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Implementing Sustainable Solutions: New Approaches at the 7th World Water Forum
By Hyoseop Woo

WATER is the root of life on earth, and yet far too many people still spend large parts of their days searching for water. Population growth, development and poor water management have led to soaring demand for potable water, while access to water is becoming more uncertain due to climate change and human activity.


According to the UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2012, about 11 percent of the world’s population still has no access to improved sources of drinking water. The OECD’s Water Outlook, 2012 projected that by 2050, 40 percent of the world’s population would face severe water shortages.


Water-related disasters such as typhoons, floods and tsunamis are another urgent global issue. Many natural calamities that negatively impact socio-economic development are likely to be water related. According to the World Bank, in some developing countries natural disasters cost up to 15 percent of annual GDP between 1990 and 2000. During the last decade of the 20th century, about 20 million people suffered from natural disasters, of which 86 percent were water-related, like floods and drought (WHO, 2004). Unfortunately the frequency and intensity of such natural hazards have been increasing rapidly.


Of course, water also isn’t confined by national boundaries and political borders. An estimated 148 countries have international water basins within their territory. Yet many trans-boundary river basins around the world still lack a co-operative management framework for compromise, despite research demonstrating the potential for conflict represented by trans-boundary waters.


The Asian continent is especially vulnerable to water problems, due inherently to its natural and social characteristics — precipitation and population, respectively. According to data from the World Bank, the annual average precipitation in the Asian continent, excluding the Middle East region, is about 941 mm, slightly larger than the world average of 880 mm, while the amount of water received from the sky per capita is 6,160 m3/year, only 23 percent of the world average of 26,800 m3/year. Moreover, geographical and temporal variations in precipitation are quite large due to high mountains and deserts within the continent and seasonal heavy storms such as typhoons and cyclones along the coastal lines generated by the tropical low-pressure.


In general, the coastal areas of Asia including Japan, Korea, China (including southern China), Southeast Asia, the Bengal Bay area and the southwestern part of the Indian subcontinent are relatively water-abundant, with more than 1,000 mm annual precipitation. Other parts of Asia are water-scarce, with annual precipitation less than 1,000 mm, even less than 500 mm in semi-arid regions and deserts.


V10N1-Cover-Woo-chart-1In such water-abundant regions, there is a sanitation issue in developing countries, especially in urban areas, and also a water-supply issue. Statistics from UNICEF/WHO in 2012 (see Chart 1) show that, as of 2010, the percentage of use of sanitation facilities is low, especially in the South Asian region — at only 40 percent — while it is above 60 percent East and Southeast Asia, but still well below the 95 percent seen in developed regions. In water-scarce regions, on the other hand, a water-supply issue comes first, both in developed and developing regions.


Asia is also vulnerable to climate change. A survey carried out in 2010 by a global risk analysis firm, Maplecroft, showed that 16 countries would be extremely vulnerable to climate change. Each nation’s vulnerability was calculated using 42 social, economic and environmental indicators, which identified the likely climate change impacts during the next 30 years. In Asia, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Thailand, Pakistan and Sri Lanka were among the 16 countries facing extreme risk from climate change. A risk resulting from climate change usually comes forth in water resources issues such as larger peak floods and prolonged duration of droughts as well as more frequent floods and droughts. This issue will only get worse in the near future, and add to the existing water-related issues in Asia.


In detail, many countries in Asia have suffered from unstable water supplies, insufficient sanitation and damage caused by water-related disasters. About 60 percent of the world’s population is in the Asia-Pacific region, but only 36 percent of global water resources are found in the region. Internal migration and urbanization are also driving the rise of megacities in Asia. This is putting tremendous pressure on water consumption and worsening the challenge of dealing with inadequate sanitation services in the region. Many experts have pointed out that a potential decrease in access to safe water in Asia could have a significant impact on social and economic security.


Moreover, Asian countries have struggled to cope with annual flooding. In 2010, approximately one-fifth of Pakistan was inundated along the Indus River. Typhoons are an annual problem highlighted by the 2013 devastation in the Philippines when more than 6,000 people died and hundreds of thousands were dislocated due to massive flooding caused by Typhoon Haiyan.


In addition to such catastrophes, food security is also an issue in Asia, where more than 60 percent of cropland is rain-fed. In addition, according to the Asia Pacific Water Forum, about two-thirds of the world’s hungry people live in Asia, where water storage infrastructure is least developed.


Search for solutions


With many overlapping problems associated with water, in the late 1980s, the global community recognized environmental problems as a major issue. Since then, the issue has accelerated in numerous global meetings and forums. The United Nations has long recognized the global water crisis. Experts representing 100 countries attended the International Conference on Water and the Environment in January 1992, adopting the Dublin Statement on Water and Sustainable Development, whose guiding principles emphasized the increasing scarcity of water as a result of poor water management and conflicts over use. The Dublin principles became the foundation of integrated water resource management goals.


