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Summary Outcome of UNU's Sixth Global Environmental Forum

The 6th Global Environmental Forum was convened at the United Nations University (UNU) Headquarters, Tokyo, on 25 June 1997. The Forum was organized by the UNU with the support of Obayashi Corporation.

The focus of the 1997 Forum was on water for urban areas in the 21st century. Eight leading world experts from Asia (including Japan), Europe, North America, Latin America and the World Bank were invited to address the Forum.

The Forum agreed that the world is likely to face a water crisis in the early part of the 21st century, the impacts of which are likely to be more severe and long lasting than the energy crisis of the early 1970s.

Provision of clean water and appropriate sanitation facilities to all the people living in urban areas will be a major challenge during the coming decades. The number of urban dwellers is expected to double to more than 5 billion people between 1995 and 2025. Asia and Africa are now experiencing explosive urban growth at around 4% per year. Between 1950 and 1990, the number of cities having more than one million people increased almost 4 times, from 78 to 290. By 2025, the number of such cities is expected to double to more than 600. Provision of clean water and sanitation facilities in the mega-cities of the developing world like Bombay, Lagos, Shanghai, Jakarta and Mexico City is going to be a very challenging task in the 21st century.

Implications of inadequate water supply and sanitation in the developing countries are already very serious. For example, currently: . annually 1.2 billion people suffer from diseases caused by unsafe drinking water or poor sanitation; . unsafe water is responsible for 80% of all diseases and 30% of deaths in developing countries; . annually more than 4 million children die from waterborne diseases; and, . 15% children will die before reaching the age of 5 years due to diarrhea.

In spite of the above serious conditions, water has basically disappeared from the international political agenda. For example, it was not a well-addressed issue at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. As Prof. Asit K. Biswas of Oxford, United Kingdom, one of the founders of the World Water Council, pointed out during the Forum, if an alien from the outer space visited the Earth and read the Japanese and international newspapers of this week, the creature would have the clear impression that the only serious environmental problem the human race is facing is climate change. And yet, not a single person has died up to now from climate change, nor is anybody expected to die under the worst scenario for another two decades. In contrast, more than 6 million people are dying each year due to lack of clean water, and flood- and drought-related reasons. Yet, the world seems to be determined to ignore this continuing water-related tragedy.

On the positive side, the final communique of the recent Denver Summit of the Eight devoted a paragraph to water. This, however, attracted no media attention. It is to be hoped that the G-8 declaration is the sign of a new era where water will receive the priority it deserves.

So far the main emphasis has been to manage water supplies. As new sources of water all over the world become scarce and more expensive to develop, emphasis needs to shift from supply to demand management. One of the tools will be increasing reliance on water pricing. Globally, more than 70% of all water used is for agriculture, and farmers now pay very little or nothing for the irrigation water. Appropriate water pricing will significantly reduce water wasted in the agricultural sector.

Water distribution systems all over the world now lose 15 to 67% of water through leakages. More emphasis needs to be placed on water conservation to reduce such major losses. In addition, reuse of properly treated wastewater must receive priority attention.

The public sector has often failed to deliver sustainable water supply and sewage systems. The World Bank estimates that the current investments needs in this sector in developing countries and the countries with economies in transition are of the order of $50 billion per year. Such huge investments can only be harnessed through public and private sector partnerships. The private sector will have to play an increasingly important role in the future.

Water management during disasters like the Kobe earthquake or in Zaire during the refugees crisis need special attention. For example, human suffering and property damages due to fires could have been significantly reduced after the Kobe earthquake with more efficient planning and operation of the water supply systems. Many deaths could have been prevented if water supplies had been made available for the refugees.

Major developed countries like Japan and United States need to rethink the priorities for and focus of their official development assistance programmes. So far, the main emphasis has been on construction of new projects. What is needed is a long-term vision for overall aid for the water sector, which needs to give more emphasis to capacity building, institutional strengthening, changing national policies which could facilitate efficient water management, and raising public awareness.

The world is now facing an urgent water crisis, the dimension of which no earlier generation has had to face. Unless this can be resolved, it will contribute to a major human tragedy. However, given political will and active collaboration between North and South, and East and West, in terms of investment, technology, and management expertise, the problem can be solved. If countries can initiate urgent actions, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic of the future.

UNU has a number of water-related research initiatives. Additional information on the Forum and on UNU work in this area can be obtained from Dr. Juha I. Uitto, Academic Division, the United Nations University, Tokyo, telephone: 03-3499-2811, fax: 03-3499-2828, e-mail:

For information, please contact:
UNU Public Affairs Section
Tel.: 5467-1243, -1246
Fax: 4567-7346

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