Water: Going with the flowGland, Switzerland: Already famous for its Nobel prizes, Sweden has had the vision to institute yet another award this one for conservation. The Stockholm Water Prize, which honours a significant contribution to the conservation of the world's water resources, goes this year to Professor Gedeon Dagan of Israel, a groundwater specialist.
Protecting groundwater resources and avoiding further pollution is very important for Israel and the Middle East region, says Professor Dagan. Because of the desert climate and scarcity of water, we must develop new techniques rather than use our resources to the maximum. Well known for excellence in water-conservation techniques, Israel also treats 70 per cent of its sewage water for re-use. But on a wider scale, groundwater is the most important freshwater resource on earth, equalling more than double the total volumes of rivers and lakes. Because of its purity, natural groundwater is considered to be the best water for human consumption. The percentage of groundwater used for drinking water supply is 65 per cent in France, 72 per cent in Germany, 84 per cent in Switzerland, and more than 90 per cent in Austria.
This importance is recognized by the award, presented by its patron, King Carl Gustaf of Sweden, during the eighth Stockholm Water Symposium from 10 to 13 August. The theme of this year's event which attracts about 700 participants each year is Water: the Key to Socioeconomic Development and Quality of Life. Central to the theme are issues such as water scarcity, groundwater management and water harvesting.
Sweden is certainly playing a pioneering role in spreading awareness of the need for change and promoting respect for water, says Dr Biksham Gujja, Head of the Freshwater Programme at WWF International. We need to adopt a holistic, catchment approach to water management, to encourage research into traditional, small-scale water-use techniques, and to stop leakages and waste in water distribution while promoting re-use of waste water. Such an approach could stop 'water wars' between nations, when even in the hotbed of Middle East politics, Jordan and Israel have set a good example of cooperation in water sharing. With intervention by the International Court of Justice, Hungary and Slovakia are finalising an amicable settlement over the Gabcikovo dam on the Danube river and only last year, Bangladesh and India concluded an agreement on sharing the flow of the Ganges.
Indeed, conservation efforts are a more potent weapon than guns in settling international water disputes. Experts estimate that many countries can reduce water use by about 50 per cent through implementing well-known water conservation and affordable production methods. One example is irrigation, the principal user and loser of water, where consumption can be reduced by almost half if modern methods, equipment, and management systems are applied.
The Stockholm Symposium takes place this year against the background of a significant new development in the water business. American multinational Enron is adding to its gas and electricity interests by buying Britain's Wessex Water company as a first step towards building a global water business. This is expected to lead to further consolidation among utility companies, with Enron valuing water as a US$300 billion-a-year market, forecast to reach US$400 billion by early in the next decade. This could become as large as our natural-gas or electricity business in just a few years, Enron chairman and chief executive Kenneth Lay said at a recent conference. Enron executives said they want to pursue water infrastructure projects in Europe and Latin America, and to a lesser extent in Asia. They will also look at the North American water market, which is more fragmented.
WWF-World Wide Fund For Nature believes the entry of big business into the water sector should be guided by the broader ecological and environmental concerns that ensure a sustainable supply of freshwater. Improving the quality of life through the provision of clean and safe drinking water is one aspect, but there must also be respect for the water needs of natural ecosystems, such as wetlands, which actually sustain precious water flows. Big business has the means to invest in technical innovations that promote water conservation. What it must demonstrate is the will to do so.
*Someshwar Singh is a WWF Press Officer based in Gland, Switzerland