24. March 2003,  19:15, Swissinfo

Global water concerns submerged by Iraq conflict

Ministers from more than 160 countries meeting in Kyoto, Japan, have agreed that more needs to be done to preserve and manage the world's water supply.

But non-governmental organisations have criticised a ministerial declaration for failing to describe water as a basic human right.

The high-level talks were largely overshadowed by the start of United States-led military action in Iraq, but Philippe Roch - director of the Swiss Environment Agency - told swissinfo the summit had achieved at least some of its goals.

"We concentrated on the issue of water, and although the war in Iraq was mentioned in discussions, it did not become the main point of the talks," said Roch, who led the Swiss delegation to the World Water Forum in Kyoto.

Roch says he is satisfied that delegates accepted the notion that the world's ecosystems must be preserved if millions of people in the developing world are to be given access to clean drinking water.

"The declaration recognises the complexity of the water problem.even though development agencies are only beginning to understand the importance of ecosystems," added Roch.

"They forget that if poor people need water, they need to have springs, and springs come from mountains, forests and wetlands."

Mixed reaction

Roch's cautious optimism about the outcome of the Kyoto summit is not shared by Madeleine Bolliger, representative of the Swiss Coalition of Development Organisations in Kyoto.

"We were supporting the call that water be made a human right, but unfortunately the ministerial declaration does not include this, and this is a severe setback," Bolliger told swissinfo.

"What we need now is action - we already have enough papers," she said.

Roch admits that the summit - a key political event of the 2003 International Year of Freshwater - failed to adopt any new approaches to managing water.

"The forum was not able to come up with a real action plan.and the declaration does not really add any new approach to water, rather it just summarises the need [to act] and a willingness to go forward."

Looking for consensus

The 29-point declaration, adopted at a closing ceremony on Sunday, contains no new proposals, but seeks instead to encourage countries to make good on promises made at last summer's Earth Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, to improve access to water and sanitation in the developing world.

Some 24,000 participants from 182 countries took part in the water forum's plenary sessions and sideline events, far more than organisers had expected.

"The ministerial summit tried to find consensus among many different countries, each with their own interests.and this is progress," commented Dora Rapold, assistant director-general at the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).

"What we criticise is that the declaration is a bit vague, and the commitment is not strong enough for us," she added.

"The political will is there, but [implementing] this kind of thing costs a lot of money."

Kyoto's legacy

Bolliger believes the international community failed to take the opportunity to make a commitment to the world's poorest people.

"Water is a question of life and death.80 per cent of sicknesses in the developing world are due to a lack of water or polluted water. It's a human scandal that not enough is being done to help so many people who lack access to clean drinking water and basic sanitation."

For Philippe Roch, the consequences of a failure to act upon the spirit of the Kyoto declaration are clear.

"The consequences will be more poverty, more conflicts, further migration of people as well as the destruction of our ecosystems as greater pressure is put on them.

"In short, if nothing is done, water will become the main reason for insecurity and conflict on earth."

swissinfo, Ramsey Zarifeh in Kyoto