“Tomorrow may be too Late to Address Water Crisis” – Gorbachev

“The water crisis is part of the global crisis, part of the crisis of world politics,” said Mikhail Gorbachev, founding President of Green Cross International, at the ‘Peace with Water’ conference at the European Parliament on 12 February, 2009. If the “deficit of political leadership” continues, “tomorrow will be too late,” he warned. The G20 April meeting, he said, must take note that the world needs a fundamentally new model of development and that also means a new political architecture. The following are edited excerpts from President Gorbachev’s inaugural address.

“I am happy to see here among us and to welcome them personally – Prince Albert of Monaco, Danielle Mitterrand, Federico Mayor, and Mercedes Bresso, my co-chairman in the World Political Forum. Unfortunately for health reasons, my friend Mario Soares was not able to come. What has brought us together – scientists, environmentalists and politicians – is the problem of water that is today, without a doubt, a political problem.
We are meeting at a time when the world is going through an unprecedented global crisis, a crisis of the model of development that is unsustainable. The unsustainability of this model is reflected in the water problem, which is a microcosm of this model. The water crisis is part of the global crisis, part of the crisis of world politics as it brings together social, economic, environmental and political factors.
According to a report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), currently at least 700 million people (an estimated one billion people until recently), face a shortage of water. At the same time the demand for water is constantly growing and will continue to grow. We will have to feed the growing world population. 80% of the water usage in developing countries is for irrigation.
The problem is being made more acute as a result of global climate change. The access to water is becoming a source of international conflicts. Recently Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations Secretary-General, really sounded the alarm when he said that the hour of danger is very near.
As far as conflicts are concerned, we already see an armed conflict in Sudan and we also see even more casualties or losses as a result of the health consequences of the water crisis. According to a World Health Organization study conducted in 5 continents, 80% of infectious diseases in the world are the result of the use of contaminated water. In the developing countries, about 95% of all surface waters are polluted.
The prospect of a water crisis is looming over countries that are very important to the world economy and world politics – such as China and India. Even in the wealthier countries, the picture is far from perfect. In Eastern Europe, adequate water and sanitation is not available to 16% of households. And that is in Europe. The situation is quite difficult. In the Eurozone, 37 children die everyday as a result of diseases related to water. 17,000 children died in 2006 alone.
The political leaders and politicians are not properly reacting to this emergency situation despite numerous reports from experts and environmental organisations.
As the founding president of Green Cross International, I worked with three former heads of state – of Sweden, Botswana and the Philippines – to co-author a report on water in 2000. This report was welcomed but the recommendations contained in that report were never implemented. I am saying this 9 years after this report. And this is quite typical. The reason is a deficit of political leadership. If this continues, tomorrow will be too late to address these problems.
I believe that all of us, including Europe, are responsible for the current situation. But at the same time, here in Europe we see the steps and initiatives that could become the beginning of the solution to this problem. We have to give credit to Europe, which despite the difficult conditions of the past decade, assumed the leadership role in the efforts to develop a new global environmental agenda.
Right now, we see the beginning of the reaction of many countries to this initiative taken by Europe, including the reaction of the new US administration, China, Russia and other countries. Our goal is to make sure that addressing the water problem becomes an integral part of the global environmental strategy. I believe that as part of this strategy we need to focus our efforts on the most important tasks in this sphere, such as ratifying the UN Convention on the Law of Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses. Only 16 countries have ratified it but 19 more need to do so to make it an internationally active document.
We should also support the efforts of the UN Human Rights Commission in enshrining the right to water as a human right and we also need to support decentralised financing and cooperation in the water sphere.
Of key importance among the principles that we must defend, that we must protect, as we believe in GCI, is the concept that water is a public good and a public resource. Access to water should be proclaimed as one of the most important human rights.
We must not ignore the economic aspect. In the global economic crisis, large-scale water projects could become an engine for restarting the world economy on a new basis. Let me also remind you here of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), most of which have not been achieved. Addressing those goals in fighting poverty, education and health care is what I believe should be done, rather than reproducing the old, unsustainable model of development. It is here that I see new prospects for the global economy.
Let me also speak specifically about the role of business. It would be wrong to take business out of the equation when we speak about water problems. If we do so, business will not take into account the global civil society. The best examples of success in addressing water problems has been in those countries where business and civil society find common ground.
We are not looking for one magic solution. There is no such solution. Our debate at this conference should bear this in mind. We need to bring together and to unite the efforts of public opinion and of policy makers in politics and business, at the international and national levels.
This is particularly important now when it has been generally recognized that the current international institutions and mechanisms are not coping with the tasks of global governance.
We want to be heard by those who are now preparing proposals for the heads of the G20 for a meeting in April. The world needs a fundamentally new model of development and that also means a new political architecture. I hope that our discussion today will be a contribution to the important search that is underway now, the search for solutions on which I believe the future of mankind will depend.
Thank you very much.”
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