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The business of water

Around 20 per cent of the world's population has no access to clean drinking water

(Keystone)

The Swiss government and the reinsurance giant, Swiss Re, have confirmed their commitment to pushing for better global water management.

The world's diminishing supply of good quality drinking water, and how to improve it, is one of Switzerland's main themes at the world summit on sustainable development in Johannesburg in September.

A two-day conference, organised jointly by the Swiss Agency for Development and Corporation (SDC) and Swiss Re at the company's Rüschlikon facilities focused on ways in which the public and private sectors could work together. Experts agree there is an urgent need for something to be done.

United Nations statistics show that there are currently one billion people, or around 20 per cent of the world's population, who have no access to clean drinking water. And it's a situation that looks destined to worsen.

"It is an undisputed fact that, if we fail to take action, by 2025 almost half the world's population will not have enough water, " Swiss foreign minister Joseph Deiss told the conference.

Public Private Partnership

A key issue at the conference was the part both sides would play in the Public Private Partnership (PPP) approach to dealing with the problem of water.

"It's imperative for the private sector and state to work in close cooperation in many areas," said Deiss. "Only then can the conditions for successful and concerted action be established."

He said clear rules needed to be outlined and it was important to learn from previous experience as to how PPP could work. These views were echoed by Werner Thut, head of development policy at the SDC.

"A key part of the conference has been to clarify the roles of everyone involved," he said. "We don't want to jump into quick cooperation, rather it's a matter of establishing criteria and a pattern of how we can work together."

Bruno Porro, the chief risk officer at Swiss RE is convinced that water companies will face a number of risks in supplying a range of industries, especially if they face "business interruption losses."

Porro said those losses could have a potentially huge impact on the economy, touching as they would health services, the pharmaceutical industry, agriculture and even the construction industry.

"If people are affected, or belongings and services damaged by exposure to polluted water, then insurance companies will be involved - whether we like it or not."

Although Porro said Swiss Re had an obligation to address the issue on a social level, he also admitted that it made good commercial sense.

"There is risk involved and that of course means there is also a potential for us to do business," he told swissinfo.

Political will

Another theme to come out of the conference was the political will to address the problem of a clean water shortage.

"There's enough information to be clear as to what the problems are," Walter Fust the director of the SDC told swissinfo.

He said the world was now at the stage where the issue of clean water would become a problem for every country, and it was not something one nation could solve alone. The approach now had to be a combined international initiative.

"It's true that for a long time in some countries water has been taken for granted," Deiss told swissinfo.

"But the magnitude of the problem is now apparent and I think the political will to do something will grow very quickly."

Water for peace

The Rüschlikon conference will, according to Deiss, help provide input for shaping global public opinion.

"It should also help ensure that clean drinking water is one of the priority items on the agenda at Johannesburg," he said.

The Swiss foreign minister sees water as a key element in the fight against poverty, and a critical issue for peace in the world.

"Fighting poverty is the fundamental basis of a peace policy," he said.

"Water for peace is a motto we in Switzerland adhere to, and a concept which we promote on the international stage."


by Jonathan Summerton


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