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close this bookFreshwater Resources in Arid Lands (UNU, 1997, 94 pages)
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Takashi lnoguchi

Fresh water is essential for human survival and development, yet it is becoming an increasingly scarce resource. Providing drinking water for the world's fast-growing cities and water for irrigation to produce food for the burgeoning population is one of the great challenges facing mankind in the decades to come. Fresh water is distributed very unevenly over the Earth's surface. In the vast arid and semi-arid areas of the world, the supply of fresh water is increasingly precarious. These are often the areas where population growth is the highest. Unsustainable and excessive utilization of underground water, for example for irrigation, has in many instances led to serious ecological disturbances. The water-tables have sunk, and the soils have become salinized and mineralized, with serious social, economic, and health consequences. Furthermore, the world's limited freshwater resources are often shared between two or more nations. When water becomes a scarce resource, it also becomes a source of conflict. It has been said that water, more than oil, will be the resource around which most conflicts will centre in the next century.

The United Nations system considers water from a number of entry points. It is recognized that fresh water is a critical resource, although an international water convention is still awaited. The policies and actions of the United Nations and its various agencies are guided by Agenda 21, adopted at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development - the so-called Earth Summit organized in Rio de Janeiro four years ago (UN 1992). One of the all-permeating themes of Agenda 21 is water. Although only one chapter (chap. 18) is directly concerned with the protection of the quality and supply of freshwater resources, virtually all the other chapters dealing with the conservation and management of resources for development deal with water issues. Water is an inseparable aspect of life that determines the potential and possibilities of human activities in an environment. Whether we discuss how to combat deforestation, desertification, and drought, or the sustainable management of fragile mountain ecosystems, where much of the fresh water available for human consumption is stored and generated, water is an unavoidable theme. Similarly, promotion of sustainable agriculture and rural development are contingent on the efficient and economical utilization of freshwater resources. Needless to say, prevention of the pollution of these precious water resources by toxic chemicals or by hazardous and other wastes is equally important.

In response to the UN system-wide Agenda 21, the UNU prepared its own blueprint for the University's actions to promote environmentally sound development - the UNU Agenda 21 (UNU 1993). The main purpose was for the University to build upon its mandate and strengths to adopt a bold, policy-oriented agenda to develop the human resources and build up the capacity of countries and of the international community to plan and implement the environmentally sustainable development strategies postulated by the Earth Summit.

The UNU Agenda 21 identifies water as a critical resource and directs the University to focus its work on the supply and quality of water for human consumption, as well as for agriculture, energy production, and industry, and for the preservation of biodiversity. It is believed that the UNU, operating at the global level and within a context of academic freedom, should be able to deal with the sensitive political and legal issues arising, for instance, with regard to the sharing of international water bodies, including aquifers and groundwater resources. It is also recognized that the UNU should pay attention to water quality assessment and monitoring, especially in the growing number of large cities in the developing world, which are already experiencing serious water shortages.

The University's current research and training programmes approach water issues by reflecting the above considerations. On the one hand, the UNU is concerned with the management of international water bodies, such as rivers and lakes falling within the jurisdiction of more than one country. This approach combines environmental aspects with those of international politics into a project that we call "Hydropolitics and Eco-Political Decision-Making." The project aims at a comprehensive and objective study of water as a limiting factor for regions sharing major international water bodies, with the view of providing bases for sustainable environmental and political management of the critical resources. The project aims to identify not only the issues in disputes concerning water resources but also alternative scenarios that could lead to the solution of complex problems related to water and environment, and to recommend processes through which the concerned countries are likely to agree on mutually satisfactory solutions to the problems by sharing resources and benefits. The project is also intended to provide a comprehensive and objective environmental management setting for the sustainable development of international water bodies.

In this context, earlier UNU work has focused on water as a critical resource and a potential source of conflict in the Middle East (Biswas 1994). The project looked into hydropolitics, as well as technological options, for policymaking for sustainable development in the region (Wolf 1995; Murakami 1995). It is generally recognized that the UNU's efforts in this field, especially the 1993 Middle East Water Forum, contributed to the Middle East peace process. In other areas, the UNU has studied the peaceful development, in an environmentally sound way, of major Asian rivers (including the Mekong, Ganges-Brahmaputra, and the Salween) and Central Eurasian waters (including the Caspian Sea and the Aral Sea), and their environmental management and rehabilitation (Glazovsky 1995; Wolf and Biswas 1995).

On the other hand, the UNU's work is concerned with environmental governance, which is the entrance point to the projects on the Asia-Pacific phase of the "International Mussel Watch," and "Environmental Monitoring and Analysis." The goal of the "International Mussel Watch" is to provide an assessment of the status and trends of chemical contaminants in the world's coastal waters. These data are critical for protecting both the health of people who consume seafood and the health of coastal ecosystems. Bivalve molluscs are good monitors for several reasons, including their ability to bioconcentrate chemical contaminants and their sedentary nature, which makes them representative of a specific place. The project on "Environmental Monitoring and Analysis" is concerned with capacity building and implementation of regional monitoring systems for improved data and information. The main part of this project focuses on technology transfer and environmental governance in the East Asian region. The objective of the project is to standardize and calibrate analytical methodologies in the East Asian region, as well as providing high-level training to scientists in the region. The project focuses on technology and knowledge transfer and capacity building, in instructing participants in the generation of reference materials and analyses for a variety of materials, including water. The ultimate objective will be to contribute to monitoring compliance with international environmental accords and to strengthen national environmental laws and policies as they relate to international environmental obligations.

The theme of today's meeting is Freshwater Resources in Arid Lands. This is the fifth annual UNU Global Environmental Forum organized since the commencement of the series in 1991. The purpose of these forums is to highlight contemporary environmental issues and to disseminate research results to a wider interested public, thereby creating greater awareness of the challenges that lie ahead of us. Today we have brought together a group of internationally renowned experts on the management of freshwater resources, particularly in drylands. I trust that their presentations, and the panel discussion this afternoon that will provide an opportunity for audience interaction, will prove thought-provoking and stimulating.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Obayashi Corporation for their generous sponsorship of this forum, as well as those that have taken place previously. This, to my mind, provides an excellent example of cooperation between the public and private sectors in working together towards a more sustainable world.


Biswas, A.K. (ed.). 1994. International Waters of the Middle East: From Euphrates-Tigris to Nile. Oxford University Press, Bombay.

Glazovsky, N.F. 1995. The Aral Sea basin. In: J.X. Kasperson, R.E. Kasperson, and B.L. Turner 11 (eds.), Regions at Risk: Comparisons of Threatened Environments, 92-139. United Nations University Press, Tokyo.

Murakami, M. 1995. Managing Water for Peace in the Middle East: Alternative Strategies. United Nations University Press, Tokyo.

UN. 1992. Agenda 21. United Nations, New York.

UNU. 1993. Programme on Environmentally Sustainable Development: UNU Agenda 21. Advisory Team Report. The United Nations University, Tokyo.

Wolf, A.T. 1995. Hydropolitics Along the Jordan River: Scarce Water and Its Impact on the Arab-lsraeli Conflict. United Nations University Press, Tokyo.

Wolf, A.T. and A.K. Biswas. 1995. Asian Water Forum: Summary Report. The United Nations University, Tokyo.