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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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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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And the desert once again became a vast, empty expanse

Posted by Jacques Godfrain on 26 January 2011

The Sahel is not deserted by man. Humans are everywhere, at the end of each road, along each track, around every dune. Those who know these vast expanses a little (perhaps a lot?), know that men and women live here, entrenched in this hostile setting and yet capable of both adapting to it and protecting themselves from it.

Their wealth is their herds, emaciated when far from waterholes and magnificent during the kinder seasons or with thin vegetation nearby.

For decades, Europeans and Africans have understood the importance and wealth of the pastoral world. Studies of tropical breeds go far back in our veterinary schools; be they Agro here in France or the Veterinary School of Dakar.

The care, the vaccinations, the follow-up of herds in sub-Saharan Africa have, over the years, created close, personal, and trusting ties between these populations and those who contribute to their livelihood and sometimes their survival.

And then came structural adjustments. Agriculture was phased out as the primary concern of financial managers. There were budget freezes and major institutions changed their guidelines.

Desert populations soon realized that the health of their herds was not a priority and that they themselves were of little importance in the minds of those they had welcomed as tourists, as brothers, as admirers of the setting sun, and sometimes for whom their grandparents had died.

And the desert once again became a vast, empty expanse.

Other men came, talked, helped, supported, and often replaced a certain White Man with their support and sense of brotherhood.

Today, circumstances require action not contrition.

Special forces will not suffice. We must rethink our positions on agriculture and livestock. An impressive organization exists, the OIE (The World Organisation for Animal Health (1)) ; however, every year, budget after budget, their financial power is eroded.

We must re-engage dialogue with those who take care of the animals, for they feed people.

This means fighting hunger, this means actually fighting against falsified drugs and vaccinations, in deed and not merely in word.

When human wisdom prevails over the strength of things, then there is no longer room for those who kidnap or kill.

Preventing conflicts shows the poor that ultimately, life will offer the shepherd, during his twilight years, the hope of leaving his son a larger herd than the one bequeathed by his father.

Former Minister
Honorary member of Parliament
Replacement deputy for Aveyron

(1) L’Office international des épizooties was created in 1924 to globally fight animal diseases, in 2003 the Office became the World Organisation for Animal Health but has kept its historical acronym, OIE.

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A very happy New Year to all, including all of the forests of the world….

Posted by Tristan Lecomte on 5 January 2011

The United Nations have declared 2011 the International Year of Forests, which we at the Fondation warmly welcome. The fight against deforestation and support of sustainable harvest of timber are amongst the Fondation’s primary objectives, particularly because we are conscience of the direct link that exists between forest preservation and the protection of the rights of indigenous peoples.

The future of these populations is intimately linked to their ecosystems, on which they are dependent for survival. Preserving their forest, allows them to continue to live their traditional lifestyle, to meet their needs by sustainably using the resources of their forest, and as well as preserving their culture and language, the forest protects them from the frenetic evolution of today’s world.

The deforestation of a zone inhabited by an indigenous population is all too often synonymous with the forced entry into the Western and globalized world and the loss of orientation for fragile populations. Here we are measuring a very important aspect of the strong interdependence that exists between the forest and human development.

The forest is more than just a bunch of trees and vegetation to be admired while strolling through the countryside. The forest is an immense sanctuary of biodiversity, it is the most important reserve of fresh water in the world, the best way to preserve our soils from erosion, to maintain high soil quality and thus to reap successful harvests and to preserve our climate.

100 square meters destroyed every second

The forest is the lung of the planet, a lung that is in a pitiful state and that we continue to destroy at the rate of 100 square meters every second…

We really hope that this year, 2011, is the starting point for a greater awareness on the importance of the forest and its multiple interdependencies with human development. To all, we wish you a wonderful year in 2011…. in the forest!!!

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The right to water, and after?

Posted by Jean-Michel Severino on 20 October 2010

The United Nations has just made an important political and symbolic breakthrough by integrating the right to water into individual human rights. A critical universal demand has finally been recognized and with this, a milestone has been reached with the consecration of one of the Millenium Development Goals.

