Posted by: Martin Fox | June 21, 2008

UN calls water a top priority

By EDITH M. LEDERER, Associated Press Writer

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the world on Thursday to put the looming crisis over water shortages at the top of the global agenda this year and take action to prevent conflicts over scarce supplies.

He reminded business and political leaders at the World Economic Forum that the conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan was touched off by drought — and he said shortages of water contribute to poverty and social hardship in Somalia, Chad, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Haiti, Colombia and Kazakhstan.

“Too often, where we need water we find guns instead,” Ban said. “Population growth will make the problem worse. So will climate change. As the global economy grows, so will its thirst. Many more conflicts lie just over the horizon.”

He said a recent report identified 46 countries with 2.7 billion people where climate change and water-related crises create “a high risk of violent conflict” and a further 56 countries, with 1.2 billion people “are at high risk of violent conflict.” The report was by International Alert, an independent peacebuilding organization based in London.

Ban told the VIP audience that he spent 2007 “banging my drum on climate change,” an issue the Forum also had as one of its main themes last year. He welcomed the focus on water this year saying the session should be named: “Water is running out.”

“We need to adapt to this reality, just as we do to climate change,” he said. “There is still enough water for all of us — but only so long as we can keep it clean, use it more wisely, and share it fairly.”

Ban said he will invite world leaders to “a critical high-level meeting” in September to focus on meeting U.N. development goals — including cutting by half the number of people without access to safe drinking water by 2015 — particularly in Africa.

Ban’s call for global action on water got strong support from several top business executives.

“Water is today’s issue,” said Andrew Liveris, chairman and CEO of Dow Chemical Co., the world’s second largest chemical company. “It is the oil of this century, not a question.”

E. Neville Isdell, chairman and CEO of The Coca-Cola Co., said “this is an issue which ranks next to climate change. … However, water has got lost as part of the climate change debate.”

Isdell urged the world to “raise the issue of water to the level that we have managed to raise the issue of climate change.”

Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, chairman and CEO of Nestle SA, the world’s biggest food and drink company, said “time is still on our side but time is running out, just like water is running out.”

Ban urged top business executives to join a U.N. project to help poor people gain access to clean water — and he praised Coca-Cola, Dow Chemical and Nestle for their programs and their efforts to be part of the water solution.

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