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World Water Day: “Water for Cities: Responding to the Urban Challenge”

Posted by Jean-Louis Oliver on 22 March 2011

March 22 of each year was designated for the observance of World Water Day in order to draw attention to the importance of fresh water and to support the sustainable management of this precious resource.

The 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) recommended an international day to celebrate fresh water. The United Nations General Assembly responded by choosing March 22, 1993 as the first World Water Day.

Each year, the World Water Day highlights a particular aspect of fresh water. In 2011, the aim is to attract international attention to the impact of rapid growth of urban populations, of industrialization, and of uncertainties caused by climate change, conflicts, and natural disasters on urban water systems.

This year’s theme, “Water for Cities: Responding to the Urban Challenge” aims to highlight and encourage governments, organizations, communities, and individuals to actively commit to meet the challenge of urban water management.

The figures speak for themselves: in the early 20th century, 200 million people lived in cities or 14% of the world’s population. Since 2008 and for the first time in the history of mankind, the majority of the planet’s population now lives in cities and in 2050, world population will reach 9 billion people with 4.5 billion in urban zones, over 50% of the world’s population. The exponential and anarchic growth of global cities exacerbates the development of urban wastelands on the outskirts of cities, where human populations settle with no access to infrastructures and essential public services. The situation in these urban areas degrades living conditions and the human dignity of the inhabitants, as well as significantly increasing health and social risks.

More than ever, water supplies; collecting and disposing of wastewater and stormwater; protection against floods in these cities, often located near a river, lake or sea have all become major priorities.

The key challenge is to channel urban growth by providing a comprehensive planning vision of urban development. Such a vision needs to include successive anticipatory horizons and must be based on continuity and spatial coherence within territorial planning policies at the regional, urban, and rural levels.

Managing urban water cycles is vital to such a project. First, it ensures the population has access to water and sanitation, including the most disadvantaged individuals. Secondly, it allows water to become a structuring element of urban space and landscape, for recreational use around ponds and fountains in parks and public gardens; but also for risk management by restructuring river banks, with the necessary expansion areas for floods or for storing rainwater.

All urban actors must be mobilized

Like surface water, groundwater, a precious resource to be mobilized for populations in need, must be protected by measures of integrated and sustainable management.

Urban water management goes far beyond mere public intervention. Within the same collective support system, it needs to integrate sustainable development’s three pillars: economic, environmental and social. This can only be accomplished through the involvement of civil society at the local level.

A sustainable city must be based on a comprehensive strategy for both urban development and public policies implemented in the areas of education, training, solidarity, employment, etc.

To achieve this, all urban actors must be mobilized: elected officials; planners; architects; engineers; sociologists; building, public works, utilities and finance professionals; associations, and of course those who are most directly concerned: the inhabitants themselves.

There is no single model for sustainable cities. Each is built within a specific geographical, historical, economic, social, and cultural context. Each city draws on its history and roots, with a humanistic vision for the future that is fueled by those who live therein.

The rapid pace of urban and suburban growth is today the greatest global challenge to achieving access to water and sanitation for all.

It is with this in mind that France and the city of Marseille are preparing to host the 6th World Water Forum in March 2012. This Forum must encourage the enhanced mobilization of all public, private, and voluntary entities involved in order to achieve the Millennium Development Goals in this vital sector.

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What will be Prometheus’ new flame?

Posted by Geneviève Ferone on 16 March 2011

A tragedy already enacted many times over

Since time immemorial, the oldest founding myths have perfectly captured the essence of our tormented soul and described the fragility of our existence. The eternal human “factor” has travelled throughout the ages, endlessly weaving the same dramas, touching upon the same wounds. Everything can be repeated at each living moment, in every civilization, playing out the unchanging elements of a tragedy already enacted many times over. Yet behind the recent revolutions and natural disasters, these terrible events that have marked the start of 2011, emerges for the first time in such sharp focus, the extreme vulnerability of our societies in terms of their most precious, shared commodity : energy.

