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Marseille forum to end, but water issues surge forward

Julia Pyper, E&E reporter
Published: Friday, March 16, 2012

As the 6th World Water Forum (WWF) comes to a close, participants report widespread collaboration on water access, sanitation, food security and green development and say they hope the momentum will be sustained throughout the year.

"We have been moving too slowly. We now need to accelerate," said François Fillon, prime minister of
France, at the opening ceremony earlier this week in Marseille, France.

Every three years, the WWF conference convenes delegates from the private sector, nonprofit groups and local, regional and national-level governments to tackle water-related challenges. While each group represents a unique set of issues, this year they all rallied around the need to provide the world's nearly 1 billion water poor with access to high-quality water resources.

"What I found to be a pleasant surprise compared to three years ago is the evolution in the discourse on water conservation," said Andrew Deutz, director of international government relations at the Nature Conservancy.

At the 2009 water forum in Istanbul, Deutz said only environmentalists were talking about ecosystem services, natural capital and green infrastructure. In Marseille, "lots of ministers are talking about those issues," he said.

The nexus of water and food was also a prominent subject. Bruno Le Maire, French minister for agriculture, put it simply at a panel discussion yesterday: "Without water, no food." The WWF conference officially ends tomorrow, just ahead of World Water Day on March 22, which features the theme "water, food and security."

Heeding Fillon's call, ministers from participating countries came together in signing a declaration that emphasizes accelerated action on projects that uphold the human right to water and sanitation.

In a similar group effort, around 1,400 participants from more than 60 countries have so far signed onto the Istanbul Water Consensus. In joining the voluntary compact, local and regional authorities committed to adapting their water infrastructure and services to the escalating challenges of climate change, urban growth, water pollution and depletion and more.

Conflict over hydroelectric power

But the week did not pass without strong debate and some contention. On Wednesday, the International Day of Action for Rivers, a group of more than 50 protesters from across the globe, held a demonstration against what it called the corporate greenwashing of dams.

The group opposes the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol (HSAP), which is being promoted at the WWF in place of existing best practices for hydropower development. Zachary Hurwitz, policy program coordinator with International Rivers, said the HSAP recommendations are weaker and less inclusive than the current standards.

"The WWF is attempting to build on the U.N.'s recognition of the right to water and sanitation and we support that," he said. "But we find it a bit hypocritical that the water forum is adopting HSAP while also saying that they're promoting the right to water, because hydropower inevitably violates communities' existing right to water."

Reflecting the need for more multisectoral cooperation, UNESCO announced this week that 2013 will be the agency's International Year of Water Cooperation. UNESCO also warned that without a radical new approach to water management, the threats to human life will become increasingly high.

"Freshwater is not being used sustainably, according to needs and demands. Accurate information remains disparate, and management is fragmented. In this context, the future is increasingly uncertain and risks are set to deepen," stated UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova in the foreword to the fourth edition of the "U.N. World Water Development Report" released this week in Marseille.

According to the report, 86 percent of people in the developing world will have improved access to safe drinking water by 2015, but nearly 1 billion people will still suffer without. UNESCO also estimates the world will need 70 percent more food by midcentury. Agriculture already demands 70 percent of freshwater use, and a surge in food production will require 19 percent more if agricultural practices are not improved.

The situation is complicated by climate change, which is already altering critical natural elements, from soil wetness and river flow to the frequency and severity of droughts and floods. Richard Connor, lead author of the UNESCO report, said that climate change will compound many of the world's water issues.

Warming up for Rio+20 talks

"People think about water in terms of whether you have it or you don't, whether you're thirsty or you're not, but where the effects will be felt is beyond that," he said. "Because you need water to fulfill all of the absolute basics of food, electricity, heat, human health and, of course, the ecosystems that allow us to survive, the effects of climate change will affect pretty much all of us through water."

In a separate  study released this week, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development wrote that water demand could increase by 55 percent by 2050 and that 40 percent of the global population would live in water-stressed areas.

But participants at the Marseilles forum offered many ways to shape a better future.

Some groups pursued more innovative responses. Among the 150 projects at the WWF Village of Solutions, the Canadian organization One Drop launched "Water Hero," a social media game played on Facebook where participants tackle water issues to earn hero points that can be cashed in for a real donor match.

Others are focusing on the more traditional route of international negotiations, with less than 100 days remaining before the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, where water is among the seven key issues to be discussed.

"It is time for action; the time for speeches is over," said Izabella Teixeira, environment minister of Brazil, in a speech this week in Marseille. She added that "consensus is the only way" to produce actionable solutions.

Brazil, which had the largest delegation at the WWF, hopes the event in Rio will forge a new paradigm on sustainable development, while others have more tempered expectations for the conference.

For Jean Leonetti, French minister for European affairs, "Rio+20 triggers both hopes and fears," he said.

Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500


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Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500.

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