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General Assembly Plenary Topic 1

Global Water Crisis

  1. Introduction

It is often hard to imagine that with the shear amount of water on the planet it could be considered a scarce resource. Yet the availability of clean, fresh drinking water remains one of the major problems facing not just the developing world, but each and every nation/state on Earth. While there have been countless studies and conferences based around the topic of securing access to water for all of the world's population, numerous challenges still face the international community. Solving these problems has become a critical matter, though in light of other more immediate concerns such as a war on terrorism, problems of water supply are often pushed into the background.

  1. Quick Facts
    • It is estimated that some 20 percent more water is needed than is available to feed the additional 3 billion people who will be alive by 2025, warns the newly formed World Commission on Water for the 21st Century .
    • Startling figures related to the world's water supply: 1.4 billion people live without clean drinking water; 2.3 billion people lack adequate sanitation; Half the world's rivers and lakes are seriously polluted; Important rivers like the Yangtze in Asia do not flow to the sea for much of the year because of upstream withdrawals; Food shortages could create millions of environmental refugees.
    • The cost of health care due to water related conditions currently averages anywhere from 100 to 200 Billion US dollars per year.
    • The total amount of freshwater on Earth is roughly 36 million cubic kilometers (about 8.6 million cubic miles). It has been estimated that each person should consume 40 liters of water per day, for most this would be a luxury beyond imagination. 40 liters translates into .04 cubic meters (1.41 cubic feet) of water per person per day.
    • Since the middle of the last century, while the world's population doubled, water use has tripled. Half the planet's wetlands were lost in the twentieth century, and freshwater systems all over the world are losing their ability to support human, animal, and plant life.
    • Dirty water has become the world's most dangerous killer. At least twenty-five thousand people die every day from the use of it. Diarrhea alone kills at least 4.6 million young children every year. About 200 million people are victims of schistosomiasis caused by contaminated water on the skin.
    • The World Health Organization estimates that it costs an average of 105 U.S. Dollars per person to provide water supplies in urban areas and $50 U.S. in rural areas. Sanitation costs an average of $145 U.S. Dollars in urban areas and $30 U.S. in rural areas.

III Water as a Human Right

At a meeting on November 26 th , 2002, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights met in Geneva and issued a declaration stating that access to water is a human right and that water is a public commodity, fundamental to life and health. The declaration, adopted by the Committee as a "General Comment", also stipulated that water, like health, is an essential element for achieving other human rights, especially the rights to adequate food and nutrition, housing and education. The UN Committee's General Comment serves as an interpretation of the provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights that has been ratified by 145 countries. While the Covenant does not expressly refer to the word "water", the Committee determined that the right to water is clearly implicit in the rights contained in Covenant articles 11 and 12.

The notion of water being a human right is further reinforced in a declaration issued in May, 2001, following the conclusion of the National Forum on Water Privatization attended by a "diverse group" of individuals and organizations from Africa, Europe and the United States; delegates represented the private, public, and voluntary sectors. The forum was held in Accra, Ghana and the declaration, known as The Accra Declaration on the Right to Water, stated "that water is a fundamental human right, essential to human life to which every person, rich or poor, man or woman, child or adult is entitled."

IV Issues concerning Access to Water

It seems reasonably well accepted that water is considered to be fundamental for human life. The issues concerning access to water lie in the fact that ensuring that every human has access to water becomes a difficult situation when one considers the enormous political issues that arise when dealing with the substance. As the new economic trend of globalization is fast becoming the code of international economics, one cannot afford to ignore the immense implications this has on the definitions and perceptions of water as a commodity. In March of 2000, roughly 5,700 people were gathered together at Den Haag in the Netherlands for the World Water Forum. This meeting consisted roughly of big business lobby organizations like the Global Water Partnership, the World Bank, and leading for-profit water corporations on the planet. The topics that were discussed revolved around how companies could benefit from selling water to markets around the world. The key line of argumentation was how water was to be designated; for instance, if water is to be considered a "right" or a "need." The latter, pushed for by corporations, would allow the private sector, through the market, to provide this service in order to fill the "need." In doing so, corporations could insist that prices be set through the market and could likewise stress that these market values are non-negotiable. This body must consider the enormous pull that these organizations have and take effective steps to either affirm the positions of the corporations or that of the World Water Forum.

Another central issue critical to any type of debate is: regardless of how water is classified, how can nations ensure equitable and effective distribution? UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, in a statement delivered by Mrs. Nane Annan in New York on May 14th, 2002, stated that, "We need to improve the efficiency of water use, for example by getting more 'crop per drop' in agriculture, which is the largest consumer of water."

Improper farming techniques as well as other mishaps have led to gross misuses of water throughout history. Recent examples of note include engineering blunders stemming from dam construction. Dams represent a long accepted method of stockpiling water in reservoirs. In 1963, a powerful landslide threatened the Vaiont Dam in the Italian Alps. The dam held, however millions of tons of water shot over the top, killing three thousand people in six minutes. In 1975, 230,000 people died after China's Banquiao and Shimantan dams gave way under heavy rains. Perhaps the largest examples of mismanagement of water occurred in the former Soviet Union in 1980 when Russian engineers built a 1,800-foot canal to limit water flow from the Caspian Sea into the inland sea of Kara-Bogaz-Gol. This plan worked far too well and by 1981, the 7,000 square miles of the Kara-Bogaz-Gol had dried up. Yet more startling than that was the near obliteration of the Aral Sea over a period of three decades. The Aral Sea represented the world's fourth largest inland sea, but it eventually lost two-thirds of its volume (15,000 square miles) mostly because of the need to divert water for irrigation of cotton crops in central Asia. The former seabed is now pummeled by the wind and dust (containing dried up fertilizers and pesticides) is routinely blown about. The situation is so bad that life expectancy in this region is 20 years less than that of other parts of Russia.

