The third Water Forum is expected to play a critical role in solving water issues in the 21st century. The world’s population is predicted to grow from six billion today to nearly nine billion by 2050, increasing pressure on local authorities and planners to supply water to satisfy growing agricultural and urban water and sanitation demands. If current water-consumption patterns continue, it is predicted that by 2025 approximately half of the world’s 3.5 billion people will live in water-stressed drainage basins. Developing countries will be particularly hard hit.

The United Nations University is an autonomous academic organization under the U.N. umbrella. It has a mandate to contribute to efforts to resolve pressing water-related global problems by taking the following actions:

* Promote, implement and fund long-term, demand-driven, integrated capacity-building efforts in the developing world. To this end, the donor community should attend meetings hosted by the U.N. that are aimed at building commitment and consensus on strategies and processes to greatly expand the scale of effort;

* Harness developments in information technology to improve and make available monitoring and modeling tools for water management in developing countries;

* Take concerted action to reduce the impact of pollution, population growth, climate change and exploitative agriculture, forestry, mining and tourism on mountain-derived fresh-water resources;

* Develop innovative approaches supported by strong management and scientifically based policy to reduce water stress in arid regions;

* Take emergency action to reduce the impact of arsenic-tainted groundwater on tens of millions of people in Asia, so as to avert a health crisis of unprecedented proportions.

With at least half the world’s freshwater derived from them, mountains are the “water towers of the world.” They play a critical role in the global water cycle by capturing moisture from air masses and storing precipitation (e.g. snow). If these resources are not adequately protected, flooding, landslides, avalanches, fires and famines will become more frequent and many rare animals and plants will disappear.

Training for local and national governmental and nongovernmental staff must be improved in many countries, particularly in regard to building coalitions, managing projects, and increasing monitoring and evaluation skills.

Even with major improvements in irrigation systems and practices, agricultural use of water will continue to grow. It is predicted that global food production must double in the next 30 years to keep pace with population growth. The increasing demand for food is forcing farmers in many areas to cultivate marginal lands, leading to a greater use of agricultural chemicals and increasing the potential for freshwater eutrophication and pesticide accumulation — with all the accompanying human and ecological problems.

Many toxic and hazardous substances are contaminating water supplies. Those of greatest concern to human and ecosystem health are pesticides and agricultural chemicals — particularly persistent organic pollutants, metals such as mercury, lead and chromium, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), DDT and other pesticides, and dioxins.

Over 200 international water systems exist in the world today, catering to some 60 percent of the global population. This fact and the finite nature of water as a natural resource have long raised concerns regarding the socioeconomic and political security of human settlements and ecosystems in international water basins, thus bringing the issue of the governance of such systems to the forefront of natural-resources management research.

Floods exact a heavy toll throughout the world. An increasing concentration of population and wealth in vulnerable areas will exacerbate this problem. Floods, the most common and costly natural disaster, are the result of both natural factors and human activities. Urbanization changes local water cycles, increases flood runoff and decreases river flows, which in turn affects water quality.

The current situation demonstrates that we must use our precious water resources wisely, with a view to preserving them for future generations. This means not only managing water resources but also managing the demand for water. We have to carefully examine our lifestyles and water-consumption patterns. We must use water more efficiently and minimize wastage. Industries also can play an important role by reducing their use of fresh water and by maximizing their water-recycling efforts.

There is also a need to change our perception of water resources and the management role of governments. Major capital investment is required to properly utilize water resources. Even with foreign aid, governments in developing countries have been unable to cope with increasing demands and challenges. This has created an opening for the private sector to provide the necessary financial and human capital. We must, however, ensure that the public nature of water resources is preserved.

In addition to the private sector, the international community has a definitive role to play. The U.N. can help provide developing countries with technical assistance. At the same time, development agencies, banks and bilateral donor agencies can help alleviate the shortage of financial resources.

U.N. agencies should continue to work with all stakeholders, appraising their situations, identifying gaps in knowledge, needs and constraints, and supporting their efforts to resolve their problems and undertake self-sustaining and environmentally sensitive development.

With the International Year of Freshwater 2003 upon us, this is an ideal time to make firm commitments to deal with vital water issues.

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