A double irreversibility inflect’s humanity’s path

The energy systems that power the world produce irreversible consequences. The law of entropy reminds us that time’s arrow shapes the future in a sole and unique direction: towards the use and degradation of our finite stock of resources. We will bequeath to future generations a natural heritage that has largely been undermined and depleted, one that is less adapted to their needs. However, time has more arrows than just entropy to govern our evolution. Our increasing knowledge is just as important, though less tangible. The progress of human knowledge is also an irreversible process. A double irreversibility inflects humanity’s path: the depletion of nonrenewable resources and the accumulation of techniques and knowledge.

A race

Starting with these two dynamic processes, we can decide to increase resource use as long as we have sufficient knowledge to ensure the system’s sustainability. Here this means sustaining the planet’s energy system. We are caught in a race in which we must simultaneously reduce the rate of resource depletion and invest heavily in research, especially concerning any and all measures that could reduce the energy intensity of our lifestyles and develop alternative solutions.

All the necessary conditions to best handle this deadline seem to be met. However, we have come to realize over and over again that we have not always fully utilized available information to organize the transition as quickly as possible. This is precisely our current situation . The challenge lies in the ability of our institutions to tackle problems that overshadow them. If we cannot find both technological and political alternatives, we will remain stunned and helpless. Nobody can imagine a world without energy. We are not (yet) capable of doing without fossil fuels. We fear nuclear energy more than the threat of climate change and renewable energy is insignificant when compared with what is at stake. Our ancient Fire is slowly extinguishing and as it declines, it threatens to engulf the globe and divide humanity. Of what will Prometheus’ new flame be made? At no other time in our history has this issue so urgently made itself heard. It has come to a point where the answers we will provide will structure the very framework of the first half of this century.

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The law, a key element in preventing conflicts

Posted by Fondation Chirac on 9 March 2011

Maître Bernard Vatier, former President of the Paris Bar and a founding member of the Fondation Chirac, succeeds Arnaud Danjean as Managing Director for the Conflict Prevention Prize. He accepted an interview by the Fondation Chirac on the role of law in conflict management.

Can legal instruments contribute to conflict prevention?

Conflict prevention is established by setting up rules that are legitimate for all those who serve under it. In other words, society needs to be regulated by laws that are accepted by all those who oppose them and which enable the management of conflicts.

However, laws are insufficient. In a social structure, there is always conflict and therefore a need for mediators. Between two people, this could be a judge. In the event of conflict between two communities, the situation is more complex. Either we settle the difficulty through force and violence and then maintain the situation through coercion. Or we resolve the difficulty through mediation. This is where the law comes into full play. To prevent violence, we therefore need legitimate laws as well as a legitimate mediator to settle the conflict. This is the job of jurists.

Do you have examples of legal efforts that could receive the Conflict Prevention Prize?

Could international human rights organizations be eligible for the Prize? They denounce dysfunctions in legal systems. However, is this sufficient to prevent conflict? That remains to be seen.

Another example could be Afghanistan. Social organization has been decimated by wars, we must rebuild a state of law – a key element in preventing future conflicts.

Well, we had to create a judicial bar in Kabul that was not hostage to political groups. It needed to exercise its authority in the regulating of society and acquire the necessary legitimacy to allow the state of law to exist. It is very long-term effort to which French and European bars can and must contribute.

Given that Sharia law is the judicial foundation for many countries, and Afghanistan in particular, how can we reconcile the notion of rule of law from an international perspective with this other system? Wouldn’t speaking of an international rule of law in a country of Islamic law be more likely to create new conflicts?

The Sharia indeed raises many challenges. Yet it is the local state of law, tied to a religion: therein lies its legitimacy. Preventing conflicts means taking into account the local culture. You can not transpose the historically acquired culture we have here in the West, superimposing it and forcing it on a culture that is just as valid but does not know our principles.

