and the fresh water supply has remained constant. Even since the Rio Summit, 400 million more people have been added to the world's population - a number which roughly equals the population in Europe.

A future of more people, more mouths to feed, uncertain environmental conditions and unmet developmental expectations notwithstanding technological advances should make us pause.

Nowhere are these needs more evident than in our mega cities where we are confronted with huge water problems, with social disintegration, with slums and ghettos, with poverty - not with sustainable development.

The explosive and continuing growth of urban areas have created some profound challenges for the sustainable management of these settlements and their hinterlands. Cities are expanding into fragile ecosystems, imposing huge ecological footprints in the hinterland. Especially dangerous is the public health hazard of contaminated water supplies or other sources of pathogen transmission resulting from inadequately treated sewage. Greater efforts are needed to resolve issues related to land based sources of pollution, non-point source runoff from agricultural and urban areas, protection of ground water reserves, water pricing, the impact of development projects on ecosystems and competing demands for water among different social sectors.


A society that can put a man on the moon, that can split the atom and manipulate genes, is a society with scientific and technological means to avert a water crisis. What is needed is collective political will and the leadership to act innovatively and decisively. The concentration of our efforts and technical innovation is essential.

One prerequisite of sustainable development is that current practices should not undercut future living standards. In other words, present economic systems should maintain or improve the resource and environmental base, so that future generations all around the world will be able to live equally or better. Today's technologies are labour saving because we subsidize directly and indirectly the use of resources, especially water, and we increase the cost of human labour. In the future, we need the right price signals for the bottlenecks to come. We need technologies and products which are resource conserving, water conserving and energy conserving; we need cleaner production and consumption patterns - and we need the knowledge of endogenous technologies, centuries-old answers for saving water.

Ladies and Gentlemen

Water security will soon rank with the other main concerns in security. The signs are clear that the world community must elevate the issue of water for peace policy. As the demand for freshwater grows and in the absence of clear consensus on how best to use shared water resources for the benefit of all, that competition has the potential of erupting into acrimonious disputes. There are already now many areas where countries could come into conflict over who gets how much water.

There are 44 countries with at least 80 per cent of their total areas within international basins. The number of rivers and lake basins shared by two or more countries is more than 300.

We need early warning systems to warn us of these imminent conflicts, to integrate this information into our environmental diplomacy and in the strategic investment decisions of World Bank, UNDP and the private sector. The United Nations Environment Programme in close cooperation with other relevant UN institutions must systematically identify solutions to this issue. The first step will be the inventory of the state of the freshwater resources which will also include continuing identification of potential "hot spots". The second step will involve assessment of key priority freshwater issues, including water quality, quantity and allocation to meet and maintain human lives and livelihoods, socio-economic development and maintenance of natural ecosystems. The third step will focus on the development of innovative economic, legal and institutional instruments for sustainable use and greater awareness, education and participation of the general public. The fourth step will involve pilot projects in key regions to test the effectiveness of these instruments for the governments and international organizations.

UNEP's knowledge of the linkages between freshwater resources and a complex web of social, economic, environmental factors and its experience in brokering important international environmental agreements give it the necessary edge. This will enable us to assist in reviewing and refining international legally binding agreements on fresh-water resources.

We want to make the best use of the outcome of important conferences, Harare, and the 1st Petersburg Roundtable held in Bonn this month, where recognition was given to the work carried out in promoting the integrated management of international freshwater basins, particularly in the Zambezi and Mekong River basins.

The results of those conferences request that UNEP, in close cooperation with other organizations, should play a major role in

  1. enhancing confidence-building measures for greater cooperation among governments,
  2. strengthening legal instruments for long-term cooperative management of shared freshwater resources, and
  3. promoting the application of economic instruments.
    I am determined to do my utmost so that UNEP meets these expectations.

    We also plan to present at the Fifth Special Session of our Governing Council, a report on the modality of development of a comprehensive global action programme for the environmentally sound and sustainable use and protection of freshwater resources, for implementation at the regional/sub-regional level. This will follow the integrated approach previously taken within the "Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities". This is of course linked with the preparation of case studies of cooperative management programmes of international freshwater basins.

    Ladies and Gentlemen

    Virtually all the programmes of UNEP - assessment, industry, chemicals, water, health and well-being through the work of International Environmental Technology Centre and environmental emergencies has a synergetic relationship with Habitat's programmes. This is especially true with regard to the quantitative and qualitative management of water.

    An important follow-up to the Habitat II Conference was the International Consultations on Water for Cities in Africa, organized by Habitat in cooperation with the Government of South Africa and other partners, in December last year. The Cape Town Declaration adopted by Ministers responsible for water resources, urban development, and the environment from 20 African countries, expressed solidarity and strong political resolve of African countries to deal with the urban water challenge.

    Habitat is supporting the African countries on the follow-up to the Cape Town Declaration.

    The Ministerial Statement to be adopted here will reflect the concerns of the Cape Town Declaration. The synergistic aspects and advantages can and must be used.

    Ladies and Gentlemen

    The fragmentation of authority for water across many sectors and departments at the national and international levels has resulted in the absence of a common vision on the sustainable use of this vital resource. To manage water in its totality, inter-institutional collaboration and the concentration of all available financial mechanisms has to be improved.

    We will have to develop a holistic approach to water and sanitation activities. We will have to emphasize their convergence and their interrelations with health, nutrition, education, agriculture and forestry. And we will have to focus on long-term perspectives in decision making, values and attitudes and, last but not least, in technology development and the transfer of environmental friendly technologies (soft as well as hard).

    The conclusions and recommendations of the "Comprehensive Assessment of the Freshwater Resources of the World", prepared by UN agencies, including UNEP, and its consideration by the Commission for Sustainable Development at its Fifth Session and by the UN General Assembly at its Special Session to review the implementation of Agenda 21 are indications of this trend. These consultations underlined the urgent need for bringing together all stakeholders in the water sector and involving decision makers at the national level, to jointly develop a long-term vision of sustainable water resource management, integrated in the work of this comprehensive global action programme. UNEP's preparations for this inter-governmental dialogue, CSD at its sixth session, hinge on the awareness that for managing water in a rational fashion, inter-institutional collaboration needs to be substantially improved.

    To maximize the synergies between UNEP and Habitat on the issue of freshwater resources, a strategic alliance between the two is being examined.

    Ladies and Gentlemen

    Sustainable development cannot be defined separately from its financing. We must redeploy and make more efficient use of existing resources and use innovative ones. There is scope for generating additional revenues using existing mechanisms, such as pricing utilities and public services, reform of property taxes, special environmental funds, and development of a taxation structure which taxes resource exploitation more heavily than human labour. Therefore, I believe that we urgently need a new Intergovernmental Panel for economic instruments in environmental policy - especially for water and climate change. This should be related to the proposal of an "international academy" mentioned yesterday by President Chirac.


    Security is fundamental to peace. Insecurity derives from poor quality and insufficient quantities of water, that undermines peace. That is rightly the concern of any future-oriented discussion such as this Conference, as it is the concern of the United Nations generally. These are the necessary ingredients for the peace policy in the future.

    I am confident that imbued as we are with determination and commitment, we have only to accept the principles of partnership to be able to overcome whatever obstacles we face in our endeavour to protect and conserve freshwater resources. We have the power to do this. Let us do it, so that the future will not judge us harshly.

Wednesday 08 Apr 1998
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