Despite various ecological disasters, there can be nothing more preventable than international conflict, which results in military confrontation. Examples of conflicts directly related to water include the tense situation involving Turkey and Syria during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Turkey was planning to dam the Euphrates River to fill a vast reservoir. Turkey considered the Ataturk Dam a necessity and the Turkish government felt that Syria and Iraq would understand. This proved not to be the case and in 1989 the situation came to a head when Syrian MIG fighters shot a Turkish survey plane out of Turkish skies, killing five people. The tense situation continues to be a problem. Water was a major factor in the 1967 Six Day War. While there were numerous factors that led to this conflict, water remained an issue for both sides. The trouble started when Israel constructed its National Water Carrier, which appropriated much of the water of the Jordan River for use in Israel. The Arab League was angered at this move by Israel and began to dig canals to divert two Jordan tributaries, the Hasbanin and Wazzani Springs. The Israelis immediately shelled and destroyed both projects. By the end of the conflict, Israel has blown up a dam Syria had been constructing on the Yarmouk River and annexed the Golan Heights. Israel also took the West Bank from Jordan along with one-third of the kingdom's more fertile land. Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula were seized from Egypt. All of this, except for the Sinai, secured precious water for Israel.

V. Solutions

There can be no easy solutions to these issues. Undoubtedly the conflicts concerning the classification of water, the issues of effective use, and the possibility for armed conflict will exist so long as water is a scarce resource. Proposed solutions to this problem are vast and varied. There are as yet no real, binding international legal mechanisms to settle water disputes. Additionally there are no foolproof mechanisms to stop nations from fighting with each other over the resource. However, there have been attempts made to solve this problem. Two of the most important were the Helsinki Rules, developed by the International Law Association in 1966, and the thirty-two articles issued by the International Law Commission of the UN in 1991. The two differed on substance but not on principle. Both stated that shared rivers must be seen as international watercourses and not as the exclusive property of any one country. The two documents further stated that all nations have the right to water; no nation's use of shared water may be allowed to damage the well being of its neighbors; and finally, each must provide accurate hydrological information to the others. These documents have had some success; for example they settled the question of water rights in the Komati River basin, which twists out of South Africa into Swaziland and Mozambique then back again. Also, they were applied in a recent judgment by the International Court of Justice concerning a dispute over the Gabcikovo Dam on the Danube River between Hungary and Slovakia. While the Helsinki Rules and the thirty-two articles represent a solid legal foundation, they lack the fact-finding machinery and genuine means of enforcement.

At the Johannesburg Summit 2002, held from August 26 th September 4 th , 2002, numerous goals were laid out that the UN seemed willing to commit itself to. Some are worth mentioning, such as the goal to "halve, by the year 2015, the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water." Also, "develop integrated water resources management and water plans by 2015." These represent the apparent recognition by the international community that a solution to the water problem needs to be found and found soon. The World Water Council released a published statement noting the need for greater water productivity and noted the importance of finding where ability exists to do so, such as recycling water and implementing better irrigation methods with "precision technology" capable of improving water distribution. The Council further noted the need to develop additional resources, and improve cultural practices such as better soil management, fertilization, and pest and weed control. Other methods of protecting water resources are needed, such as recharging groundwater, a process that involves limiting access and providing incentives to users to limit or stop over pumping. One of the most important methods for promoting smart water usage is to empower communities to establish councils that tackle local problems of water rehabilitation and pollution and to monitor water quality, crop selection, and quality control of produce irrigated with water from streams and rivers.

No effective solution to the water problem comes without a cost. It is therefore essential that any steps taken in regard to this problem address the issue of adequate funding. Of note are statements made at the Johannesburg Summit in which is was announced that the United States would invest 970 Million US dollars over the next three years on water sanitation projects. The EU announced its "Water for Life" initiative that seeks to engage partners to meet goals for water and sanitation, primarily in Africa and Central Asia. The Asia Development Bank provided a 5 million U.S. dollar grant to UN Habitat and 500 million U.S. in fast-track credit for the Water for Asian Cities Program. These contributions, among others, will insure a financial base upon which work can be done, however this body must task itself with securing more funds and allocating them efficiently and effectively so as to bring about maximum results with minimum waste.

VI Questions To Consider

  1. How does my country define water- is it a need or a right, are their corporations within my borders seeking benefits one-way or the other?

2. Does my country suffer from water stress and how is it dealt with?

  1. Is my country a signatory to major documents related to the issue, such as International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and does my country honor the International Law regarding this issue?
  2. Is my country currently working to develop a solution to a water shortage within its borders and if so, could this plan be presented internationally?

5. Does my country believe in a Capitalistic free market economy or does it subscribe to more social concepts such as state owned resources?

  1. Does my country have a primarily agrarian economic base or a more industrial one?
  2. What is the geography of my country, do major rivers originate within other nations?
  3. What resources is my country prepared to commit to solve this problem?

VII Sources


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