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Monday, 11 February 2013

Launch of the International Year of Water Cooperation (WMO and UNESCO)

Press Conference on Launch of International Year of Water Cooperation

The global community should recognize the vital importance of water cooperation to peace, security and the achievement of Millennium Development Goals, experts said today at a Headquarters press conference upon the United Nations launch of the International Year of Water Cooperation.

The General Assembly, in 2010, had proclaimed 2013 to be the Year — one that would serve to raise awareness and prompt action on the multiple dimensions of water cooperation, such as sustainable and economic development, climate change and food security.  World Water Day, on 22 March, would also be dedicated to water cooperation.

“We are inching towards a water crisis,” warned Csaba Körösi, Permanent Representative of Hungary to the United Nations, noting that water resources had remained unchanged for 1,000 years, but that the number of users had since increased 8,000 times.  With global food production projected to increase by 50 per cent by 2030 and with 70 per cent of water consumption going to agriculture today, “2.5 billion people will very soon live in areas of water scarcity”.

The Ambassador, whose country would host a World Water Summit in early October in Budapest, went on to state that more people died from water-related problems than from metro disasters combined and that by 2020, more than 60 per cent of the world’s population would live in urban centres where access to safe drinking water, sanitation and wastewater management would pose a heavy challenge.

While stressing the importance of more equitable access to water, better wastewater treatment, improved technology and governance, rapid capacity-building and cooperation, he also emphasized the need for better data collection, monitoring and assessment.  “Water used to be more of an area of cooperation than the source of conflict,” he said, adding:  “It should be so in the future”.  Sustainable development goals for water should be designed to avoid a looming crisis.

Mr. Körösi noted that when Hungary had the European Union’s rotating presidency two years ago, a strategy had been adopted, establishing a framework of cooperation among 19 countries that went well beyond hydrological issues and encompassed transport, agriculture, food production, water quality, culture, infrastructure, disaster preparedness and cooperation all over those sectors.

Ana Persic, Science Specialist at United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Office in New York said her agency had been chosen to lead the International Year of Water Cooperation, not only because of its  involvement in many water-related projects, but also because of its multidisciplinary mandate covering education, culture and communication.  “It is important to see water, not only as a technical issue or an issue of access, quantity or quality, but also as a social and cultural issue,” she said.

Noting that water cooperation was vital because 40 per cent of the world’s population lived in river and lake basins comprising two or more countries and 90 per cent lived in countries that shared basins, she said:  “wherever you build something in one country upstream, you will absolutely have an impact on the countries downstream”.

Ms. Persic agreed with the Ambassador that water had been a source of cooperation, noting that since 1948, there had been only 37 incidents of acute conflict, while 295 international water agreements had been signed over the same period.  Enhanced water cooperation would contribute to poverty reduction, sustainability and peace, among other benefits.  Stressing the need to share best practices, she said many events were being planned worldwide to mark the International Year, providing opportunities to “unpackage” relevant issues and repackage them.

Paul Egerton, Representative of the World Meteorological Organization to the United Nations, said there were high levels of water stress in many countries and rapid climate change would further increase water variability, further enhancing vulnerability.  There was a need for supply- and demand-side measures to address water challenges to climate change.  Desertification, drought, or flooding could significantly impede development.  He encouraged Member States to coalesce around a sustainable development goal on climate-adaptive water strategies.

This year, the issue of water security would become increasingly relevant, because “water scarcity triggers migration, refugees, situations where basic human rights are weakened or threatened”, he said, adding that those issues had great relevance for maintaining the peace and security of regions under environmental and political stress.

Last September, at the start of the sixty-seventh General Assembly session, a side event had highlighted the increasing danger of conflict related to future water resource issues in climate-vulnerable and politically sensitive regions, he said.  It was encouraging that later this week the Security Council would hold an informal discussion on “climate security”, he added.  The recent events of Hurricane Sandy in a highly populated and developed region had been “a wake-up call” that most of the world’s biggest cities were in proximity to coastlines that could be subjected to severe flooding.

The World Meterological Organization would co-host a high-level conference in Geneva from 11 to 15 March, with a focus on national drought policies.  In addition, WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud would chair a conference on Water and Disasters on 5 and 6 March, hosted by the United Nations Secretary-General’s Advisory Board of Water and Sanitation and the Japanese Mission.

In order to transform knowledge into action, he continued, WMO had launched a global framework for climate services, to bring the providers of climate information and observations closer to the users of that data and to enhance forecasting, risk assessment and management.

Responding to a question about regional water disputes, such as one involving countries along the Nile and a dam dispute between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, Mr. Egerton said WMO and UNESCO were aiming to bring scientific and environmental aspects to the fore, instead of focusing on political elements.

Mr. Körösi described this year’s water cooperation efforts as particularly important because they would help formulate sustainable development goals and the post-2015 development agenda.

When asked about the role of UNESCO in water-related efforts, Ms. Persic said her agency would not tell Member States what to do, but rather facilitate processes.

Responding to a query about China’s “hegemony” over water resources in Asia, Mr. Egerton said he would not discuss an issue involving a particular country but pointed out glaciers in the Himalayas were melting due to climate change, resulting in downstream consequences.

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11 Feb 2013 - Participants: Paul Egerton, World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Representative to the United Nations and Ana Persic, Science Specialist, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Office in New York.

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