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Rice Or Potato Or Water, UN Maintains Tradition Of Commemorations

  • Nikola Krastev

A Pakistani boy drinks water from a gallon container outside his makeshift tent in an Islamabad slum.

A Pakistani boy drinks water from a gallon container outside his makeshift tent in an Islamabad slum.

UNITED NATIONS -- New York diners are accustomed to a welcome at their favorite restaurant that includes a free glass of tap water. But this week they're each being asked to donate $1 for that same water to help fund clean-water projects for children in developing countries.

The initiative is being sponsored by the United Nations children's fund. UNICEF's U.S. marketing director, Ryu Mizuno, says a single donation can ensure a child a 40-day supply of clean drinking water.

"How easy it would be to go to a restaurant and for the tap water that you would normally get for free, to ask diners to donate $1 or more for that water," Mizuno says.

The so-called Tap Project -- which is expected to raise as much as $1 million this year -- is part of the UN's World Water Week on March 21-27.

The event, meant to call attention to water issues worldwide, is just one of hundreds of specially designated days, weeks, months, years, and even decades the UN has established since 1959 as a way of calling attention to issues of global importance.

A quick glance at the UN calendar shows everything from World Poetry Day (March 21) and World Disarmament Week (October 24-30) to the International Year of Forests (2011) and the Decade for the Eradication of Poverty (2008-2016).

Literally every month of the calendar is filled with events calling attention to issues from malaria and child labor to literacy and migrating birds.

Farhan Haq, a spokesman for the UN secretary-general's office, says most commemorative days are established during the General Assembly, which brings together the UN's 192 members for a two-week yearly session in September.

"In essence, one member state or a group of member states may propose to have a day commemorated for some honorary reason," Haq says. "And either through a vote, or more normally through acclamation, the member states agree to designate days for particular causes."

Wanted: Worthy Causes

There are more logistics involved when it comes to designating weeks, months, years, and decades. But the initiation process is similar.

Sometimes the promotion of a specific day is spearheaded by a specific UN agency or program. For example, the World Health Organization organizes events tied to World Health Day and World No-Tobacco Day; UNESCO, the UN's cultural agency, orchestrates World Water Day and International Literacy Day; and UNEP, the UN's environment program, leads World Environment Day.

In order to win the support of the General Assembly, Haq says most proposals for special commemorative days or weeks should be uncontroversial, and recognized by a majority of member states as worthy causes.

The UN does not dictate how member states should observe the days, advising only that commemorations "reflect their priorities."

Some issues are more popular than others. Douglas McGuire, the coordinator for the mountain partnership secretariat at the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, says that after Italy proposed the creation of the International Mountain Day in 2003, it quickly gained the support of more than 100 UN member states.

McGuire says that for International Mountain Day -- now held annually on December 11 -- it is the FAO that sets the tone for the commemoration each year.

"FAO ultimately is responsible for determining the theme of the year on an annual basis, and FAO helps to put together background information on the theme," McGuire says. "The information is sent out to countries, to governments and other stakeholders so that they can somehow prepare for whatever type of observance they would like to hold at the country level."

Cervantes And Sputnik

As with most UN days, Mountain Day is seen as an awareness-raising exercise, trying to keep the public informed on the ecological issued related to the world's mountains.

This summer, for example, the country of Nepal is organizing a garbage-collecting expedition on Mount Everest. Mountain climbers attempting to scale the world's tallest mountain have left as much as 500 tons of trash in their wake.

Sometimes the items being commemorated can seem decidedly prosaic -- as in the case of 2008, the International Year of the Potato. But as the world's leading non-grain source of food, the potato is an essential part of native diets in nearly all corners of the globe. An earlier year, 2004, was dedicated to rice. Both the Year of the Potato and the Year of Rice were approved by the UN General Assembly by standing acclamation.

In some cases, designated days can be tied to significant moments in history. World Book and Copyright Day falls on April 23, the day when, in 1616, both William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes died.

World Space Week, which is held annually from October 4-10, commemorates the day that the Soviet-made Sputnik became the first manmade object successfully launched into space on October 4, 1957.