Menu Close



APRIL 15 – 30, 1996


In keeping with its tradition of covering  global sustainability issues from the field, The Earth Times asked Executive Publisher Ashali Varma to file from China


BEIJING –At least 1.7 billion people living on this earth do not have an adequate supply of drinking water about 3 billion people are without proper sanitation, according to the United Nations.  Several cities around the world face acute water shortages today, and the problem will get worse in the 21st century unless countries actively address the issue.  To highlight this critical issue before the Habitat II conference to be held in Istanbul in June 1996, the UN Centre for Human Settlements (UNCHS), organized the “International Conference on Urban Water Resource Management—Water for Thirsty Cities,” which was held here, March 18-22.

Attended by 200 participants from 50 countries, including NGOs government officials, and representatives of UN agencies and development banks, the four day meeting was hosted by China, UNCHS, the Untied Nations Environment Programme and the Housing Ministry of the Netherlands.

Experts from Cairo, Accra, Bangkok, Hyderabad, Shanghai, and other cities presented papers on different and innovative ways to tackle the problems of water management, financing water services, and the control of wastage and pollution of water sources.

The urgency of the situation facing cities with burgeoning population growth was the central theme of statements presented by ministers and heads of UN agencies.

China’s Minsiter of Construction, Hou Jie said “The issue of water has become one of the most important concerns, internationally… with the rapid pace of industrialization and the fast growth of urban population, the demand for water is getting bigger.” Quoting from a recent World Bank report, Hou Jei said 80 countries with 40 percent of the world population are facing water shortages.  He said China also faces ‘severe water shortages and “the per capita water consumed is only 2,440 cubic meters, which is a quarter of the per capita volume in the world.”

Warning nations about the implications of the wafer crisis Secretary General of Habitat II, Dr Wally N’ Dow said, “Dirty or lost water  today kills some 10 million people annually in the developing world,” He said that most cities  the challenge to reach growing numbers of people with water and sanitation is “is safeguard, maintain and keep clean urban water resources.”

Industrial production is currently spilling tons of pollution into municipal water bodies,” N’Dow said and this has contaminated fresh water sources so extensively that authorities now face massive clean-up costs,”

The  fact that the urban poor, who live  on the fringes of the world’s major cities have to pay upto 40 times more for water from vendors, than the rich who are  arc provided for by city  water supply systems,  is inexcusable,  N’Dow point out

N’Dow warned that there is an  “increasing concern being voiced that the next century

may be scarred by wars over water, even as this century has been  devastated by wars over oil.  Ther is, indeed, a real cause for apprehension, as many of the world’s largest rivers flow across international boundaries.”

He said, “We need a more equitable  distribution of freshwater  supplies, not just locally

To consumers, but geographically and regionally, with due consideration for the needs of


Arthur N Holcombe, resident representative of the United Development Programme  (UNDP) in China, said, that the emerging water crisis is not merely because of  urban growth but due mismanagement. “We arc not protecting the urban water supply we do have .  Only about 5 percent of industrial human solid wastes produced in cities is treated.  Rather it is dumped raw, polluting soils, rivers and underground  aquifers.”

He pointed out, “that the  developing world loses 50 percent of its purified urban water supply in poorly maintained leaky urban reticulated water systems and in extensive illegal water connections.”

Holcombe said the solution lies in better planning and protecting existing water supplies through a broad range of treatments which  include recycling, conservation and water system maintenance.

The conference adopted an action-oriented agenda that will be taken to Istanbul.

In an interview with The Earth Times, Professor W.J. Kakabeeke, Assistant Director General for International and Environmental Cooperation, from the Netherlands said that there were two reasons why his country is so involved in this issue. “Our interest is that all the statements from the water conferences should become more operational. Water

shortages are a major problem in  cities and our Ministry of Development has a special interest in looking at the basic needs of the low income populations in cities.”

He said that in March 1994 the Netherlands hosted the Noordwijk Ministerial Conference on Drinking Water and Environmental Sanitation and one of the points that related to this

meeting was stated there “Although cities are increasingly recognized as places of social

progress and places of economic growth, millions of urban residents lack access to safe water and adequate sanitation. There is an acute need to extend sustainable water and sanitation coverage to the urban poor,”

Kakabeeke said, “We would like to see the Noordwijk Statement being implemented and

also see how through development cooperation we can contribute to specific issues like

water. We are also interested in getting sufficient political attention focused on these  issues,”

“What we want to stress with our participation at this conference,” said Dieter Kroemer,

Director of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), “is to make countries aware that the construction and operation of water supply systems and waste disposal systems should be based on information provided through hydrological data collection systems and data bases which should be established in urban areas,”

WMO, with the help of the World Bank, is developing a World Hydrological Cycle

Observing System, Data collecting stations established in different countries and major rivers are linked with satellites which provide water resources data by measuring  temperature, weather and rainfall. The aim of this project is to not only to strengthen national capacities but the data will also help detect fluctuations in rainfall, possible drought periods and floods.

John Briscoe of The World Bank is positive about some of the developments in the field of water supply, sanitation and environmental sustainability. The Bank’s New Agenda which includes integrated management of water resources for agriculture, industry and domestic consumption is according to Briscoe being taken up by many countries. “A  broadening of participation between private sector and communities is also taking place quite rapidly,” Briscoe said.

The Bank invests one billion dollars annually in the sector of water supply and sanitation and Briscoe thinks it will grow.

Frank Hartvelt who manages the global water program for UNDP, told The Earth Times that  this meeting has taken the agenda for water resource management a step further. “It has become clear here that utilities need to be run on a commercial basis, with financial and managerial autonomy,” he said.

He also said that the issue of water demand management has been emphasized at this

Conference.  Hartvelt explained, “When there is a shortage of water, there will be competition between users. So governments and municipalities will have to balance and manage the demand with tariffs and block allocations to the different sectors such as industry, agriculture and domestic use. The issue of human settlements has brought out the importance of this and sends a strong signal to public utilities.”

In an interview with The Earth Times, Jason Morrison who is with the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security said this meeting had made positive contributions to the question of urban water resource management. “The idea that funding institutions are being recommended to look at demand management and the areas of conservation, distribution and efficient use of water resources as infrastrtucture is a positive step forward.”

In addition, Morrison said the importance of data being made available to all, NGOs planners and utilities has also been stressed at this meeting. “Another significant achievement in the Beijing Statement is the recognition that following principles of sustainability can be economically better than remedial efforts later,” Morrison said.

Kalyan Ray, Chief of UNCHS’s Building Infrastructure and Technology Section, summed up the meeting’s importance to Habitat II.

“The Habitat Agenda which will be adopted in Istanbul will have a plan of action that countries will be implementing for the sustainable development and management of human settlements for the next two decades—and water will be the central development issue,” Ray said.