The Business of
Group Environment Manager - Seven
The issue of freshwater was recognised over 27 years ago, at the UN Conference on the Human Environment, but the
principles to guide the provision of infrastructure to deal with the deficiencies did not
emerge until 1992 at the Dublin Conference
and later at the Earth Summit at Rio. This
guidance is still relevant today.
A major step forward in understanding the scale and nature of
the problems to be overcome came with the publication of the ‘Comprehensive
review of the freshwater resources of the world’ in 1997. A number of hard
truths emerged in this document, not least the realisation that the greatest
problem was the expected growth in population in the areas of the world where
there was already severe water stress. The existing problem amounted to one
billion people without access to safe drinking water and two billion without
sanitation. Over five million people die each year from water related diseases.
It is clear from the facts in this report that the infrastructure
needed to meet existing and expected deficiencies will not be provided by international
aid. If by 2025 everyone who needs basic sanitation is to be provided with this essential
service, then over half a million people a day for the next 25 years will need to be
accommodated. Clearly this will not happen, not least because the areas of greatest need
are usually the poorest.
Key issues that also emerged is the importance of agriculture
and industry. Agriculture uses 70% of the world’s available water and industry
uses about 20%. Much of the agricultural use is wasted because of poor
irrigation. Industrial growth in the developing world could be stifled because
of the lack of water. These issues need some degree of resolution before any
progress with the provision of water and sanitation services for people can be
made. Agriculture must use water more efficiently and industry must be allowed
to develop, but without causing pollution. Industrial development will bring the
wealth needed to finance the provision and operation of infrastructure.
Of paramount importance is that after meeting all of mankind’s
needs there should be sufficient water to conserve aquatic ecosystems. If this
is not achieved the hydrological cycle will fail and in some areas of the world
water will cease to be a renewable resource.
The water industry has a crucial role to play. If the
colossal need for water services is to be met, the water industry must work with
governments, and with society, to raise finance, provide and operate
infrastructure and protect the environment. Of particular importance in this
respect is the World Bank’s Business Partners for Development Freshwater
Cluster, which is exploring how this can be best achieved using the privatised
water industry. Organisations like the World Bank are crucial because they can
provide the finance needed to provide other water services.
Other institutions, like the United Nations, must continue to keep the
freshwater issue on the agendas of all governments so that the enabling legislation for
infrastructure provision is in place.
The UN can also take a lead in the dialogue with governments that is
necessary to encourage more efficient use of water in agriculture. Similarly, NGOs can
make a major contribution by keeping governments aware of the issues and helping to ensure
that the environment and minority groups are protected.
The world has changed over the last 30 years, the role of industry,
with respect to sustainable development, has been progressively enhanced. It is essential
that industry understands its role, so organisations like the World Business Council for
Sustainable Development and the International Chamber of Commerce are vital for raising
awareness in the industrial sector.
Key events in the run up to Earth Summit III are the Stockholm Water Symposiums in August each year,
and CSD 8 in New York in April 2000. These
are opportunities to explore how water services can be provided in a sustainable way.
Provision and operation of water infrastructure is a long-term venture,
it can only be achieved by applying the concept of sustainable development.
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