Later in 1992, the UN Conference on the Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro adopted the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21, based on the concept of environmentally sound and sustainable development (ESSD), whose three pillars are environmental conservation, social development and economic growth. As a result of the Rio gathering there was a need for an international non-governmental consultative body on global water issues. The World Water Council (WWC) was established in Marseille, France in 1996. Since then, the WWC has promoted awareness, built political commitment and triggered actions on critical water issues to facilitate conservation, protection, planning and management in an environmentally sustainable manner.


One of the important milestones was the 2000 UN Millennium Summit where the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were adopted. Virtually every MDG target depends on successful achievements in water and sanitation. In 2012, the World Health Organization and UNICEF reported that 89 percent of the world’s population could access improved drinking water by 2010 and the UN system celebrated one of the first MDG targets to be met. The MDG targets are to be reached by 2015, and the global community met the MDG drinking water target ahead of schedule. But obviously the work is not yet done; this year marks the beginning of the Post-2015 Agenda.


The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were first formally discussed at the 2012 UNCED gathering in Rio de Janeiro. In July 2014, the UN Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals forwarded a proposal for 17 goals with 169 targets. In December 2014, the UN General Assembly accepted that the Post-2015 Agenda would be based on the proposals for SDGs, a key target being the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by 2030.



Where we stand


Since 1990 the global community has conducted numerous discussions on water, and 2015 marks a very important point in establishing a blueprint for the next 15 years. At the same time, this is also the year for the 7th World Water Forum to be held in Daegu/Gyeongbuk, South Korea, from April 12 to 17.


Following the establishment of the World Water Council based on the agenda raised by UNCED in 1992, the first World Water Forum took place in Marrakech, Morocco in 1997; it now meets every three years. It aims to raise awareness with public and private stakeholders on how to improve access to water supplies and sanitation. It also aims to provide a global platform for developing shared visions on water challenges and for building new partnerships to enhance co-operation and actions among a wide diversity of individuals and institutions. In particular, the forum encourages political authorities and decision makers to consider a water-related agenda as a priority in national socio-economic development.


The forum is now the largest global water event, drawing thousands of participants for its discussions on controversial issues surrounding water. Its major features are the activities and outputs produced in preparation for the forum in the two years before the event. The forum’s three pillars of discussion are the Thematic Process, Regional Process and Political Process.


The Thematic Process aims to identify and diagnose urgent problems that threaten global water security. At the same time, solutions are found on water quantity, water management, sanitation, environmental conservation and ecosystem protection by sharing up-to-date research and advanced technologies. The Regional Process focuses on reflecting regional diversity in solving water problems. Even given similar problems, solutions may vary by region according to hydrological properties, economic development levels and environment conditions. Especially in the case of issues such as trans-boundary water management and shared water resources, strengthening co-operation and partnership among nations and regions is very important. In order to have the solutions and strategies discussed by the forum take hold with policy makers, the Political Process brings high-level national delegations, local government authorities and parliamentarians into the process.



The 7th Forum in 2015


With the 2015 forum, there is a greater emphasis than ever on the implementation of priority issues that require immediate attention.


Among others, enhanced commitments can be found in a variety of special programs for the forum. The Implementation Roadmap (IR) is a strategic plan for implementing solutions on 16 key themes and it represents an agenda for change that can be used by all stakeholders to align their actions (see Table 1). A synthesis of the agreed roadmap will be presented as a comprehensive commitment to the global community for implementing the Post-2015 Agenda on water.


V10N1-Cover-Woo-Table-1Also under the IR, an online Action Monitoring System (AMS) will enable a variety of stakeholders to access progress on ongoing actions. By enhancing the visibility of the implementation process, it is expected that the AMS will contribute to promoting concrete actions throughout the world. These new approaches under the Roadmap and the AMS have the goal of showing that the World Water Forum is not just an event but an ongoing process for solving water problems. It is expected that IR and AMS will become powerful tools, on voluntary-basis from non-governmental sectors led by WWC, to support the implementation mechanism of the SDGs under the global Post-2015 Agenda.


In addition, a new Science and Technology Process has been created for this year’s forum. It aims to support implementation and emphasize the role of science and technology in resolving current water problems. It will identify how knowledge and technologies can contribute to resolving a variety of water challenges efficiently and practically.


Despite the global efforts of the past 20 years to solve water problems, there remain urgent challenges to be addressed. This is the time to correct the errors of the past and to prepare for the future. The 7th World Water Forum represents a major platform for discussion and implementation of water issues and a great opportunity for Asia to help set the agenda on global water management.


Hyoseop Woo is co-chair of the Thematic Process Commission, the 7th World Water Forum, and a senior researcher with the Korea Institute of Civil Engineering and Building Technology (KICT).



Back to Issue
    Virtually all targets under the Millennium Development Goals require successful global approaches on clean water and sanitation. While great strides have been made, enormous challenges remain in coping with water conflicts, natural disasters and rapid urbanization. With these challenges particularly acute in Asia, Hyoseop Woo outlines global water strategies and places the 7th World Water Forum held in South Korea in context.
    Published: March 2015 (Vol.10 No.1)
    About the author

    Hyoseop Woo is co-chair of the Thematic Process Commission, the 7th World Water Forum, and a senior researcher with the Korea Institute of Civil Engineering and Building Technology (KICT).

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