Rio+20 Summit: Sustainable Water Management is Achieving Economic, Social and Environmental Benefits, say Countries

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UN Water and UNEP
June 19, 2012

Over 80 per cent of countries have reformed their water laws in the past twenty years as a response to growing pressures on water resources from expanding populations, urbanization and climate change.

In many cases, such water reforms have had positive impacts on development, including improvements to drinking water access, human health and water efficiency in agriculture.

But global progress has been slower where irrigation, rainwater harvesting and investment in freshwater ecosystem services are concerned.

Men in rural part of Uganda constructing a rainwater harvesting tank

These are among the findings of a United Nations survey of over 130 national governments on efforts to improve the sustainable management of water resources. The survey was specifically produced to inform decision-making at Rio+20.

The survey focuses on progress towards the implementation of internationally-agreed approaches to the management and use of water, known as Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM).

Backed by UN Member States at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit as part of an overall action plan on sustainable development (Agenda 21), IWRM is a way forward for efficient, equitable and sustainable development and management of the world’s limited water resources.

Amid increasing and conflicting demands on the world’s water supply, IWRM integrates domestic, agricultural, industrial and environmental needs into water planning, rather than considering each demand in isolation.

“An integrated and adaptive approach is essential to ensure that the needs of different user groups, which sometimes compete, are equitably satisfied so that development and management of water resources benefits all,” said the Chair of UN-Water, Michel Jarraud.

“Its success depends on a governance and institutional framework that facilitates dialogue and decisions on water resource management which is ecologically, economically and socially sustainable,” he said.

Twenty years after the Earth Summit, world governments are convening once again in Rio, where the critical role of freshwater management in the transition to a low carbon, resource and inclusive green economy is one of several key issues on the table.

The survey, which was co-ordinated by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) on behalf of UN-Water (the UN inter-agency co-ordination mechanism for freshwater issues), asked governments for their feedback on infrastructure, financing, governance and other areas relating to water management, to gauge how successful countries have been in moving towards IWRM.

UNEP and UN Water Logos

Overall, 90 per cent of countries surveyed reported a range of positive impacts from integrated approaches to water management, following national reforms.
Other key findings include:
• Water-related risks and the competition for water resources are perceived by a majority of countries to have increased over the past 20 years;
• Domestic water supply is ranked by most countries as the highest priority for water resources management;
• The majority of countries reported an increasing trend in financing for water resources development, although obstacles to implementing reforms remain;
• Progress on water efficiency is lagging behind other water management reforms, with less than 50 per cent of national reforms addressing water efficiency.
“The sustainable management and use of water – due to its vital role in food security, energy or supporting valuable ecosystem services – underpins the transition to a low-carbon, resource efficient green economy,” said UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.

“As well as highlighting challenges, this new survey also shows important successes regarding integrated water resources management, where a more sustainable approach to water has resulted in tangible benefits for poverty reduction, human health and the environment. At Rio+20, governments have the opportunity to build on these innovations and chart the way forward for sustainable development, where the water needs of a global population set to rise to 9 billion by 2050, can be met in an equitable way,” added Mr. Steiner.

The UN survey shows the major environmental changes that have taken place between 1992, when IWRM was firstly widely backed by governments, and today – and how water resources are managed in the face of such challenges.

The world population, for example, increased from 5.3 billion in 1992 to just over 7 billion today, with impacts being felt most strongly in developing countries. This has been accompanied by increased rural-to-urban migration and high refugee movements due to climatic and socio-political disasters.

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