Mon, 17 Mar 2003

Water for the people

The Third World Water Forum has just kicked off in Kyoto, Japan, to look at the challenges to the lives and the well-being of over six billion humans in the world, which is facing a serious water crisis. As pointed out in the special report prepared by the United Nations World Water Development, solving the water crisis in its many aspects is but one of the several challenges facing mankind as we confront life in this third millennium and as such, the water crisis must be viewed in this context.

This world forum has to fit the water crisis into an overall scenario of problem-solving and conflict resolution. The scenario was clearly defined by the Commission for Sustainable Development in 2002: Poverty eradication, changing unsustainable patterns of production and consumption, and protecting and managing the natural resource base of economic and social development. These are the overarching objectives of, and essential requirements for, sustainable development.

An Indonesian delegation, led by Minister of Resettlement and Regional Infrastructure Soenarno, is attending the forum, which will end on Sunday, March 23. This seems to reflect the current government's seriousness vis-a-vis the water crisis. The country report as prepared by the Indonesian delegation, however, fails to substantiate the seriousness.

The report does not provide a comprehensive picture of the water crisis Indonesia is facing, as it fails to describe the relevant causes of the huge problem endangering the future of over 215 million Indonesians.

Yes, there are statistics on some current facts: About 80 percent of the population does not have access to running water; rice production is under threat due to the conversion of 15,000 to 20,000 hectares of irrigated rice fields every year for nonagricultural uses; some 600 rivers out of a total of 5,590 rivers are deemed a significant flood hazard and pose a continuous threat to 1.4 million hectares of residential, industrial and agricultural areas.

These statistics, at best, understate the reality. Who would believe, for example, that piped water supplies reach 51 percent of the urban population? The reality is certainly much less than that. At worst, these statistics conveniently avoid the more relevant figures, like the millions of hectares of Indonesian forests destroyed every year.

Consequently, the ensuing programs as proposed by the Indonesian delegation lack the basic requirements for securing "Water for People, Water for Life", which is the central theme of the Kyoto forum. On the other hand, the list of 13 project proposals calling for US$321.9 million in a debt-for-nature swap related to water conservation as proposed by the Indonesian delegation appears more like a list of wishes prone to abuses.

Water is the most widely occurring substance on earth. According to UN statistics, however, only 2.35 percent are freshwater while the rest is salt water. Some two-thirds of this freshwater is locked up in glaciers and permanent snow cover.

The available freshwater is not distributed proportionally across the globe, and the global overview of freshwater availability versus population stresses the continental disparities. In particular, the Asian continent, which supports 60 percent of the world's population, has the highest pressure in terms of freshwater availability, as it has only 36 percent of the world's water resources.

Except for some groundwater, water resources are renewable, with huge differences in availability and wide variations in seasonal and annual precipitation in many parts of the world.

Precipitation is the main source of water for all human uses and for ecosystems. This precipitation is taken up by plants and soil, evaporates into the atmosphere via evapotranspiration, and runs off to the sea, lakes and wetlands via rivers. The water of evapotranspiration supports forests, rain-fed, cultivated and grazing lands, and of course, ecosystems.

Humans draw 8 percent of the total annual renewable freshwater and appropriate 26 percent of annual evapotranspiration and 54 percent of accessible runoff. As such, humans are significant players in the hydrological cycle.

With better living conditions, per capita use is increasing and at the same time, the population is growing. Thus, the percentage of appropriated water is increasing. Together with spatial and temporal variations in available water, the consequence is that water for all human uses is becoming scarce and leading to a water crisis.

To make matters worse, freshwater resources are increasingly reduced by pollution. As ever, the poor are the worst affected, with 50 percent of the population of developing countries exposed to polluted water sources. In addition, recent estimates suggest that climatic changes will account for about 20 percent of the increase in global water scarcity.

In short, critical challenges lie ahead in coping with progressive water shortages and water pollution, which should be the focus of scrutiny during this week-long forum in Kyoto.

The country report as prepared by the Indonesian delegation does not address these challenges adequately, nor properly.