The following post is by Dr. Salman M.A. Salman, an academic researcher and consultant on water law and policy and a Fellow with the International Water Resources Association. Until December 2009, Dr. Salman served as Lead Counsel and Water Law Adviser with the Legal Vice Presidency of the World Bank. He can be reached at Salmanmasalman [at] gmail.com.
The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted on December 20, 2010, resolution 65/154, proclaiming 2013 as the “International Year of Water Cooperation.” The resolution, adopted without vote, called on all member states of the United Nations system and all other actors to take advantage of the Year to promote actions at all levels. Such actions include encouraging international cooperation, aimed at the achievement of the internationally agreed water-related goals contained in Agenda 21, the Programme for the Further Implementation of Agenda 21, the United Nations Millennium Declaration, and the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, as well as to increase awareness of their importance. Celebrations of the World Water Day on March 22, 2013, will focus on plans and programs for achieving the objectives of this resolution. The purpose of this post is to trace the efforts of the United Nations to highlight the problems and challenges faced in the realm of water resources and to underscore the need for cooperation at all levels to address those problems.
The United Nations started paying attention to water resources in 1972. In June of that year, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment was held in Stockholm, Sweden. Principle 2 of the Stockholm Declaration stated that “the natural resources of the earth including the air, water, land, flora, and fauna … must be safeguarded for the benefit of the present and future generations through careful planning and management.” Five years later, water resources received far reaching attention of the world community for two full weeks when the Mar del Plata Water Conference was held in Argentina, March 14 to 25, 1977. The Mar del Plata Action Plan included detailed provisions on water resources assessment, water use and management efficiency, the environment, the right to water, and international cooperation. One critical outcome of the conference was the proclamation of the period 1981 to 1990 as “the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade.”
The world community’s attention to the emerging problems facing water resources continued. In January 1992 the International Conference on Water and the Environment was held in Dublin, Ireland, and issued the “Dublin Statement on Water and Sustainable Development.” The Conference underscored the fact that water resources management should be based on a participatory approach involving users, planners and policy makers at all levels. It addressed the two principles of water as an economic good, as well as the right to water at an affordable price. This meeting was followed six months later by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development that was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 1992. Agenda 21 of the Rio Summit “Actions on Sustainable Development” included a separate chapter (Chapter 18) on water resources which laid down detailed plans, programs and action plans to “satisfy the freshwater needs of all countries for their sustainable development.” Cooperation at all levels was highlighted as one important requirement for achieving this objective.
Building on the recommendations of the Rio Conference, the UNGA adopted on December 22, 1992, resolution 47/193, declaring March 22 of each year, as World Water Day, to be observed starting in 1993, and invited states to devote the day in the national context to concrete activities such as the promotion of public awareness through publication and diffusion of documentaries and the organization of conferences, round tables, and seminars related to the conservation and development of water resources.
A number of other actions in the water resources field were thereafter taken by the UNGA. The most important of those has been the adoption by the UNGA on May 21, 1997, by more than one hundred of its members, of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses. The Convention is predicated on the principle of cooperation of the watercourse states, and indeed it mentions the words cooperation/cooperate fifteen times. The Convention needs the ratification/acceptance of 35 parties to enter into force. Thus far 30 countries have ratified/accepted the Convention, raising hopes that the Convention may even enter into force during 2013, making the year also the year of international water cooperation (see Status of the Convention).
Furthermore, the UNGA adopted resolution 55/196 on December 20, 2000, proclaiming the year 2003 as the International Year of Freshwater, and called for concerted actions and efforts for better management and conservation of water resources, through inter alia, cooperation between the different users. This followed the Millennium Declaration that was adopted by the UNGA on September 8, 2000. One of the eight millennium development goals to be achieved by 2015 is reducing by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water. The UN Summit on Sustainable Development that was held in Johannesburg, South Africa, in September 2002 added a similar goal with regards to sanitation. The need to achieve both goals was underscored by the UNGA resolution 58/217 adopted on December 23, 2003, which declared the period 2005 – 2015 as the “International Decade for Action, Water for Life,” and stated that the goals of the decade should include a greater focus on water related issues at all levels to achieve the internationally agreed goals.
The UNGA decided to give similar attention to sanitation, and addressed this matter through resolution 59/228 adopted on December 22, 2004, as well as resolution 61/192 of December 20, 2006 which proclaimed 2008 as the international year of sanitation.
The fact that close to one billion people lack access to improved water resources, more than two and a half billion people are without provision for sanitation, and one and a half million children under five die annually of water-borne diseases are constant reminders of the challenges facing humanity in the field of water resources. It should also be added that by 2050 one fourth of world population will live in countries with chronic water shortage, mostly in the Middle East and Africa.
Thus, the declaration of 2013 as the international year of water cooperation and the celebrations that will take place on March 22 this year should mark as another important reminder that cooperation is needed at all levels – among individual and corporate users, districts and provinces within the country, and more importantly among states – to manage, share, protect and conserve the most vital heritage of mankind, its water resources, so as to address these challenges.