Africana Plus

No57 November 2003.5


International Year of Fresh Water


The General Assembly of the United Nations declared 2003 as International Year of Fresh Water. A resolution was proposed by the Government of Tajikistan and won the support of 148 countries. It commits governments, the United Nations and all other agencies to turn this to good account by improving awareness of the importance in sustained utilisation, management and protection of fresh water. It is therefore another way of making all countries aware of environmental protection. As human beings and as Christians, we are all responsible for our planet. This International Year should deeply affect Quebec, where water is one of its assets.


The General Assembly of the United Nations has declared 2003 as International Year of Fresh Water. The timing could not be better.  At the Millennium Summit in 2000, world leaders agreed to reduce by half the proportion of individuals who do not have access to drinking water or who do not have the means of supply by 2015 at the latest. At the World Summit on Sustainable Development, which was held in Johannesburg this year, a matching objective was fixed: in the same time scale, reduce by half the proportion of people who have no access to basic water purification.


"If we do not reach these objectives, the consequences will be serious. Fatal illnesses will continue to wreak havoc and spread; the global environment is deteriorating and food safety will be put in danger with the risk of instability that all this entails. And if problems linked to water are acute in the developing world, the developed countries are not necessarily immune from them. We need to better manage the water resources of the planet.  We need to irrigate more efficiently, make agricultural and industrial activity less polluted and invest more in the infrastructures and services that use water. We also need to free women and girls from the burden of a long daily trek to fetch water. It would be much better for them to spend all this time and energy educating themselves and improving conditions of life for themselves, their families and their communities. On the occasion of the International Year of Fresh Water, the world has to gather together, become aware of the problems, and find new ideas, new principles of action to support sharing, partnerships and peaceful interchange. Let us join forces and turn our knowledge and technology to good account by doing all we can to protect the precious sources of the planet's fresh water that is indispensable for our survival and sustainable development in the 21st century. "This is the message that Kofi Annan, the Secretary General of the United Nations gave for 2003.


Let us take a typical instance from the Horn or Africa, a real textbook case. The women of Dere Kiltu, some 150 kilometers from the Ethiopian capital, have to walk eight or nine hours to fill an earthenware pitcher with water from the Awash or Kaleta rivers and return to their village. "They leave early in the morning and come back in the afternoon", said an80 year-old farmer, Ahmed Ibrahim, " in the meantime, the children go hungry."  According to the United Nations, an Ethiopian consumes on average a little more than one liter of water daily, far from the 50 liters recommended for drinking, cooking and hygiene. Ethiopia is the least advanced country in the world for water: 76% of the population have no access to drinking water - the rate is 40% in sub-Saharan Africa and 20%worldwide. In addition, 85% of Ethiopians have no proper purification of wastewater, just like 40% of the world population. Consequently along with half the planet, many Ethiopians suffer from illnesses linked to the poor quality of water, one of the principal causes of high infant mortality.


In the years to come,  "blue gold" will be a rare commodity. According to specialists, every human being will see access to drinking water diminish by one third from now until 2025. No continent will be spared. Who is to blame? People. But is it really necessary to point it out? For years, disastrous management of this vital resource has worsened its availability. Throughout the 20th century, the population has tripled whereas at the same time, instead of keeping to the same rate, the consumption of drinking water has multiplied by six. Add to this the intolerable disparity of the different geographical sectors. Although it is indispensable for life, fresh water is not equally distributed on the surface of the earth. In fact 70% of the earth's surface is covered by water; 97.5% is salt water; 2.5% of there mainder is fresh water, of which nearly three quarters is frozen. This leaves 1% of water resources for human consumption. However, in most regions, there is enough water to satisfy the basic needs of everyone, which does not mean that the water resources should not be carefully managed and care taken not to waste them. Almost 70 % of freshwater is used for agricultural needs. However, due to inefficient irrigation systems, in particular in developing countries, 60% of this water evaporates or is poured back into rivers or underground streams.  Water consumption for irrigation has increased by 60% since 1960. Almost 40% of the world's population now live in parts of the worlds where they will experience moderate or serious shortages in water supply.


Today, nearly 1.2 thousand million people throughout the world do not have access to drinking water of sufficient quality at an affordable price and 2.4 thousand million people, say over a third of the population of the world, have no access to adequate purification facilities. More than 3 million people, mostly in developing countries, die every year as a result of illnesses contracted due to inadequate sanitary conditions and dirty water. "The problems of water supply impose extremely difficult problems to more than a thousand million members of the human family", declared Mr Koffi Annan, the General Secretary of the United Nations. "If this present trend continues, it is very likely that water will become an increasing source of tension and fierce competition among nations. However, it can also become a catalyst for cooperation." As Koichiro Matsuura, the Director General of UNESCO, has said, "Water can be a factor for peace rather than conflict. UNESCO is applying itself completely so that this century will be a century of 'water peace' rather than of 'water war'.  By developing efficient and ethical management principles and methods for this resource, while respecting the ecosystems linked to it, we are taking steps towards achieving sustainable development. "Returning to our typical case from Ethiopia: if Dahaba does not go to fetch water in the Awash River close by, it is because it is in Afar territory, hereditary enemies of the Somalis!  "This is the front line," explained Hajji Samod Barre. "The boys who bring their animals to water at the river don't put their Kalashnikovs down. Before now, there were places where neither Afar nor Somali would bring their cattle, but now everyone goes there. To get pasture, you have to kill someone, or it is you that will die. "Drought has worsened inter-tribal tension. In one year it has caused at least 200 deaths on both sides.


