Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Will Water Dry Up at Summit on Sustainable Development?

The headline in a New York newspaper last March captured the essence of a future potential threat to political stability the world over: "U.S. Report Sees Tensions Over Water."

The study, a collective vision of the U.S. intelligence community, warned that during the next 10 years, many countries important to the United States will "almost certainly experience water problems - shortages, poor water quality or floods - that will contribute to the risk of instability and state failure, and increase regional tensions."

Still, there are fears that next week's U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as Rio+20, may marginalise both water and sanitation when it finalises its plan of action titled "The Future We Want."

So is there a future for water in the U.N. scheme of things?

Not really, says Karin Lexen of the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), a Swedish policy institution that seeks sustainable solutions to the world's escalating water crisis.

"Many people are losing faith in the U.N. system and a weak Rio+20 outcome will build on to this mistrust," she told IPS.

"We would of course like to see a strong outcome with concrete and forward thinking commitments," she added.

Lexen said that an agreement on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) would be one important outcome.

As a cross-cutting resource and the bloodstream of the green economy, water is an obvious candidate for one overarching SDG, but it also should be reflected in the other SDGs, particularly those on food and energy, she added.

The summit, to be attended by over 120 heads of state and government, will take place Jun. 20-22, and is a follow up to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said last week he expects the summit to make progress on some of the building blocks of sustainability: energy, water, food, cities, oceans, jobs and the empowerment of women.

The U.N. Special Rapporteur Catarina de Albuquerque has already made a strong pitch urging member states to fully support the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation at Rio+20.

In an open letter to member states negotiating the final outcome document, she expressed concern that a clear recognition of the human right to water and sanitation is at risk of being suppressed from the original text after three rounds of informal-informal negotiations held in New York in the past three months.

"Some States suggested alternative language that does not explicitly refer to the human right to water and sanitation; some tried to reinterpret or even dilute the content of this human right," she said.

De Albuquerque, the first U.N. special rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, said that water already has been recognised as a human right under international law, including by the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council in 2010.

When agreeing on a sustainable development target for water and sanitation, she said, governments have to integrate the human right to water and sanitation and aim at achieving access to safe and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all without discrimination.

They should also be available in sufficient quantities to protect human health and dignity, particularly for the most marginalised.

SIWI's Lexen told IPS that action to improve "the wise and sustainable management of water" is also critical to outcome at Rio.

By 2030, in a business as usual scenario, humanity's demand for water could outstrip supply by as much as 40 percent.

This, she warned, would place water, energy and food security at risk, increase public health costs, constrain economic development, lead to social and geopolitical tensions and cause lasting environmental damage.

"Therefore, the foundation for a resource efficient green economy must be built upon water, energy and food security and these issues must be addressed in an integrated, holistic manner and be reflected in the Rio outcome and also as a cornerstone in the SDGs," she said.

Asked if water has found its rightful place on the international agenda since the first Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment back in 1972, Lexen said that given the fundamental role water has for all life, for wealth and economic development and being a source for conflict but also a tool for cooperation, water has not been given the prominent role it should have.

Water has a place in the Rio draft, but the different thematic areas are still very much compartmentalised.

Take the energy section, for example: water is not mentioned once in the remaining texts despite the fact that it is an essential resource for energy production, she said.

Other issues, like the recognition of access to drinking water and sanitation as a human right, and transboundary waters, are still under discussion now, only a few days before the Rio Summit begins.

She said "The Friends of Water" group has played a role in pushing water into the global environmental agenda.

"But we have important work in the final week ahead, and at the summit, to ensure that a wider group priorities water and ensure concrete commitments and a strong outcome document is produced in Rio," Lexen said. 

Written by Thalif Deen@Inter Press Service

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