Ensuring sustainable water resources management: UN assesses 130 countries

In its effort to improve the sustainable management of what is left of the world’s water resources, the United Nations (UN) has conducted a survey of 130 of its member countries to assess progress made towards the implementation of internationally-agreed approaches to the management and use of water, known as Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM).

According to the UN, IWRM is a way forward for efficient, equitable and sustainable development and management of the world’s limited water resources, which was backed by UN Member States at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, as part of an overall action plan on sustainable development (known as Agenda 21).

A joint statement by the United Nations Environment Programme and UN-Water, on the survey and its outcome, said amid increasing and conflicting demands on the world’s water supply, IWRM integrates domestic, agricultural, industrial and environmental needs into water planning, rather than considering each demand in isolation.

It says the latest survey is intended to inform decision-making at the Rio+20 Conference in June 2012, which comes 20 years after the Earth Summit, adding that world governments will once again convene in Rio de Janeiro to take decisions on how to ensure sustainable development for the 21st century.

The survey, which was co-ordinated by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) on behalf of UN-Water (the UN inter-agency co-ordination mechanism for freshwater issues), asked governments for their feedback on governance, infrastructure, financing, and other areas relating to water management, to gauge how successful countries have been in moving towards IWRM.

According to the press statement, overall, 90 percent of countries surveyed reported a range of positive impacts from integrated approaches to water management, following national reforms.

“Over 80 percent of countries have reformed their water laws in the past twenty years as a response to growing pressures on water resources from expanding populations, urbanisation and climate change. In many cases, such water reforms have produced significant impacts on development, including improvements to drinking water access, human health and water efficiency in agriculture,” the statement said.

It however maintains that at the same time, global progress has been slower where irrigation, rainwater harvesting and investment in freshwater ecosystem services are concerned.

Commenting on the findings of the survey, the UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director, Achim Steiner, said “The sustainable management and use of water – due to its vital role in food security, energy or supporting valuable ecosystem services – underpins the transition to a low-carbon, resource efficient green economy.”

He stated further that “As well as highlighting challenges, this new survey also shows important successes regarding integrated water resources management, where a more sustainable approach to water has resulted in tangible benefits for communities and the environment,” adding, “At Rio+20, governments will have the opportunity to build on these innovations and chart the way forward for sustainable development, where the water needs of a global population set to rise to nine billion by 2050, can be met in an equitable way.”

Other key findings of the survey are that water-related risks and the competition for water resources are perceived by a majority of countries to have increased over the past 20 years and domestic water supply is ranked by most countries as the highest priority for water resources management.

Also, that the majority of countries reported an increasing trend in financing for water resources development, although obstacles to implementing reforms remain, while progress on water efficiency is lagging behind other water management reforms, with less than 50 percent of national reforms addressing water efficiency.

The UN survey shows the major environmental changes that have taken place between 1992, when IWRM was firstly widely backed by governments, and today – and how water resources are managed in the face of such challenges.

For instance, the world’s population increased from 5.3 billion in 1992 to just over 7 billion this month, with impacts being felt most strongly in developing countries, which has been accompanied by increased rural-to-urban migration and high refugee movements due to climatic and socio-political disasters.

By Edmund Smith-Asante

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