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Switzerland seeking tough action against polluters at Water Forum

A World Water Forum, underway in the Netherlands, is seeking to tackle the growing shortage of drinkable water. Switzerland is calling for an international protocol aimed at punishing polluters.

This content was published on March 16, 2000 - 11:05

The second World Water Forum, underway in the Netherlands, is seeking to tackle problems linked to a resource that is becoming ever more scarce. Switzerland is presenting plans for an international protocol aimed at ensuring that polluters are held responsible for cross-border contamination.

The meeting will address fears that the number of people without adequate access to clean drinking water could increase sharply over the next generation. Already, experts estimate that 1.2 billion people - one fifth of the world's population - do not have enough clean water to drink. If no action is taken, this figure will rise to 2.3 billion by 2025.

Not only is water a basic necessity, it is an increasingly important factor in terms of economic development and quality of life. There are also fears that the growing scarcity and imbalances in the distribution of water will increase the potential for conflict.

The 130 government ministers and representatives of non-governmental organisations at the forum are expected to make concrete proposals for solving the problem of water shortage within two years. These will be considered at the next World Water Forum in Rio de Janeiro in 2002.

Switzerland is not waiting that long to put forward its proposals. The head of the Swiss delegation, the state secretary in the environment ministry, Philippe Roch, will present plans for an international protocol to ensure that those responsible for cross-border pollution can be held liable for compensation.

At a news conference in Berne earlier this week, Roch said he was convinced the time was right for such a measure. He said recent chemical spills in Romania, which had severely harmed the ecosystem in neighbouring Hungary, had highlighted the need for such a protocol. Under current international law, Hungarian fishermen who have lost their livelihood as a result of the contamination have virtually no chance of winning compensation from the polluters in Romania.

Roch said the protocol should be modelled on a similar agreement governing the cross-border transport of dangerous waste. This was signed at a conference in the Swiss city of Basel last December. The accord was hailed at the time as a breakthrough in the field of liability for damaging the environment.

The Swiss government contributes about SFr35 million a year to water projects in 19 countries, but says it wants a greater political role.

"We want to be active in the field of international diplomacy of the environment," says Beat Nobs, of the Swiss environment agency. "We want to be in the forefront of development because we believe that a small country can be decisive when its time to bring forward developments in that field."

Nobs added that a protocol was particularly important for Switzerland. He said that, as a small country, Switzerland was heavily dependent on the rule of law as it had neither the economic or political clout of the larger nations at the World Water Forum.

The Swiss delegation said its other main objective in The Hague is to press for a fairer system of distributing drinking water. Switzerland estimates that the world's accessible reserves of fresh water are enough to supply every individual with at least four cubic metres of water per day. But it says that depends an equitable distribution of reserves and the efficient use of water.

By Malcolm Shearmur

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