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World: On International Water Day, UN Calls For Conservation

Around the globe, concern is mounting about future access to clean, fresh water, as demand surpasses supplies and pollution continues to contaminate streams, rivers, and lakes. The United Nations is encouraging countries to use tomorrow's World Water Day to focus attention on local water-related issues. The issue will be highlighted at this week's Third World Water Forum in Japan, the largest global conference of its kind.

Prague, 21 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The theme of this year's UN-sponsored World Water Day is "Water for the Future." The UN is using the event to call on countries around the world to maintain and improve the quality and quantity of fresh water sources for future generations.

David Smith is an economist with the UN Environment Program based in Nairobi, Kenya. He says that tomorrow's celebration of World Water Day coincides with the UN's broader observation of 2003 as the International Year of Fresh Water. He says the international body is using the year to inspire political and community support for more responsible water use and conservation.

"What we stress is that if you manage water and environment in a sustainable way, then you minimize pollution and you don't use more than you've got in rivers or groundwater resources. And that's good for the environment, but more importantly it's good for people, because if you pollute water that means people cannot drink it or use it without being sick. And if you use water up too quickly -- or more quickly than it's replenished -- then you have less water for future economic development."

On World Water Day, Smith says, governments around the world are organizing local events to address problems relating to drinking water supply and increase public awareness of water conservation through both government and nongovernmental organizations.

According to a UN report released earlier this month, 1.2 billion people do not have access to safe drinking water, and 2.4 billion people lack proper sanitation. The report says more than 2.2 million people die annually from diseases related to contaminated drinking water and poor sanitation. In Central and Eastern Europe, where water quality suffered during the communist era, the situation has improved but pollution remains a critical issue.

Ljudevit Tropan, from Croatia's state directorate for water, says his agency is actively involved in World Water Day preparations.

"With other public [agencies], NGOs, and schools and so on, we are preparing [to] celebrate World Water Day in every big city in the whole country. We prepared posters and some leaflets. [Everything has been prepared] in accordance with the slogan: Water For the Future." Tropan says such events are important to heighten awareness among the public and decision-makers about water-related issues that affect Croatia, such as pollution caused by the lack of water-treatment plants.

In neighboring Serbia, Mirjana Vojinovic-Miloradov -- a professor at the University of Novi Sad -- tells RFE/RL how World Water Day will be celebrated.

"This year, [World Water Day] will be organized in Novi Sad, the capital of the province of Vojvodina. Some research papers will be presented. It will be the presentation of the national plan and program for water protection. After that, it will be the presentation of some papers from scientists and researchers in Serbia and Montenegro who are dealing with the problems of water, with the protection of water, [and] with waste water."

The national plan envisions a three-year program on water issues that will include some 25 research projects related to waste-water treatment, water-supply systems and irrigation.

Smith of the UN says such national initiatives are significant because they address water issues at local levels, where authorities play a key role in managing water utility networks.

Improving water quality and quantity, Smith says, requires more than action by local and central governments. It also needs the attention of everyone who uses water.

"If local people are conscious of how bad pollution is and don't pollute themselves as an individual act, and they encourage their local governments in cities and countries and their central government to fight pollution, then that's important. If a significant proportion of the population of a country is active and speaks out in terms of protecting water supplies then governments are more likely to act."

Water remains a highly political issue. A major step was taken when world leaders agreed on key targets for tackling water and sanitation problems. At the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, participants aimed to halve the proportion of people lacking adequate sanitation by 2015. At the UN Millennium Summit in 2000, the international community also pledged to cut by half the number of people without access to safe drinking water by 2015.

The question is now how to honor such promises. This week's Third World Water Forum in Japan, ending on 23 March, has already witnessed disagreements over how best to tackle the issue. Protesters today disrupted a session on using private investment to create water-treatment infrastructures in areas that currently lack access to safe drinking water and proper sanitation systems. Agence France Presse reported that activists were holding banners reading "No profits from water" and "Water is a human right."