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Experts mull global system to monitor water resources

by Julie Mollins | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 16 August 2012 15:04 GMT

World Water Week will focus on ways to help governments secure food and water supplies as the global population grows

LONDON (AlertNet) - A global system to monitor management of water resources would help governments secure food and water supplies for the future, a U.N. expert due to attend the World Water Week conference later this month has told AlertNet.

"There's demand for a global reporting mechanism that will help us see what is the status of water security and how water is used around the world as a resource, whether in agriculture, industrial production or any other way," said Joakim Harlin, senior water resources advisor for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The embryonic process – due to be discussed at the water gathering – would set indicators for water-resource management, and build capacity in developing countries so they can collect data, analyse and report on these indicators, he said.

“With such a... mechanism, U.N. Water will be able to provide governments with what they seek – advice on how to best make use of the available water resources,” he added. U.N. Water coordinates efforts by U.N. agencies on water and sanitation.

More than 2,500 aid workers, water researchers and policymakers will meet in Stockholm in the last week of August. Debates will focus on how best to achieve food security for almost 1 billion people who currently go hungry; how to provide adequate sanitation for 2.5 billion people who lack it; and how to provide safe water access for 783 million people.

“We can't vaccinate away this problem,” Harlin told AlertNet in an interview. “When it comes to water resources management, it's such a complex issue – it will require a huge amount of effort, especially by governments.”


Pressures will grow on the world’s water infrastructure, which is vital for food production, as the global population rises from 7 billion to more than 9 billion by 2050. The number of people living in urban areas is projected to rise from 3.6 billion to 6.3 billion, according to a 2012 U.N. report.

The water conference will tackle social, political, environmental and economic issues linked to water and food security, as outlined in a new report, “Feeding a Thirsty World”, from the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), which is hosting the meeting.

The paper explores ways the world could achieve food security this century, including cutting food waste, regulating land acquisitions, supporting women farmers and introducing early warning systems for agricultural emergencies.

The three key pillars of sustainable development – economic growth, social equity and environmental sustainability – must guide the quest for water and food security, the paper argues.

Achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of global anti-poverty targets for 2015 agreed by the United Nations in 2000, is also on the conference agenda.

One goal is to halve the proportion of people who suffer from hunger, reducing the number from 840 million to 240 million between 1990 and 2015.

But nearly 1 billion people are still hungry and malnourished, although food production has been steadily increasing on a per-capita basis for decades, the SIWI report says, and the challenge will become more complex with a growing global population.

As food production rises, water sources will come under more stress, not only for agricultural needs, but also to satisfy expanding energy demand. Today about 80 percent of water in developing countries is used for agriculture, according to the UNDP.

The MDG to halve the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water by 2015 was met by the end of 2010, according to a joint monitoring programme led by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the U.N. children's fund (UNICEF), but sanitation targets are likely to be missed.

Many experts agree there is enough water to meet human needs in most regions, and where there is real water scarcity, there are solutions that can prevent it fuelling conflict.

“The way we use it, distribute it, and the efficiency of water use is very much the bottleneck,” UNDP’s Harlin said.

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