|Water for Urban Areas (UNU, 2000, 243 p.)|
Abraham Besrat, Vice-Rector, United Nations University
The Sixth UNU Global Environmental Forum, "Water for Urban Areas in the 21st Century," was organized by the United Nations University and sponsored by Obayashi Corporation on 25 June 1997. Both topics - water and cities - will be critical in the next century.
The past several decades have seen the proliferation of cities and urban areas around the world. It is estimated that, by the end of the twentieth century, more than half of the world population will live in cities, and, by the year 2025, more than two-thirds of the population will do so, with the highest urban growth rates in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Such growth will bring tremendous stress and pose formidable problems of social and institutional change, infrastructure investment, and pollution control. Even today, taking into account the recent growth in environmental infrastructure investments worldwide, the World Bank estimates that about 380 million urban residents still do not have adequate sanitation, and at least 170 million still lack access to a nearby source of safe drinking water. This problem does not preclude Japan and other developed countries. Urban population growth is universal on this planet, and virtually all cities are experiencing environmental degradation.
One very important problem that we will face in the twenty-first century is water: water that is needed to support our cities; water that we can drink; water that we can cook with; water that we can use for cleaning; water that we can use in our industries. Making clean water available in the next 40 or so years will require extending the service to 3.7 billion more urban residents. In addition, preventing further degradation in fast-growing countries will require that pollution per unit of industrial output fall by 90 per cent between now and the year 2030. This is a difficult task indeed, considering that most developing countries today would put development before environmental concerns.
The problems related to water are manifold and contrasting. Either there is too little of it - as during a drought or an extremely hot summer - or there is too much of it - as during flooding. Aside from the problem of quantity, there is also a problem of quality: Is the water safe to drink? Is the taste acceptable? Are we recycling it?
For a developing country city, the most immediate problems are the health impacts of urban pollution that derive from inadequate water, sanitation, drainage, and solid waste services. Together with poor industrial waste management and air pollution, these problems combine into what is called the "brown agenda" - a set of problems linked to poverty and environment.
Because poverty, economic development, and the environment are inextricably linked, another problem that we can foresee in the very near future is the issue of equity. This means different income brackets getting a different quantity and quality of water and services.
We mostly still consider water a free resource. The thinking that anything that falls from the sky is free must change very soon. Recent studies have shown that water prices will double, if not triple, in the next few years because of the commodity's increasing scarcity in a state that we can use it. This impending change, and others that go with it, will disproportionately affect the urban poor, and their plight in turn will exacerbate the urban environmental crises. According to one estimate, the cost of pollution problems alone in developing countries exceeds 5 per cent of their GDP. Clearly, improving the situation of the urban poor is an essential precondition for reducing urban environmental hazards.
The United Nations policy on water is guided by the Agenda 21 adopted at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), the so-called Earth Summit, organized in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Although only one chapter is directly concerned with the protection of the quality and supply of freshwater resources, virtually all other chapters that deal with the conservation and management of resources for development also deal with water issues.
Sustainable management of water resources also figures centrally in the United Nations University's research and training programme. The current programme includes projects on such topics as hydro-politics and eco-political decision-making, water quality assessment and monitoring, and environmental governance. The focus of the UNU's work is on developing countries in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Only recently, the University inaugurated a new research and training programme - the International Network on Water, Environment and Health (UNU/INWEH). The aim of UNU/INWEH is to link the watershed-ecosystem approach with human health needs, giving full consideration to the developmental aspects of water, which is so essential for human life and work. The UNU/INWEH programme will focus on practical problem-solving, with particular emphasis on the needs and concerns of the developing regions of the world.
In June 1997, world leaders again gathered together under the United Nations umbrella to discuss the progress made and the problems faced in the five years following the Rio summit. The United Nations General Assembly Special Session Earth Summit+ 5 in New York considered freshwater to be one of the central issues facing humankind as we strive towards sustainable development.
Also in 1997, the Denver Summit of Eight, which brought together the heads of the leading nations, highlighted the need to promote sustainable development and protect the environment. One of the issues singled out in their final communiqué was freshwater; they called for the promotion of efficient water use, improvement of water quality and sanitation, technological development and capacity building, public awareness, and institutional improvements.
Japan, as one of the leading nations in both financial and know-how terms, is well placed to take a lead in this process. In his speech to the UN General Assembly Special Session, Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto emphasized the role Japan could have in promoting the development and spread of environmentally sound technologies.
The attention paid to freshwater by the world community demonstrates the gravity of the issues involved. The Sixth UNU Global Environmental Forum brought together leading experts from around the world to discuss solutions to the problems related to providing adequate and clean water supply and sanitation for the growing urban centres. The Forum considered mega-cities of both industrialized and developing nations, and covered topics such as wastewater management and reuse, the role of the private sector, and emergency water supply and disaster vulnerability.
The Forum exemplified the mode of operation of the UNU in disseminating state-of-the-art knowledge on pressing global problems. An autonomous academic organization under the United Nations umbrella, the UNU brings together networks of eminent scholars and experts to work on important issues that are the concern of the world body and to present their research results and experience to the public through forums such as this. This Forum was the sixth annual UNU Global Environmental Forum organized since the series began in 1991. The purpose of these forums is to highlight contemporary environmental issues and to disseminate research results to the public, thereby creating greater awareness of the challenges that lie ahead of us.
The United Nations University would like to thank Obayashi Corporation for their generous sponsorship of this Forum, as well as the ones that have taken place before it. This is, indeed, a very fine example of the public and private sectors cooperating and working together towards a better world.