Everyone however is aware that the most significant efforts still lie ahead. The real goal our planet must establish is universal access to quality water. Achieving this will help improve overall health (waterborne diseases remain the leading cause of death in poor countries), thereby helping with demographic control, the reduction of social tensions and even open conflicts. This is visible in many parts of the world affected by water stress and competition for access to water between communities. Economic growth also depends on universal access. Investing in water means investing in Keynesian mechanisms for growth, it means freeing productivity, providing access to schooling, particularly for girls…

The road to this goal contains a gigantic investment deficit. Fixing it requires providing specific answers to the question of funding. Both the report prepared under the direction of Michel Camdessus and the recent OECD report presented at World Water Forum in Istanbul have demonstrated that for such a subject, we must base ourselves on three axes: adequate tariffs for management and investment agencies, solidarity transfers among users, and finally grants because it seems unlikely that water can fully fund water. We have not done so in Western Europe, and it will not happen in the rest of the world. The only reason for this is the externalities to access to water, as economists say, for financial reasons, legitimize and even demand that the entire economy participate in such an investment via tax contributions.

In the globalized world in which we live, subsidies must be approached as a globally managed entity that comprises North-South transfers, inspired not by charity but rather by the awareness that we share a common space in which we influence one another. Take the case of Africa. Maintaining a growth rate above 6% per year, which would progressively provide for universal access to water would require over 100 billion Euros per year in investments. We are currently only roughly half way there. These investments are closely linked to energy, because water requires large quantities of energy and dams have multiple uses. Given the meagre taxes levied in the least developed of African countries coupled with their low debt capacity, it is impossible to achieve such levels of investment in the next ten years without significant financial contributions from abroad, much of it in grants. These investments require a marked improvement in the design and implementation of local water policies, including socially just and financially realistic tariff policies. A common effort must therefore be undertaken.

The next World Water Forum, to be held in Marseille in March 2012, should focus on allowing this effort to intensify until it reaches the required level to make the right to water a reality. This will be a unique opportunity to take action that France can promote. This should be an opportunity to free the financial bottleneck and link this topic to innovative financing. France is the driving force in the work group that steers the progression of this fundamental issue. As host of the Marseille forum, France has the opportunity to simultaneously accomplish two goals: to make sense of the summit’s political process, and thus of the entire meeting, as well as to offer a concrete subject to a discussion that until now has been abstract.

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Marseille, March 2012: the next World Water Forum

Posted by Jean-Louis Oliver on 27 September 2010

On March 21, 1997, the first World Water Forum was created in Marrakech, Morocco to coincide with International Water Day. International events periodically bringing together professionals from various fields or occupations of the water sector have long existed and still continue to do so. The World Water Forum’s specificity is to bring together, every three years during the third week of March, all the public, private, and associative players involved in the management of water resources and its different uses.

The World Water Forums have thus taken place successively in The Hague, Netherlands in March 2000; in Kyoto, Shiga, and Osaka, Japan in March 2003; in Mexico City, Mexico in March 2006; and in Istanbul, Turkey in March 2009. The World Water Council, created in 1995, organizes each event from its headquarters in Marseille. The Council today extends to over 400 organizations from 70 countries.

The World Water Forum has become the largest global gathering in favor of water. It is a meeting place, a point of dialogue, a system of debate and cooperation to advance shared causes.

The 6th World Water Forum will be hosted by France and the City of Marseille in March 2012. Over 30,000 participants are expected. The Forum’s appearance in Marseille, a multicultural metropolis, offers a unique opportunity to advance the effective implementation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in the critical area of water supply and access to sanitation, notably in terms of the disadvantaged.

Water issues in African countries and those around the Mediterranean Basin will assuredly constitute a major portion of the Marseilles 2012 Forum agenda!

As preparation for this next forum are being undertaken, a number of themes must be included in the program:

  • the right to water and sanitation,
  • water and health
  • the cultural dimension of resource management and water uses,
  • the joint management of transboundary waters, including shared aquifers
  • water and climate change.

Paris will host a two-day work session to discuss the initial guidelines on November 18 and 19.

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