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The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, created a new awareness of the fundamental problems of sustainable development. The Conference agreed on a broad programme of action leading into the twenty-first century - Agenda 21. Through the joint efforts of governments, non-governmental organizations, and the scientific community, we have all begun to realize that global environmental problems in the long term may threaten human survival. We need to tackle them urgently, and the responses have to be on a global scale -this is an essential challenge for the United Nations system in the decades to come.
Among these problems of global significance, the issue of the world's water resources warrants special attention. This was recognized by the main follow-up body to Rio, the Commission on Sustainable Development, which decided to carry out a comprehensive water assessment, to be considered by the UN General Assembly in 1997. Several agencies are involved in this work, and the Stockholm Environment Institute plays a key role. The international community needs to focus on water for political, economic, and social reasons. First of all, water is the strategic factor in ensuring long-term food security for the growing world population. My involvement in the work on the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, signed in 1994, has made me acutely aware of the fact that almost 1 billion of the world's population today live in drylands, in fragile ecosystems, sensitive to human activities and to the hazards of climatic factors. Second, experience has shown that there are essential elements of foreign policy and security policy linked to water. Some people maintain that water will become a more serious cause for conflict than oil in the future. Be that as it may, it is clear that shared water resources can lead to a downward spiral of conflict and war - but it is also obvious that the need for cooperation and perceived mutual interests can lead to an upward spiral of consultation and joint action.
For these varied reasons, I feel particularly honoured and pleased to preface this book. It sets a number of particularly important problems of inland seas with shared water resources in a broad perspective, presented by eminent scientists focused on the Aral Sea, the Caspian Sea, and the Dead Sea. I have myself had the opportunity to be involved in the efforts to face the situation in the Aral Sea basin, a problem of a man-made desert, which is clearly of global significance. The disappearing Aral Sea is a major environmental and human disaster to which nobody can remain indifferent. The specific studies on inland seas in this book will no doubt help all of us -and in particular the governments concerned - to find practical and practicable solutions that will really benefit the hard-hit people living in these regions.
But we also know that national and international action is difficult in a world with many pressures and conflicts of interest. This book gives us the opportunity to benefit from an expert overview of issues and possible solutions in some of the most serious problem regions of the world. We can compare, see similarities and differences, link political, economic, social, and technical factors, and improve understanding as a basis for action. It is indeed an essential role for the United Nations University.
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