Global Fresh Water Crisis Working Group

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The first major international policy meeting on water was the UN Conference on Water, held in 1977 in Mar del Plata .  Governments agreed that “national plans should aim to provide safe drinking water and basic sanitation to all by 1990, if possible.”  That was within the context of the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade (IDWSSD).  Unfortunately, by 2100, water scarcity could impact between 1.1 and 3.2 billion people, with major shortages in China and Africa posing true global security issues.  Over 2.4 billion without access to safe sanitation.  This issue when combined with a growing shortage or misdistribution of fresh water is a direct threat to the public health and if not managed, we will see the spread of sanitation related disease.  There is a global water crisis.

Global warming, one of the symptoms of climate change, will reduce rainfall in some regions of the world, melt glaciers and dry up other sources of fresh water, posing a direct threat to the national and economic security.   While the systemic causes of climate change are managed, unless the supply of fresh water is also managed in quicker time, water source reduction will not only threaten nations, it will provide incentives for nations to purchase weapons and wage war, and in some cases  suppress minorities and basic freedoms in direct proportion to the water supply.

The Maldives represent a clear case in point on today’s nexus of climate change and national security, especially for impoverished nations in that the poorest are often the first to suffer and the last to reap economic benefit.  The President of the Maldives, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, is especially worried that his island nation will disappear under the waves of rising sea levels.  To strengthen sea defenses on all its inhabited islands, would cost at least US$20 billion well beyond that nation’s ability to pay.[1]  Another case in point is the Artic where hunters are literally dying from falling through historically thin ice in search of food.

Over-population, the hot topic of the sixties and featured in such famous TV series as Startrek, has returned as an underlying cause of climate change, one that is creating more victims every day, especially thirsty ones.  Scary enough is the fact that the world’s population tripled in the 20th century, meaning massive new carbon footprints and unsustainable demands on traditional agriculture and water.  As populations grow, they add carbon footprints.  Many people will demand meat, especially as their wealth increases, pressures agriculture into intensive system in order to meet demand.   The problem is the planet can only absorb so much growth and intensive meat farms are inherently bad for the environment.  

At the same time the population has grown, the use of renewable water resources has has also grown six-fold.  Our population will grow again by 50% in the next half century unless measures are taken, meaning massive shortages and a maldistribution of potable water.   The IPCC has cited a number of scary phenomena that are either likely or virtually certain to occur, all impacting the availability of water.  We need to be ready for increased demands on water due to warmer temperatures and less available drinking water. [2]  That said, the Working Group is not proposing that governments mandate family sizes; rather we suggest citizens take it upon themselves to recognize the dangers posed by over-population.  Where governments can be helpful is to education the population.

On a macro level, one way to deal with this would be to create a United Nations Environment Organization (UNEO) with treaty based policing powers to punish violators through an amended World Court system for civil violators and an emboldened UN Security Council for governmental violations.  Such a body could advance Climate Justice, a concept that a basic human right is to have a reasonably clean, functioning environment, accessible, affordable, clear water, and clean air, and responsibilities, such as emissions reductions.  If we think of UNEO as a concept, it can take various forms.  It could be a single, new agency, perhaps drawing into it offices and mandates from other agencies, along new mandates in order to provide a coherent system.  It could also be a forum of existing agencies with some new mandates coordinated by an Environmental UnderSecretary General.  This is done with emergency management in the UN through the IASC, the Interagency Standing Committee as a way of avoiding the inherent competition in a system to  many large emergency agencies.  The form will come later.  The urgency is to agree to develop a form soon. 

The Water working group sees the water crisis as a true emergency, which is why many of its member support the creation of a UNEO; certainly in this context, an "agency" with a focus on water.  However, the mandate of the DPI conference was for civil society to speak to itself on what it can do.  In addition, negotiations leading to a UNEO in whatever form will be long and difficult as the vulnerable and the fortunate fight for position  -- even if all of the parties agree on the scientific basis for the crisis.  In addition, adapting to and fighting climate change can’t be coerced.  It is the duty of every world citizen to take responsibility, bottom up.  

Therefore, taking into account the primary mandate of the DPI conference and without diminishing our zeal for a UNEO, the working group has mainly focused on micro-recommendations, actions that NGOs can take themselves or recommendations NGOs might make to national and sub-national bodies to build a consensus behind water protection standards and other policies that eventually lead to global agency policies and rules.  This is thought to be the best approach because it requires local community engagement, bottom up policy development.

