Swiss gear up for International Year of Water

Kenyans collect clean water in a Nairobi slum Keystone

The Swiss government has unveiled plans to participate in the United Nations-sponsored International Year of Freshwater.

This content was published on March 17, 2003 - 16:26

Throughout the year, swissinfo will take an in-depth look at water issues in Switzerland and around the world.

Swiss authorities will use the global event to launch a nationwide campaign to raise awareness of the importance of water as a natural resource.

It is estimated that around 2.5 billion people worldwide do not have access to adequate sanitation, while 1.2 billion are without safe drinking water.

The issue of water - and how many people around the world do not yet have access to clean supplies of it - was one of the central themes of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Switzerland, together with more than 100 countries, pledged at the summit not to renege on promises made in the United Nations Millennium Declaration, by agreeing to a deadline of 2015 to reduce by half the number of people without access to proper sanitation.

Swiss contribution

Uli Lutz, coordinator for the International Year of Freshwater at the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), said that Switzerland was planning to contribute to the 2003 event in different ways.

"Switzerland will launch a national campaign and will also get involved in the international programme [of events]," Lutz told swissinfo.

While the SDC will be primarily responsible for Switzerland's role in the international campaign, events closer to home are to be jointly coordinated by the Federal Office for Water and Geology and the Swiss Environment Agency.

The domestic campaign is due to be launched in Bern on March 21, with the unveiling of a national action plan to protect water and the ecosystems which rely on it.

Festival of water

"We will have a big water festival outside the federal parliament building in Bern," explained Lutz.

"An exhibition will also travel through different towns and villages, while the Swiss Post Office will issue a set of commemorative stamps, and all of this will mark the official launch of the event in Switzerland," he added.

Lutz hopes the national campaign will succeed in encouraging people to "think about water... what it means for us in Switzerland where we have an abundance of it, and what it means for people in other parts of the world where everybody has to walk and walk in search of water".

Statistics suggest that the amount of fresh water available to each person on the planet is decreasing, from 17,000 cubic metres in 1950 to just 7,000 in 1995.

Wetlands and rivers

The Swiss branch of the environmental organisation, WWF, is calling on the government to use 2003 as an opportunity to promote awareness and better protection of Switzerland's own natural resources, including its rivers, wetlands and mountains.

"Our main goal is to see the introduction of integrated river basin management," said Walter Wagner, a water specialist at the WWF.

"Up until now, rivers in Switzerland have been managed at a cantonal level, so the boundaries of the cantons represent limits of management," Wagner told swissinfo.

"We think this is not correct, because a river has a watershed... and rivers have to be managed on an [international] scale," he added.

Dealing with pollution

The WWF is currently working together with federal and cantonal authorities to protect and clean up polluted rivers which flow through Switzerland, including the Rhone and Rhine.

"It is important in Switzerland to return these rivers to a natural or at least semi-natural state again," commented Wagner.

Lutz, who also coordinated Swiss participation in the 2002 International Year of Mountains, agrees that the preservation of the country's water resources must take top priority during the year ahead.

"From a hydrological perspective, Switzerland is the water tower of Europe, with rivers which flow in all four directions and which empty into four different oceans," he said.

"Mountains are deeply rooted in our lives at an emotional level, and that's why we got so involved in the year of mountains, but we intend to show the same commitment and same energy in contributing to - and learning from - the International Year of Freshwater."

World Water Forum

The biggest political event of the International Year of Freshwater is likely to be the World Water Forum, a ministerial summit scheduled to take place in Kyoto, Japan, at the end of March.

"This will be the big international event during the year of water, and Switzerland will actively participate in Kyoto," said Lutz.

The SDC says one of the key themes it is keen to see summit delegates tackle is how to reduce global poverty by improving access to freshwater supplies throughout the developing world.

Another key topic to be discussed in Kyoto is likely to be the issue of water "as a key element for food security".

"The stress this year will be on declarations, international meetings and agreements on paper, but we should also be making a difference in the field and there should be concrete commitments.

"We should be looking towards long-term development projects at a grassroots level which will benefit the world's poorest people."

Half the world's projected population of eight billion is expected to be thirsty by 2025, an estimate which has led many experts to predict that water could one day replace oil as the world's leading source of human conflict.

swissinfo, Ramsey Zarifeh

water summary

2003 has been officially designated by the United Nations as the International Year of Freshwater.
Switzerland will launch a nationwide campaign to protect water resources in March.
Estimates suggest that around 2.5 billion people worldwide do not have access to adequate sanitation, while 1.1 billion are without safe drinking water.

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