Talking water at the United Nations

By Michael Clark - 15 Sep 2011 18:20:0 GMT
Talking water at the United Nations

The International Water Forum at the United Nations is being held this Friday, September 16 at UN Headquarters in New York. Jointly organized by the Energy and Water Institute of New York, the Chronicles Group, the World Water Organization, WaterAid, and the United Nations Institute of Training and Research, the forum will 'convene global water experts, academics, world leaders and representatives from both non-governmental organizations and the private sector in order to come to a consensus on bringing global awareness to the water crisis.'

Rain Bird, the US manufacturer of irrigation products, recently joined as a sponsor. The press release stated that it represents the company-wide commitment to build awareness for the need to use water more efficiently. It is the intention of the organizers and sponsors to elevate the the global water crisis issue to a central agenda item for the 66th UN General Assembly, which convenes Friday as well.

The agenda for the one day event is ambitious. It starts at 9am and ends at 5:30pm, with a short break for lunch. Patricia Mulroy, who seems to be ubiquitous of late, is delivering the opening keynote. Ms Mulroy, an often controversial figure that plays the role of the lightning rod when it comes to water issues in the Southwest, recently spoke at a US Chamber of Commerce event where she called for a pipeline to transfer floodwater from the Mississippi to the West, alleviating the stress on the Colorado River. Ms Mulroy has even come up with a nifty one-liner: "One man's flood control is another man's water supply."

Following Ms Mulroy is the actress Jane Seymour, who will discuss a documentary film about the water crisis, Running Dry, which she narrated. The film is part of a 'comprehensive public information/education project, established to raise awareness regarding the worsening global humanitarian water crisis.'

The project was founded and is lead by Jim Thebaut, a flim maker, journalist, and public policy expert who will deliver the opening and closing remarks. Mr Thebaut was involved in the passage of the Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act of 2005, the stated purpose of which was to make access to safe water and sanitation for developing countries a specific policy objective of the United States foreign assistance programs. A 2010 bill, the Paul Simon Water for the World Act, was supposed to support the implementation of the 2005 law, but it has stalled and it's prospects don't look good.

The lunch talk will be given by Charles Fishman, a former Washington Post journalist, now writing for Fast Company magazine and author of The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water, a book about global water issues that has received quite a bit of attention. In the book, Mr Fishman argues that our so-called Golden Age of water has come and gone, and that the future requires smarter water management.

He cites the critical need to update water infrastructure and develop and implement technologies that will support the more efficient use of water. As an example, he cites the case of IBM's Burlington plant. Through a multi-year effort, the company significantly reduced its water use and operations costs as a result. Partly based on this experience, IBM has rolled out a new consulting program, aptly titled the Smart Water Initiative, which helps clients in the industrial, commercial, and public sector reduce water use and operational costs.

Fishman, in an interview with the New York Times, raises a key policy question, one that will surely be discussed during the forum and represents, arguably, the crux of coming global water policy debates: the cost of water. The author states that, if he could change one thing to improve the global water situation, it would be the price of water. That water is very cheap, and nearly free, the author says, means people think it's unlimited. His suggestion, of course , is to raise the cost of water, to create a price signal to incentivize efficiency. To some, this a dangerous suggestion, as it implies that raising the price will serve to commodify a critical resource and further exacerbate access problems. In 2003, the UN declared water a human right, a creed that would seem to run contrary to increasing the price of water.

The forum is built mainly around three panels. US water issues will be discussed in the first session, global water issues in the second, and the last will involve developing and implementing a branding global public education strategy. The results of the forum will form the basis for a water agenda for the 66th UN General Assembly and could quite possibly provide a foundation for global water policy in the coming years.

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