Dear friends and distinguished members of the World Youth Parliament for Water.
The efforts of youth from all around the world to offer solutions and to work together to tackle the global water crisis both humble and inspire me. You are truly making a difference.
I am here in my first official role as a supporter and Ambassador for Green Cross International, the nongovernmental organization founded by Mikhail Gorbachev. As president of the Soviet Union, he tackled what was one of the greatest challenges – if not the greatest – of his era, which was bringing an end to the Cold War.
President Gorbachev, who spoke at the opening of the World Water Forum just two days ago, believes in the power of all people, particularly the youth, to make change aimed at protecting the environment. Young people – who will be tomorrow’s leaders — have a vital role to play to ensure all people can live free of poverty and insecurity, and enjoy a world that conserves – not exploits – its many natural wonders.
I come from the Netherlands, a country that has a lot of experience in “coping” with water. My country is one that is vulnerable to global warming and rising oceans. Fortunately, we have a long history of finding ways to stop the ocean from flooding much of a country that rests largely below sea level. Water is a central part of Dutch life, from our many canals and dikes to the water-powered windmills that are dotted all over the country. Many historians argue that our social organization was built on the need for communities to organize democratically in order to pull together to stop an invading ocean or a broken dike – a recognition that water crises do not discriminate whether they come in the form of floods or drought and, most importantly, that water crises can unite people and not only separate them.
The Netherlands, however, is not a country associated with scarcity of water, a curse for many populations today that will grow much worse. For our world is already buckling under the weight of our 7-billion strong population, and in less than 20 years from now, we will have grown to 8.3 billion . As you know, this will only increase the demand for water. Consequently, by 2025 experts estimate that two-thirds of the world's population could be living under water stressed conditions.
Water scarcity is the problem that our future generations will have to face. Responsibility for solving this global challenge, some might say, lies unfairly in the hands of you and young people around the world. You did not cause the crisis, but it will be up to today’s youth to be prepared for steering our world toward a more sustainable future, a path that will ensure we respond to the water crisis, fairly share our available water resources, promote conservation and end waste, and help millions upon millions of people realize their basic Human Right to have access to safe Water and Sanitation.
Lack of adequate drinking water and poor or non-existent sanitation target the youth unfairly. For example, 443 million school days are missed every year due to sickness caused by water-related diseases, such as diarrhoea, dysentery and cholera. Lack of access to safe drinking water and sanitation is one of the main obstacles to education today. This is bad, but what is absolutely intolerable is that diarrhoea is the world’s second biggest killer of children and accounts for 1.5 million young lives every year. Moreover, in the absence of functioning drainage systems, water forms stagnant puddles that are soon infested with malaria-carrying mosquitoes: 3600 people die of malaria each day and 3200 of them are children. These grim statistics do not even take into account the ravages imposed on children as a result of water scarcity, which affects the availability of food and increases the risk of malnutrition among children.
Young girls are especially vulnerable to today’s water problems. For in many communities, young girls fetch water – often walking many miles to do so – placing their health, safety, education and development at grave risk. If a girl’s town or village has no safe source of water, it is often her job to collect it for her family, meaning she cannot attend school. This is a double tragedy that must be overcome.
Another factor against girls is the lack of sanitation facilities in schools, which can force many to stop attending classes when they reach puberty. Without education, futures of children and young women are being lost.
Without access to safe water and education, many young people will find it even harder – if not impossible – to rise out of poverty. As a result, when they become parents themselves, their own children will be trapped by the same problems.
But there are things we can all do today.
You are an extremely powerful voice of change. The more noise you make the more power you have. You have the right to demand a better world, as you are the ones who will inherit the problems we have caused. There are concrete actions that you can take that will result in meaningful change.
Green Crosses’ Green Lane Environmental Diary, which some of you may have participated in, shows ways to reduce our water footprints, from taking shorter showers, to avoiding use of plastic bottles. These basic tips, when practiced by an entire community can result in massive changes in the management of water resources. These are guidelines for individuals but collectively they can have profound impacts.
On a policy level you can demand that countries that have not ratified the United Nations Watercourses Convention do so. Some of you live in places that have not ratified the Convention and just 11 more signatures are needed from governments to validate it. It is the only global set of regulations and measures drafted for governing the more than 270 rivers in the world that are shared by multiple countries. 145 countries share these rivers and the groundwater linked to them. Their basins are home to 40% of the planet’s human population. But only 40% of these rivers are covered by official agreements on how to share and manage them, many of which are unsatisfactory. These weaknesses must be addressed if we are to tackle global challenges such as climate change and growing water demands.
Since you are here you have already developed the taste for politics. As potential future parliamentarians you will demand that the Right to Water and Sanitation is enshrined in your country’s constitutions and laws. It is imperative that you do all in your power to ensure your fellow countrymen and women can realize this fundamental, life-preserving right.
After meeting many of you and seeing what you have done here in Marseille, I have great confidence in your abilities to make a difference when it comes to ensuring all people have access to safe water.
I know you wont forget the experiences you have had here at the World Youth Parliament for Water. But I urge you to apply what you have absorbed, and put it into action, first and foremost in your own communities, and hopefully further afield.
Eleanor Roosevelt said, “the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams”. I encourage you to start believing. Thank you for the honor to speak with you and good luck.