We must be extremely cautious for the Western approach carries with it a cultural imperialism that is destructive to systems of peace. If we superimpose our legal rules, we give a community legal instruments that are not theirs. We render discordant what should be harmonious.

I believe that as Western jurists, we must be extremely humble. I condemn our lack of humility for it is a prerequisite for recognizing a culture that is not ours, but to which we can nevertheless contribute with our experience.

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The importance of preserving forests

Posted by Emmanuelle Grundmann on 3 March 2011

After the UN proclaimed the International Year of Biodiversity in 2010, its now the forests turn to take the spot on the international stage. Certainly, international years and days go by without producing the slightest concrete result. These events, despite shedding light on the forest, potable water, the rights of indigenous peoples, amongst others, they share a major drawback: they only last for a limited time. Once the event has passed the actions taken and lessons learned are often forgotten.

The water of New York, saved by forests

The results that we saw in Nagoya, were not up to the challenges presented by the Year of Biodiversity that just ended. Fortunately, 2011 can be considered a catch up period of all of those who refused to see the importance of biodiversity for the future of our planet.

Refusing the preservation of biodiversity in the name of economic development results in very short-term vision that makes absolutely no sense. Yes, these measures can seem restrictive at first glance, yet they are guarantees of good economic and social health in the mid and long term. Biodiversity brings many services that should not be underestimated. For example, supplying potable water; or pollination, which is essential for a large part of global agriculture; without forgetting the ever-growing number of medicinal substances found amongst animals, plants, and micro-organisms. A part of these services are made possible by forests and the species that they are home to.

The example of New York City is quite remarkable. The city has always been known for its free potable water. The water comes from the confines of the forests upstate, in the Catskill Mountains. However, this region saw very important expansion of agricultural land in the middle of the 20th century, to the detriment of natural ecosystems, particularly forests. This agriculture took the path of the agro-industry, extremely greedy for pesticides and chemical fertilizers. By the end of the 90s, the soil and the groundwater were so contaminated that the water was no longer fit for consumption. The city decided not to build a water treatment plant that would cost between 6 and 8 billion dollars, but rather to restore the degraded ecosystem of the once forested Catskill Mountains. And this, for the price of less than a billion dollars. Today, the 9 million inhabitants of the Big Apple and surrounding areas can again drink good quality potable water.

Over and above these services, we cannot forget that these very diverse forests (temperate, boreal, tropical, Mediterranean) are still home to 300 million men and women. For the Baka, the Penans, the Awà, the Dongria, the Kondh, the Komi or the Sami, the forest represents their pantry, their drug store, their home, their spirit. And nearly 2 billion people depend directly or indirectly on forest resources to live. The overexploitation of ecosystems and severe deforestation that is rampant in certain regions of the world puts the lives of these populations in peril.  This is something I have observed multiple times through my travels and reports.

Forests, our life insurance for the future

On my last trip, in Colombia, Juan and his family, of the Kogis people, spoke to me for a long time about their relationship with their forest. It’s a forest that they know inside out as well as the species it hosts. This forest furnishes everything that they need, or almost. They could not live without the forest and they never fail to thank it for all that it provides.

In our countries where consumption is raised up as the supreme value, without us realizing, forests (and particularly those of the tropical belt) continue to provide us with multiple products and services that we could not live without. Nevertheless, far from thanking it, we exploit it, worse we clear-cut it.

We have to hope that this year, 2011, will allow the public and all actors: political, social and economic to better know these ecosystems and to understand to what point they are our life insurance for the future. And, if we want this Year of Forests to be embodied with real and concrete political and economic decisions; ambitious, courageous, necessary, and proportionate to the value these ecosystems represent, we must all take action. This Year of Forests is not for a small number of dedicated individuals, NGOs, and foundations working for their preservation. This Year of Forests is ours. And the future of the forests is also our own.

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