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Water forum seeks solutions to global crisis

People gather to fetch water from a well in the village of Natwarghad in the western Indian state of Gujarat Reuters

Each Swiss citizen uses 4,200 litres of water a day both directly and indirectly, of which 82 per cent comes from abroad, a study has revealed.

This content was published on March 15, 2012 - 13:59
swissinfo.ch

The first ever Swiss “water footprint” report was published on Wednesday to coincide with the sixth World Water Forum, held in Marseille, France, billed as “a platform for solutions” to the global water crisis.

According to official statistics, each Swiss citizen uses on average 162 litres of water a day for their daily drinking, cooking and household requirements.

But to give a clearer picture of total personal water consumption, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and WWF calculated the amount of “virtual water” required to produce all goods and services consumed in Switzerland.

Combining the two figures, overall consumption amounted to 4,187 litres per day per inhabitant or an annual individual total of 1,500 cubic metres. This ranks alongside other highly industrialised countries; by comparison the water footprint of United States citizens is 2,840 cubic metres per year per capita.

Around 81 per cent of the virtual amount results from agricultural goods and services – of which 28 per cent is linked to meat production – and 17 per cent is from industrial activity. And of the virtual total, 82 per cent comes from abroad.

“Switzerland exports goods that use little virtual water and imports things like food, vehicles and computers that use big quantities of water for production,” François Münger, head of SDC’s water initiatives division, told swissinfo.ch.

“The paradox is that Switzerland has plenty of water – it’s the water tower of Europe – but it doesn’t live off this water. Most of our products are produced from water from abroad and some from water basins where scarce water is problematic.”

The study’s authors identified six large water basins from which Switzerland imports goods and which suffer from water scarcity, including the Aral Sea, and the Ganges, Euphrates, Nile, Indus and Tigris rivers.

Rather than restricting the import of goods and services from these regions, which would hit local living conditions, Switzerland should assist local actors to manage their resources more sustainably, the report’s authors declared.

And Swiss businesses importing goods from these regions should also bear their share of social responsibility, they added.

First the good news…

The report was published as 20,000 diplomats, business leaders, scientific experts and activists from 180 countries gathered in the south of France this week for the triennial international water conference.

There was good news on the eve of the meeting when the United Nations announced that the target to halve the number of people without access to safe drinking water – part of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) - had been met, five years ahead of the 2015 deadline.

But nearly 800 million people remain without access to safe water and the MDG target to improve basic sanitation will reportedly not be reached until 2026.

There are also growing concerns over resource scarcity and future water shortages. The latest World Water Development Report, released on Monday, warned of rising food demand, rapid urbanisation and climate change significantly increasing pressure on global water supplies.

A separate Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development study on global water challenges said rapid changes would push demand for water up by 55 per cent by 2050, when more than 40 per cent of the world’s population are expected to live in areas of severe “water-stress”.

Early solutions

Some critics of the forum say it lacks legitimacy and caters to the interests of big business; activists are staging an Alternative World Water Forum.

But Münger defended the event: “It’s not a United Nations process but a global process that brings together governments, UN agencies, NGOs, private industry, researchers and lobby groups, and it’s one of the rare moments when they are all present. It gives lots of visibility to emerging nations like China, Brazil and Russia, and it’s an interesting forum where civil society can express itself.”

Agnes Montangero, head of water programmes at the Swiss NGO Helvetas, who is present in Marseille, said recent water and sanitation progress had to be accelerated.

“There have been improvements in urban but not rural areas, and progress has been slower in sub-Saharan Africa. Over 30 per cent of water systems in Africa don’t work,” she told swissinfo.ch.

“We need to invest in the training of local people who manage these systems. And there needs to be more money invested which is better targeted – only 42 per cent of water and sanitation development funding goes to the least-developed and low-income countries.”

Declaration

Münger said he had been pleased by some initial solutions discussed in a ministerial roundtable session on Tuesday, jointly hosted by Switzerland, Spain and Uruguay, which included ideas for special budgets for people who don’t have access to water, live too far from sources or are discriminated against.

“Access to water and sanitation is a human right – that’s been accepted. Now is the time to put that into practice,” he said.

On Tuesday the forum issued a five-page statement, endorsed by 130 national representatives, committing to accelerate the implementation of universal access to water and sanitation.

But UN special rapporteur  Catarina de Albuquerque and NGOs criticised the ministerial declaration for softening human rights commitments to water and sanitation, formally recognised by the UN in 2010.

Helvetas said the final text released on Tuesday was “disappointing” and “not sufficiently binding”, lacking specific objectives for resolving the crisis.

SDC head Martin Dahinden said he would have preferred a more concise wording regarding the right to water, “but there was no broad consensus”.

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 6th World Water Forum is being held in Marseille, France, from March 12-17.

The Swiss delegation is led by Martin Dahinden, director general of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).

The SDC is coordinating a working group on access to water. In the preparatory phase, more than 215 projects were collected proposing practical solutions for improving access to water. The best of these will be presented during the forum.

Switzerland is organising sessions on the implementation of the human rights to water and sanitation at the national level, in close cooperation with Catarina de Albuquerque, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for this right. Dahinden, together with representatives from Spain and Uruguay, will head the ministerial discussion.

Switzerland is also hosting a stand at the forum to provide SDC partners and members of the newly established Swiss Water Partnership with a platform to present new technologies and water concepts.

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