The global political context of the water debate

There are positive signs that water is taking centre stage internationally, and that political will is being built regionally and globally (e.g. EU, 2000) and globally (UN, 2002a, 2002b, 2003, 2006). Already in 1992, both the International Conference on Water and the Environment in Dublin, Ireland (United Nations Administrative Committee on Coordination and the Inter-Secretariat Group for Water Resources, 1992) and the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, emphasized that urgent action was needed on water. Chapter 18 of Agenda 21 stated:

The holistic management of freshwater as a finite and vulnerable resource, and the integration of sectoral water plans and programmes within a framework of national economic and social policy, are of paramount importance for actions in the 1990s and beyond. (UN, 1992)

Even then, this was in many ways a reiteration of the statements already made at the first global water conference in Mar del Plata, Argentina, in 1977 (UN, 1977).

The United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) maintained focus on freshwater and sanitation in the years following Rio (CSD, 1994, 1998a, 1998b). Former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan identified water as one of ten crucial issues to be addressed at the 2002 Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) and, indeed, it was (UN, 2002a, 2002b). His successor, Ban Ki-moon, highlighted the need to focus more on water issues within the climate change agenda during the 2008 World Economic Forum, stressing that 'a shortage of water resources could spell increased conflicts in the future'. He added that 'governments must engage and lead, but the private sector also has a role to play'. The debate continues.

There are a range of political issues associated to water. Transboundary water management can either stir conflict or increase cooperation. Water as a human right continues to cause debates. Increasingly, access to a basic supply of safe drinking water is considered to be a universal human right (United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 2003). Privatizations in the water sector are seen as the solution to some and a stigma to others. The fact that billions still lack access to water and sanitation can be seen as nothing less than a political scandal. Perhaps a reason could be that although water and sanitation targets are included in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted in 2000 (sanitation was added at a later stage at the WSSD), the critical roles of water for achieving poverty, food, energy and health improvements are still severely overlooked.

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