Managing fresh water use

Life on Earth depends on water. Only a tiny fraction of the water which covers the Earth is of use to humanity, or only one percent of the estimated six percent that is freshwater. Spread equally this would suffice, but rainfall is unequally concentrated leaving many areas short of water. Chronic water shortage is also exacerbated by increasing water requirements made by rapid population growth and development. Global water withdrawals are believed to have grown more than 35-fold during the past three centuries, and are projected to increase by 30-35% by 2000. This pattern is not sustainable, and neither may be the capacity of institutions to manage the growing competition for water resources. It is widely agreed that water demands can be substantially reduced by ensuring efficient water use for agricultural irrigation, which currently accounts for about 70% of world water withdrawal, but from which less than 40% contributes to the growth of crops. The planet's water problems and challenges centre on quality as much as quantity since many water sources are contaminated with pollutants.
An essential element of a strategy for the future should be the accelerated development of institutional and human resources, without which adequate water supplies cannot be produced, and efficiency in the management of water resources cannot be enhanced. A major change for many countries may be decentralization and/or privatization of responsibility for water supply and sanitation activities and the substantial participation of communities and non-governmental organizations in the various stages of project planning, operation and maintenance.

To achieve the goals of the strategy, developing countries need to mobilize adequate financial resources and allocate adequate personnel resources to the water sector. However it may not be realistic to expect many developing countries to divert many more resources to the water sector in the short-to-medium term. Therefore, measures to stretch current allocations to the water sector are needed, including: (a) introducing cost-recovery schemes where water is currently subsidized; (b) encouraging the active participation of local communities in the operation and maintenance of facilities; (c) allowing the private sector to play a greater role. In many countries, self-help activities may need to be supplemented by external assistance if significant progress is to be made in any aspect of water resources development.

At the global level, an extensive network of institutions has been established to co-ordinate policies in the water resources field. In 1980 the Administrative Committee on Co-ordination (ACC) formed the Intersecretariat Group for Water Resources to co-ordinate policies among all the UN agencies dealing with water resources. After the launching of the [International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade] in 1980, the executive heads of UNDP and WHO created the Steering Committee for Co-operative Action for the Decade. The Group includes the 11 agencies with programmes in water supply and sanitation and utilizes the UNDP resident representative in each developing country as a focal point for co-ordinating such programmes. Both groups have been very active during the 1980s, and the co-ordination of UN water-sector activities at the country level has improved considerably. Nonetheless, a greater degree of co-ordination of the activities of multilateral institutions and bilateral aid agencies would further enhance the impact of external assistance. One funding agency, DANIDA, has prepared a series of strategies that examine environmental issues in water resources management.

Promoting good policies and building capacity to manage water more effectively will both avert a crisis and reduce the debt burden of developing nations by delaying the need for huge capital investments.
Type Classification:
C: Cross-sectoral strategies