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Delegates seek to integrate global water policies at high-level forum in France

Julia Pyper, E&E reporter
Published: Monday, March 12, 2012

French President Nicolas Sarkozy today launched the 6th World Water Forum in Marseilles, which will bring together delegates from more than 180 countries this week to work on the world's biggest water- related challenges.

Leading up to the event, Sarkozy called the forum a "crucial" rendezvous. "[A]ccess to water is an essential problem for our planet's future," he wrote on the conference website. "There will be no sustainable development while the question of water remains unsolved."

Today, 1.1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water, 1 billion are undernourished, and 1.5 billion lack electricity. Water intersects with each of these basic needs, and demand for the precious resource is expected to dramatically increase over the coming decades as the Earth's climate warms.

Sarkozy said solutions to these issues would come through strong but voluntary commitments to concrete actions. He expected the Marseille Forum to provide meaningful progress in three target areas: access to water and sanitation, cross-border cooperation and the inclusion of local authorities.

A high-level panel will meet Friday to push for progress in these three domains through the "nexus" approach to water management, in which food, water and energy sectors are integrated in water projects. The panel will discuss a set of successful  case studies and advocate to have the nexus strategy added to the agenda of the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development to be held in Rio de Janeiro in June.

"The world now is quite different from the one 10 years ago," said Alain Vidal, a panel participant and director of the Challenge Program on Water and Food. "Ten years ago, dams weren't a priority, we hadn't had the food crisis, and we hadn't had the economic crisis."

There is a growing need to develop renewable energy, and hydropower is the most flexible and accessible among the options, said Vidal. More than 1,600 large dams are being built around the world today.

Hydro would be a winning solution, he said, except that development projects tend to prioritize power generation over food and water resources. In some cases, the singular focus on one aspect of the nexus has led to social and political conflicts.

For instance, the Mekong River -- shared by China, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam -- is a hot spot for water-related tensions. Plans to dam the main river artery, spurred by huge financial interests in developing clean energy, could fundamentally change the economy and food supply of countries downstream.

Climate change doesn't help matters.

"The greatest challenge is the increasing variability, longer droughts and more intense floods," said Vidal. A new hydropower system "has to be designed taking into account the future climate variability, because when you build a dam, it's not for three years; it's for 20, 30 or 50 years ... when water conditions will be quite different from what they are now."

The Water Youth Movement, a network of international youth organizations, is also taking part in the 6th World Water Forum. Around 40 participants have been selected to share their views on how to achieve a more sustainable future, and preparing for climate change ranks high on their list of priorities.

"To ignore the signs of climate variability is to ignore our futures," said Natalia Selivanova, representative of the Water Youth Movement. "If no action is taken, the world will face daunting water challenges, strongly linked with other global issues such as world population growth, migration, land use, energy, agriculture, food security, natural disasters and green growth."

The aim of the conference is to build on solutions to today's water issues and "create a secure world we wish to live in tomorrow," she 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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