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Swiss launch International Year of Freshwater

A "water tower" outside parliament symbolising Switzerland's rich resources Keystone

The United Nations International Year of Freshwater has kicked off in Switzerland amid calls for greater awareness of the dwindling resource.

This content was published on March 21, 2003 - 16:54

The Swiss authorities hope to step up efforts to conserve the precious commodity and increase access to clean water around the world.

Dubbed Europe's "water reservoir", Switzerland is blessed with abundant supplies of water.

It receives twice the average annual rainfall in Europe, and is the source of the continent's two main rivers, namely the Rhine and Rhone.

Other countries around the world are less fortunate and many believe that water - or the lack of it - will replace oil as a major source of conflict in the future.

Awareness

The square in front of Switzerland's parliament building was transformed into a water park where visitors could see for themselves how much water they consume in different ways.

A large tower stocked with plastic bottles represented the 162 litres of water that the average Swiss uses each day - in comparison with the two or three litres consumed in many developing countries.

A tap suspended in mid-air demonstrated that the Swiss are more fortunate than their counterparts in many poor countries where people have to walk kilometres for clean water.

"I guess the Swiss can't imagine what it means to live on ten or 20 litres of water per day which is not on tap," commented Armon Hartmann, senior water adviser for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).

Greater awareness of these realities and the need to better conserve this resource are the major themes of the Year of Freshwater in Switzerland.

Responsibility

A special youth parliament will hold a session devoted to water as part of the SDC's efforts to bring home to younger generations the need for international cooperation to protect supplies for all.

"We will get young people between the ages of 12 and 18 years to talk about the importance of ensuring that the quality of the water that leaves Switzerland is the same as when it enters the sea," Hartmann told swissinfo.

"Switzerland has a responsibility to take care of water quality so that when it leaves Switzerland and flows downstream it is still of good quality," said Bruno Schädler, head of the water resources management department at the Federal Office for Water and Geology.

This issue is one of the main themes of the Year of Freshwater in Switzerland, which is being coordinated by the SDC, the Swiss environment ministry and the Federal Office for Water and Geology.

Together, they have a budget of SFr2.5 million ($1.8 million) that will help sponsor some 40 local projects across Switzerland.

Water fights

The potential for water to become a major source of conflict featured in the official address by the Swiss environment minister, Moritz Leuenberger.

He cited the case of Iraq where only about one in two households has access to clean water.

"There are only a few rivers which are dependent on other sources flowing into Iraq, so water is a potential source for conflict," agreed Hartmann.

Switzerland is working alongside the UN throughout this year - and beyond - to help dry countries improve their access to clean water and their ability to preserve it.

The UN has set itself the difficult task of halving the 1.2 billion people around the world who do not have access to clean water by 2015.

Schädler explained that while the Swiss could not distribute their excess water to needy countries, they could still share their expertise in water management.

swissinfo, Samantha Tonkin

In brief

Officials have launched the UN International Year of Freshwater in Switzerland.

Environment Minister Moritz Leuenberger said that water is a precious resource that should be conserved.

He also said that water could become a major source of conflict in future.

The government will sponsor some 40 projects in Switzerland this year to promote better conservation of water.

The Swiss Development Agency has a budget of SFr30 million to help water-poor countries manage their supplies.

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