Freshwater Analysis



The Business of Freshwater

Jim Lamb

Group Environment Manager - Seven Trent

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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