Goals for freshwater, nationally and internationally, were originally set in 1977 at a UN Water Conference. To achieve these goals in relation to water supply and waste water, the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade was established from 1981-90. In 1992, the International Conference on Water and the Environment met to shape the water agenda for UNCED. The topic is addressed in Chapter 18 of Agenda 21. In 1992 the UN General Assembly declared 22 March as World Water Day to highlight further the importance of water, and was one of the key issues at the 1994 meeting of the UN Commission on and freshwater is one of the key global environmental issues to be reviewed at the 1994 UN Commission on Sustainable Development. However, the formulation of international policies which satisfactorily address concerns about water quality and quantity, such as a Framework Convention on Freshwater, have proven very difficult. It is even argued that to properly deal with the international issues would required a restructuring of the governmental set up of nations.
Conceptual obstacles to holistic water management are: (1) the compartmentalized approach taken by most water professionals, representing typical differences in their sectoral focus; (2) scientifically-based paradigms which are incompatible with water's vast complexity, roles and functions, including the quantity/quality bias hydrology/ecology bias linked to geoscience and bioscience, respectively.
There is also the difference between "visible" and "invisible" water. Engineers focus on visible water (blue water), which they can control and regulate. Invisible water (green water) in the soil and air has tended to vanish from focus. For example, dryland productivity has been discussed as a soil issue rather than specifically the presence or absence of water in the root zone. This typifies the conventional dichotomy between land and water, which in Agenda 21 were treated more or less as independent phenomena. Water rarely appears as significant in land productivity in temperate areas. For instance, since European settlement of Australia and the transformation of virgin woodlands into croplands, as much as 10 percent of the former evapotranspiration/green water flow had been transformed into blue water flow in the rivers. Similar changes in the blue/green water partitioning of precipitation have been reported from the Hungarian Plain.
The International Year of Freshwater 2003 received its official launch at a ceremony at the United Nations in New York on 12 December 2002. The aim of the Year is to raise awareness of the importance of protecting and managing freshwater. The UN General Assembly resolution proclaiming the Year was initiated by the Government of Tajikistan and supported by 148 other countries.