Certain recommendations are born out of simple common sense.  NGOs can begin to fight climate change by changing their own lifestyles, thereby protecting each other.  For example, NGOs who build their own HQs should invest in water recycling technology and sustainable materials like bamboo instead of rain forest woods.  In their home, citizens should take shorter showers or baths instead of showers, running only full loads of laundry and dishes, and promptly repairing leaky pipes, use native plants for gardens.  Many such recommendations are already on the internet.  

What is also needed and not spoken of enough if community action, meaning that our first recommendation is for Civil Society leaders to band together and lobby for change from local industry and government.

Lobbying is only sustainable of course if it is based on solid evidence, and is best done through coalitions, which is our second recommendation.  Coalition building is in fact one of the primary goals of the, which has taken an asymetrical approach to linking science, policy, religion, etc.  

Our third recommendation deals with information management.  All of the globe’s citizens have a right to information in formats that make policy analysis digestible, regardless of a citizen’s education.  Heavily nuanced information nearly always impedes citizen involvement, which can lead to counter-productive policies.  This is a crucial point because solving the water crisis in particular and the climate emergency in general is a shared responsibility between civil society and governments of all layers.  In practical terms, while the documents produced by the IPCC are essential and useful for senior politicians and scientists, Mayors and citizens in small rural towns in poor areas of the developing world or American Appalachia also have a right to information products that will help them make informed decisions and being taken advantage of.   This is an example of joint responsibility.  Civil Society leaders must search for solutions on their own in order to lobby for effective change; but government also has a responsibility.  

Increased water stress arising from agriculture and industrial growth, unplanned population growth and lack of regulation for ground water pollution, will contribute to the drinking water and health crisis in rural and urban areas. Civil society will have to lobby for ensuring that climate change is not taken as an excuse to go for short term measures of indiscriminate closure of industries and irrigation water regulation. That national planning is revived by making it democratic and issues of national resource use and national wealth distribution – emerge as important public debate concerns for ensuring sustainable climate change mitigation measures. I

Our fourth recommendation deals with Technology Transfer.  Emerging technologies will be required to deal with the growing misdistribution of safe, clean, drinking water.  What we fear in the working group is that the struggle between intellectual property rights will clash with the rights of the poor to abundant, clean water, to say nothing of technologies that reduce carbon emissions.  We do agree that intellectual property rights must be protected, otherwise inventors won’t have incentives to do their important work; but governments must more effectively work together with industry and scientists on a new system that fairly rewards transfers to the most vulnerable, economically depressed societies.  Many of the most vulnerable countries can’t invest in new technologies, and if they can’t access them, populations will perish.  Their rights to live can’t be subsumed.  

Our fifth recommendation is that civil society must urge local and national authorities to establish legal climate change responsibilities that target polluters with legislated liabilities for measured harm, even at a distance from the activity.  This will require an entire new measuring industry; but that is essential.  A body of accepted measuring tools tied to fair, practical regulations can reduce harm to the water supply and form a foundation for a UNEO.   These tools need to be managed by National and local Water Commissions who form their recommendations based on true science.

Civil society should also urge that National Water Commissions collaborate regionally and globally, the last through a UN Water Policy Commission (UNWPC) which could be one of the components of a United Nations Environment Organization (UNEO), in whatever form that concept takes place.  These water commissions, working with the UNWPC need to develop water supply and pollution guidelines as well as funding opportunities for new water protection and storage technologies needed to ameliorate the growing global water crisis.

Civil society needs to become an advocate for better integrated Flood/drought management, an activity which would also be managed locally by Water Commissions.  As seen by the recent floods involving the Mississippi, integrated flood management is often based on ancient, poorly maintained infrastructure and rules.  India recognized this in 1980 through its National Flood Commission which recognized that new rules were needed to manage flood plains, evacuation plans and land restoration.  No one is more impacted by floods than civil society, therefore all NGOs, regardless of their legal mandate, need to be active advocates for appropriate flood/drought management, as a principle of survival.  It is after all the local community who first responds to a crisis. 

A concluding paragraph TO BE ADDED

[1] Oral comments by President of the Maldives , Maumoon Abdul Gayoom June 23rd, 2008, Geneva at the Global Humanitarian Forum.