Published on Thursday, March 16, 2000 by Agence France-Presse
World Water Crisis Target Of Global Meeting Opening Friday

THE HAGUE, March 16 - A six-day gathering of policy-makers, businesses and activists opens here Friday with the goal of alerting public opinion to an impending crisis over the planet's most important substance: water.

Kicking off the show will be the World Water Forum, with 3,000 representatives from all sectors, who will hold hundreds of workshops and round tables on water pollution, conservation and distribution.

In parallel, there will be the World Water Fair, gathering UN agencies, fund managers, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and multinationals, which will be given a chance to show off products and answers to water problems.

The climax of the event will be a two-day ministerial meeting, next Tuesday and Wednesday, in which representatives from around 100 countries will adopt a declaration on the future water resources.

Although their pledge will not have legal teeth, organisers hope it will give a vital political impetus to sensible management of water supplies as the planet's population expands and its environment degrades.

"This is the first time that so many different opinions have been mustered to discuss the water problem that will arise over the next 30 years," said Jean-Francois Donzier, director of France's International Water Office.

"The diagnostic tools we now have available are better than anything we have had in the past."

One of the keystone reports to the conference is a lengthy study by a top think-tank, the World Commission on Water for the 21st century, which this week warned that a billion people do not have access to safe water, and two billion do not have proper sanitation.

The planet's population is likely to rise from six billion to eight billion by 2025, creating mega-cities and industries that will only add to demands, it said.

"In the next two decades, it is estimated that water use by humans will increase by about 40 percent, and that 17 percent more water will be needed to grow the food for the growing populations than is available.

"We know that the aquatic ecosystems throughout the world have been degraded and will need greater protection and that water quality is deteriorating in poor countries. In short, with current institutional arrangements and current technologies, the arithmetic of water simply does not add up," the report said.

It calls for investment in water supply to rise from 70-80 billion dollars a year to 180 billion and for letting the private sector take the lead in providing water supplies, because it alone has the money to make investments of such huge size.

Without radical steps against pollution and waste, three billion people will have less than 1,700 cubic metres (59,500 cubic feet) of water per person per year a quarter-century from now, which is considered the bare threshold of survival.

Nor will that be a crisis just for the Third World -- all wealthy countries will experience regional water shortages, partly because of the abusive exploitation of aquifers.

The size of the event, the second of its kind, reflects the growing interest in water as a political, social and economic issue.

"This is not a diplomatic conference, it's a forum," said Aalt Leusink, a member of the Dutch organising committee.

The meeting may be the chance for countries with disputes over water to stage bilateral talks.

One of the biggest flashpoints is the Middle East, where Israel's access to water in southern Lebanon and the Golan Heights is a key question in the peace process.

Copyright 2000 AFP