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close this bookUnited Nations University - Work in Progress Newsletter - Volume 15, Number 2, 1998 (UNU, 1998, 12 pages)
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentWater for sustainable growth: "Nor any drop to drink"
View the documentThe work of UNU/INWEH: Improving water management
View the documentStanding in line for water: Cooperation on the Ganges and Brahmaputra
View the documentHydropolitics along the Danube
View the documentCity water: 21st century challenge
View the documentNew ways to govern the seas
Open this folder and view contentsRavaged seas in Central Asia
View the documentHistory's plagued seas: The Mediterranean
View the documentClimate, history and water
View the documentWater: The 21st century's oil?
View the documentA chemical eye on water
View the documentWhen oil troubles waters

Water for sustainable growth: "Nor any drop to drink"

"Water, water everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink."

("Rime of the Ancient Mariner" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

The Ancient Mariner had it nearly right. Water covers most of the globe, but very little of it - about two per cent - is freshwater, and most of this is locked up in polar ice. By UN estimates, two-thirds of humanity will face shortages of clean freshwater by the year 2025. Improved management of our precious water resources is an urgent global need.


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The United Nations University is given the charge of tackling "pressing global problems of human survival, development and welfare." One is hard put to come up with a problem that fits the definition more precisely than that of the planet's stressed water resources. Without sufficient water, the very survival of our species would soon be called into question -as, obviously, would any hope of development or decent daily welfare.

It is difficult to say which part of the water equation has the greater urgency - for, in fact, all life is caught up in a watery web of daily needs, from humans to animals to the crops that nourish us. The face of the waters has helped to define the course of ancient civilizations.

Water systems can be sensitive barometers of the health of the planet. Decreased freshwater supply has encumbered world food harvests, destroyed precious aquatic habitats, and threatened biodiversity. The world's oceans show equal evidence of the track of the human species - fish catches are off, polluted run-off threatens the ocean's ability to supply life-giving oxygen. Global climate warming is rogue factor - it could imperil the lives of tens of millions, mostly poor, who have much to fear from even a slight rise in sea level.

All in all, it is hard to think of another set of interlocking concerns which so precisely fits the definition of "pressing global problem of human survival, development and welfare" - the defining Charter responsibility of the United Nations University.

The UNU has committed much of its intellectual resources to this immense agenda, and this issue of Work in Progress provides a sampling of the work. UNU scientists have been looking at the state of many of the globe's different waterways: from the oceans in which life began, to the mighty rivers which have been history's great trade highways, to environmentally devastated inland lakes, like the Aral Sea.

Until fairly recently, most people had little inkling of the ecological, economic and social consequences of too little water. The oceans were too vast, the rivers too mighty, the fish too plentiful to be permanently destroyed. But, due mainly to population increase, per capita water supplies as we enter the 21st century are one third lower than they were in 1970. Growing water scarcity has become a very real obstacle to sustainable development.

The UNU has long been concerned with water questions. This concern was given institutional structure in 1996 with the creation, thanks to core funding by the Government of Canada, of the International Network on Water, Environment and Health (UNU/INWEH). Its role is to strengthen water management capacity, particularly of developing countries. We begin this issue with an article by UNU/INWEH Director Ralph Daley and his Ontario colleague Terry Collins. They explain the new network's innovative mode of operations and discuss some of its initial work.

Work in Progress then takes up a number of facets of the modem global water dilemma. Conflicts over water rights, for example, have been a thorn in the side of United Nations negotiators since the UN's earliest days a half century ago. Indeed water, observed former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, could prove to be the oil of the next century, the source of geopolitical strategies by the great and small. With Mikiyasu Nakayama, a Japanese agricultural specialist who has been intimately involved in UN water resources research, we take a look at previous challenges to the world organization by water disputes.

The 1997 UNU Forum, "Water for Urban Areas in the 21st Century," made clear that two of the future's most urgent problems are intimately interlinked. The forum brought together experts from Asia, Europe, Latin America, and North America. Three of the scholars at the forum ponder the explosive scenario developing in the competition for urban water.

Rivers continue to be some of the world's most troubled waters, with their division responsible for baffling eco-political conflicts. Work in Progress takes a look, in three separate articles, at the intermix of concerns along some of the world's most storied rivers: the Danube along the Slovak-Hungarian border; the Volga on its course to the Caspian Sea; and the interweavings of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra in the daily lives of millions. A fourth article recounts the tragic creeping results of river mismanagement in Central Asia - the diversion of water for irrigation purposes, which is drying up the Aral Sea.

Common to all of the river crises is paucity of information, and the need for better monitoring. The UNU, through its environmental monitoring efforts, is helping to bring a sophisticated scientific eye to water problems. The target areas are East Asian coasts, which are particularly stressed due to development efforts. The ways in which it is providing key information to policy makers are discussed by Glen Paoletto, who helped develop the UNU's Global Environmental Information Centre (GEIC).

An eloquent voice in the global water debate, Elizabeth Mann-Borgese, advances the plea that, in this 1998 International Year of the Ocean, the concept of sustainable development should be based on the principles of common heritage enunciated in the Law of the Sea. Yoko Kobayashi, of the GEIC staff, takes a close-to-home look at a sadly familiar ocean problem - what happened last year when oil spilled from an aging tanker into the frigid winter waters of the Sea of Japan.

In closing, we take a look, from two UNU Lectures, at the intimate ways in which water and human civilization have been interwoven. First, Fran├žois Doumenge, successor to Jacques Cousteau at the famed oceanographic facility in Monaco, reviews the geological history of the Mediterranean and Black Seas, including what modem science tells us about Noah's flood. Finally, Arie Issar, a UNESCO-affiliated water scientist, discusses the fascinating "what-ifs" of Mideast history that seem to emerge from isotopic testings of cores from the Sea of Galilee, and suggests what this might imply about the world's water future.

Someone has observed that, now that we can look at our planet from outer space, as science has permitted us to do, we should name it Water - not Earth. The globe's all-encircling seas are our definitive final frontier. As our knowledge grows, so does our awareness of the immense debt we owe to the waters of the Earth and our common responsibility for their care and well-being. We hope this issue of Work in Progress helps underline the importance UNU attaches to that obligation to help all share those waters.