By William J. Cosgrove & Richard Connor

Water, as the saying goes, is everybody’s business. The reason is simple—water is life. Without access to a clean, freshwater supply and adequate sanitation services, there can be no poverty reduction or sustainable development. Perhaps surprisingly, the fundamental concept of linking freshwater to sustainable development was often overlooked by decision and policy makers involved in what has come to be known as the “global environmental movement.” Yet, during the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD)—which took place Aug. 26-Sept. 5, 2002, in Johannesburg, South Africa—the overall importance of water did not go unnoticed.

Ten years after
A decade ago, during the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, water was mainly an afterthought, mentioned mostly in passing. Other environmental issues, such as ozone depletion, deforestation, desertification and biodiversity, received most of the attention from delegates and the media. This attention in turn led to the ratification of United Nations Conventions, as well as a long list of bilateral and multilateral agreements addressing these issues. Of course, Agenda 21—a comprehensive plan of action to be taken globally, nationally and locally by organizations of the United Nations in every area in which humanity impacts on the environment—did have an entire chapter (Chapter 18) devoted to water. But it remained largely an issue mainly for the water sector—for those people and organizations already involved in protecting and managing freshwater resources.

Originally billed as Rio +10, the environmental focus of the Johannesburg Summit quickly evolved into one aimed primarily at poverty reduction. This was in part due to the movement that sprang from the Millennium Summit, held two years earlier in New York City, which called for the alleviation of poverty by the year 2015 and set several targets designed to achieve this. As a result, discussions at the WSSD centered as much on social and economic issues as they did on the environment. Issues and discussions ended up being a bit diluted; however, water became the solvent into which all of these issues were mixed.

Water at heart of five themes
The main five themes of the Johannesburg Summit were water, health, energy, biodiversity and agriculture. The link between water and the four other themes were clear—health requires clean water and sanitation; energy requires water for cooling and hydropower and treating and transporting water requires energy; biodiversity requires water for aquatic, riparian and terrestrial species, and agriculture requires water for irrigation and processing.

Recognizing the link between water and sustainable development, the Johannesburg Declaration calls for a “speedy increase (in) access to basic requirements such as clean water (and) sanitation.” Specific goals are set forth in the Plan of Implementation. In this, the delegates agreed “to halve, by the year 2015, the proportion of people who are unable to reach or to afford ‘safe’ drinking water and the proportion of people without access to basic sanitation.”

Obviously, the costs associated with such ambitious objectives are high, and the financial mechanisms required were the focus of considerable attention and debate.

Privatization of water services
In the week leading up to the WSSD, international news services reported the backlash in Argentina over the privatization of the government-run water system. Reacting to water bills that had more than doubled in price in only a few years, a citizen-led protest movement and a national economic crisis forced a French multinational company to abandon its long-term contract to overhaul and manage the waterworks of Tucuman Province, home to about 1 million Argentineans.

Recent demonstrations in Bolivia, Ecuador, Panama, South Africa, and Guyana (see Newsreel this issue) show how contentious the economics of water have become. On the one hand, there are those who argue that water is a basic human right, and that all people are entitled to a clean, healthy supply. On the other hand, providing water and sanitation services costs more money than some governments are willing or able to spend. In fact, the widespread inability of governments in the world’s least developed countries to provide their population with clean water and sanitation has been one of the strongest arguments in favor of privatization.

The WSSD brought no new solution to the debate. The reality is that there is a range of workable solutions available to elected officials, who must choose one that is suited to their particular circumstances. Unfortunately, those most strongly opposed to privatization have offered little in terms of alternatives.

Hot topics rather than key issues
Globally, media coverage of the Johannesburg Summit concentrated more on the people involved (or absent) than on the issues themselves. Much ink was spread over the absence of the president of the United States, and over statements by a few other heads of state that used the WSSD platform to pursue their own political agenda. But some of the main issues, many water-related, did receive some attention.

In addition to the privatization of water services, climate change and the Kyoto protocol were hotly debated in the press. Again, the focus unfortunately was on which countries were and were not willing to sign the agreement, rather than explaining why the agreement—and the whole climate change phenomena—was important in the first place. The issue of climate change was, however, front and center in Johannesburg at the Water Dome, a five-day side event to the WSSD where thousands of people gathered to discuss water-related issues.

Link between water, climate change
Rather than joining the debate over the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, the water community gathered at the Water Dome and spent an entire day discussing how to better prepare themselves for climate variability and change. Natural disasters such as floods, droughts and hurricanes have been increasing over the past several decades and are expected to become more frequent and intense as a result of climate change. Most agree that by learning to better cope with climate variability today, we will be in a better position to deal with the impacts of climate change tomorrow.

In cooperation with the World Meteorological Organization, the Dialogue on Water and Climate (DWC) organized a special day on “Water, Climate and Energy.” The results from that day’s discussions gave a clear message—we must give greater consideration to climate variability and change in our water management decisions. The ability to make intermediate and long range climate forecasts has grown considerably over the past decade, and this information provides an important and useful tool for the water management, agriculture and disaster preparedness sectors.

The momentum building up around the subject of water and climate has been extensive for some time now. Both themes are prominent in the World Summit on Sustainable Development “Implementation Plan.” Climate and water will remain a central theme at the Third World Water Forum in Japan in March 2003.

About the author
William J. Cosgrove is vice president of the World Water Council, which is the international water policy think tank born at the U.N. Conference on Water at Mar de Plata in 1977. The organization was formally established in Marseilles, France, in 1996. Cosgrove can be reached at +33 (4) 91 99 41 00, +33 (4) 91 99 41 01 (fax) or email: [email protected].

Richard Connor is a project manager with the Dialogue on Water and Climate, an initiative of the World Water Council (see:



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