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NGOs sound alarm over water conflicts

A Chinese river is polluted by cinders and rust dumped from a nearby coalmine


Problems over access to water are generating conflicts, which could get worse as the population grows and the climate changes, Swiss experts have warned.

Their comments come as politicians and specialists gather on Monday to debate solutions to current water issues at the World Water Forum in Istanbul, Turkey.

"Water played a key role in 37 wars during the last 60 years. By 2025, a third of the world's population will lack water," said Bruno Riesen, of the non-governmental Amnesty International Switzerland at a recent symposium in Bern.

"The odds are that conflicts in the 21st century will be about raw materials, staring with water which is becoming scarcer everywhere."

Riesen is also a member of a cross-NGO working party called "water as a public good" which organised the Bern meeting of around 120 Swiss and international water specialists.

Water, participants heard, is going to cause local, regional and international conflicts. As for Switzerland, the country may sometimes, such as in 2003, be hit by drought, but for the most part it has an abundance of water.

"Switzerland has been constructing dykes for the past 200 years and we are now faced with biodiversity and safety problems," said Bernhard Wehrli, professor of aquatic chemistry at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.


Wehrli added that allowing rivers more space for flooding was creating tensions with farmers.

There is the knowledge, means and political will, he continued, but when it comes to realising the objectives set out by the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), discussions usually stalled over the contradictory aims of the environmental protection, farming and energy sectors.

"Switzerland has responsibilities towards its neighbours and should come up with some visions for the future," Wehrli said.

He added that the country was often slowed down by its heavy consultation procedure and its "26 cantonal philosophies".

For her part, Swiss Foreign Ministry representative Natalie Erard, pointed out that water was an important political topic and that, "Switzerland is committed to the promotion of peace, particular through framework lending agreements".

The country wants to see the right to drinking water and sanitation become a human right, she added.

Water rights' expert

Switzerland was one of those which supported Germany's proposal to create an independent water expert at the UN's Human Rights Council, which is based in Geneva.

The post has been taken by Portuguese lawyer Catarina de Albuquerque. "My work consists of making sure that access to drinking water and sanitation is on the UN's political agenda, with the aim of making this a human right," she explained at the forum.

She nevertheless has a limited mandate. "But states already have certain obligations concerning the right to water, which is a first step," de Albuquerque said.

"I'm also committed to revealing what it is like in the field. In countries where there are problems, there are also solutions."

Examples of this include Costa Rica, which is trying to overcome its water pesticide pollution problem by creating ecologically sound pineapple plantations or South Africa, where the Supreme Court has banned pre-paid water access systems.

Palestinians' problems

Fadia Daibes Murad, head of the DanChurchAid programme based in Jerusalem, said that Palestinians faced no free access to water and very few resources.

She said that this was contributing to the ongoing crisis. The second Oslo Agreement might have recognised the Palestinians' right to water, but it is not possible to apply it as water is controlled by another state, added the expert.

Israel has proposed desalinisation, purification or importation but it is too expensive, added Murad. But a step forward has been taken in the form of an Israeli-Palestinian platform to work on water issues.

For Riesen, there are few perspectives for tackling this global problem. "In 2025 we will only have reached half of the MDGs. The financial crisis means that the priority is saving banks not the poor. Or, like in Switzerland, the debate is monopolised by the looming energy shortage."

Wehrli remains realistic. "Our institute tries to find concrete solutions. We have invented a water purification system based on plastic bottles. It's a cheap innovation which works. But it's true that to really get this project off the ground you need millions of dollars."

swissinfo, based on an article in French by Isabelle Eichenberger

World Water Forum

The World Water Forum is aimed at putting water on the international agenda. It is organised every three years by the World Water Council, in collaboration with a host country.

The 5th World Water Forum is being held in Istanbul, Turkey, from 16 to 22 March 2009. Around 20,000 people are expected to attend.

The Swiss delegation is led by Martin Dahinden, Director General of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and Bruno Oberle, Director of the Federal Environment Office.

Switzerland will be hosting an information stand at the World Water Exhibition, an important side event to the Forum. Under the title of "The Swiss Fountain of Experience", the stand will show how Switzerland works with its partners in fostering sustainable use of water resources, while advocating and implementing the principle of integrated water management.

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A human right

The seventh MDG concerns the environment and includes access to water.

In 2008 the Human Rights Council did not respond to a call by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to recognise the right to water and sanitation for all.

Switzerland, Germany and Spain wanted a resolution, but the Untied States, Canada and India were not keen.

The council refused to name a UN special rapporteur for the right to water but agreed on an independent expert to draw up a list of what is happening in different countries.

The water as a source of conflict symposium took place in Bern on March 6.

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