At the moment, the estimates for world expenditure for the provision of drinking water and water purification services amount to 30 billion dollars annually. To reach the millennium development objective in water and purification, it is estimated that 14 to 30 billion dollar more will be required annually. In the future, water shortages will be a problem for development. In fact, in the course of the 20th century, water consumption increased twice as quickly as the population. It has resulted in an over-exploitation of underground streams and a drop in the level of groundwater as well as some rivers, such as the Colorado River in the United States and the Yellow River in China. They often dry up even before they reach the sea. A certain number of regions like the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia are already experiencing chronic water shortages. Four people out of ten live in parts of the world subject to water shortages.


What about drinking water in Western countries and more especially Canada and Quebec?  According to the latest surveys, the people of Quebec finish a good second on the world prize list with an average consumption of 400litres a day (l/d), just behind the Americans who are slightly ahead at 425l/d. So Quebec exceeds and inflates the Canadian average, which is 350 l/d, decidedly in excess of the United Kingdom (200 l/d) and France (150 l/d). Taken as a whole, residences in Quebec demand an annual production of 1.7thousand million cubic meters of treated water, of which 1.4 thousand million come from surface water, principally the Saint Lawrence and its tributaries, along with 236 million from underground streams. Only 1 % of all this water is for human consumption. In Quebec, apart from certain days in a heat wave, the occasions for worrying about the supply and the quality of drinking water are rare. The territory of Quebec has 3% of the renewable fresh water resources of the planet in reserve. (Canada,5.6%.) That represents 135,000 m3 per head per year (500m3 per year represents the critical threshold for survival), say eight times more than the average volume per inhabitant of the planet and 13 times more than that of the United States. If Canada is an absolute mine of blue gold, drinking water increasingly appears to be a commodity for commerce and profit. Commercialisation  of immense reservoirs of water, as much surface as underground, is mind-boggling.


If agreement exists on the imperative to better mange consumption of the world's fresh water resources, there are nonetheless differing points of view on the policies to adopt on how to reach those arrangements. For some, access to drinking water and basic purification services are a human right for which governments must take the required steps. For others, water is an economic commodity that should be provided on the basis of cost-effectiveness. This particularly implies options taking account of market forces and the possibility of privatising certain aspects of water provision. Many governments have opted for a combination of the two. However, economic interest alone should not dictate the course to follow. A proper privatisation requires a clearly defined legislative framework beforehand, allowing the government to guarantee that private enterprise will in practice defend the public interest. It must always ensure that the efforts of the private sector to put sure and effective services in place will not be to the detriment of poor or low-income families. In the countries of the Third World, for example, millions of impoverished people are deprived of drinking water because they cannot pay their bills. The example of Ghana is very enlightening. In three years, there has been an increase of 300% in the cost of water. This is to make the system more attractive to outside investors. As a result of this price rise, several Ghanaians have gone back to drinking from polluted ponds, risking disease or even death. Therefore there is the real risk that privatisation is a threat to the common good in that water and access to it should be made available to all.


In October 2002, Pope John-Paul II sent a message to Mr. Jacques Diouf, Director General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, on the subject of water as a source of food safety. Here is an extract: "Biblical wisdom reminds us that we must not abandon "the fountain of living water" in order to "dig cisterns, leaky cisterns that hold no water"(Jer.2: 13). Here we can perhaps take a warning on our own present circumstances. In other words, we are reminded that technical solutions, no matter how well developed, are no help when they do not take account of the totality of the human person. The human person, in spiritual and material dimensions, is the touchstone of all human rights and therefore must be the criterion of value for all programmes and all policies. Satisfactory levels of development in all geographical regions will only be legitimately and respectfully guaranteed if access to water is considered as a personal and public right. To achieve this, international politics should bring to bear a new awareness of the inestimable value of water resources, which are often non-renewable and should not become an entitlement reserved to a handful of people, as they are the common good of all humankind. By their very nature, they should be poured impartially into the hands of all, according to the rule of justice, inseparable from charity."


Let us never forget, as in the song of Gilles Vigneault, "the spring does not sell its water." There are many who insist on the official adoption of aright to water. Human dignity demands it. Water is indeed an essential for life. Without water, life is threatened, and that can lead to death. The right to water is therefore indisputable.


Michel Fortin, M.Afr.

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