World Summit on Sustainable Development -- WWF background on freshwater issues


Press Information
July 2002

The World Summit on Sustainable Development: Freshwater


Each year there are about 250 million cases of water-related diseases, with roughly 5-10 million deaths. By 2025 two thirds of the world are expected to live in areas of water shortage or stress.

The rate of decline of animal species and populations has also been shown to be greater in freshwater than in any other habitat signalling that one of the underlying causes of the freshwater crisis is the continuing degradation of land and water ecosystems.

WWF is asking governments to secure water for people and nature by: conserving the world's sources of water - freshwater ecosystems, increasing peoples' access to water and sanitation, and improving the efficient use of freshwater.


The world is facing a freshwater crisis. People already use over half the world's accessible freshwater, and may use nearly three-quarters by 2025. Over 1.5 billion people lack ready access to drinking water and, if current consumption patterns continue, at least 3.5 billion people - nearly half the world's projected population - will live in water-stressed river basins in just 20 years.

On top of this, contamination denies some 3.3 billion people access to clean water, and 2.5 billion people have no water sanitation services. In developing countries an estimated 90 per cent of waste water is discharged without treatment into rivers and streams. Each year there are about 250 million cases of water-related diseases, with some 5-10 million deaths.

It is not only people who are threatened by water shortages and pollution. Freshwater ecosystems, which harbour the world's greatest concentration of species, are amongst the most vulnerable on Earth. Half the world's wetlands have been destroyed in the last 100 years. Two-fifths of the world's fish are freshwater species - and of these, 20 per cent are threatened, endangered, or have become extinct in recent decades. The WWF Living Planet Report for 2002 shows that the continuing decline of animal species is greater in freshwater than in any other habitat signalling that one of the underlying causes of the freshwater crisis is the continuing degradation of land and water ecosystems.

The lack of basic environmental resources can exacerbate racial and ethnic tensions, raising the prospect of water wars. Major water sources, such as the Euphrates in the Middle East and the Limpopo in southern Africa, have the potential to ignite conflict if those nations up stream choose to divert water for their own resources at the expense of those living downstream.

Freshwater use is not just an issue in developing nations. Spain, for example, is pushing for a Hydrological Plan that will involve the creation of many dams and reservoirs that would threaten as many as 86 Special Protection Areas and 82 Sites of Community Interest, as designated under the European Wild Birds and Habitats Directives. Both the Colorado River in North America, and the Murray River in Australia are amongst the Earth's major rivers that are regularly sucked dry.


Water is an issue that affects us all. Humans are already appropriating more than half of all accessible surface water runoff and this may increase to 70 per cent by 2025. The three largest water users in global terms are agriculture (70 per cent), industry (20 per cent) and municipal or domestic use (10 per cent). At the same time, degradation of water sources is an ongoing problem. It leads to less freshwater being available, and is largely due to poor management of river basins. Culprits include deforestation and overgrazing, which leads to more erratic water runoff and desertification.

Water diversion and inefficient water use are also an issue. Irrigated agricultural systems that consume 70 percent of the world's diverted water, loose up to 80 percent of this water through leakage in earthen channels and inefficient application onto fields. In developing countries up to half the water delivered to cities is lost in leaking pipes.

When leaders meet at WSSD, they will take decisions that shape how water is managed in the next ten years. Key questions are: where will water come from and how will limited water supplies be shared, how to provide the poor with water and sanitation services, and who will pay for all this work?

By 2025, two thirds of the world are expected to live in areas of water shortage or stress. It is therefore vital that at WSSD, leaders come up with a plan to address the world's dwindling freshwater resources. Improved water distribution and sanitation services are obviously needed to help combat poverty, disease, and pollution. However, if they really want to address water shortages in many countries, the key issue they need to address is how to better manage water supplies - through conserving water sources and more effective use of water.


Traditional aid for water resources has focused on infrastructure development projects such as dams and irrigation schemes. In many cases this has brought benefits to African communities through provision of water, food and electricity.

However, this development strategy is no longer appropriate as in most instances dam development has not fulfilled predicted economic, power, water or social benefits. Furthermore, as water supplies become increasingly limited and polluted, emphasis must switch to better management of existing water supplies, that is, more efficient use of water and using nature's services to maintain clean water supplies.

Despite the many benefits of river basin conservation and efficient water use, these have only been mentioned rhetorically in WSSD preparations to date. While the Draft Plan of Implementation provides for 750 million taps and 1.25 billion more toilets being built between now and 2015, nothing in the text ensures that there is any water to make them work. Nothing in the draft plan will prevent more rivers from being over-exploited, and in fact, a number of governments are objecting to the adoption of measurable targets and funding allocations for sustainable water management.


WWF believes that if governments are serious about addressing the global freshwater crisis, they must leave rhetoric behind when they come to the Summit and must adopt targets and initiate work that can be measured in a specific timeframe.

In the preparatory meeting in June in Bali the governments failed to show leadership. They did set a target for halving the number of people without access to water, and are debating a target for extending sanitation. Building water pipes, taps and toilets for the world's poor is welcome but such measures alone are useless in a water short world. Governments have failed to answer the more difficult questions as to where the water will come from and how to make limited supplies stretch further.

In the Summit's draft Plan of Implementation, it is specifically proposed to have a "programme of actions" on water. WWF argues that this programme should have four linked components with targets that cover each of the key elements of sustainable and equitable water management:

1. Source - sustaining the sources of water - using river basin management to conserve freshwater ecosystems;
2. Access - ensuring equitable access to water for people and nature;
3. Use - efficient use of water;
4. Sanitation - equitable access to sanitation and improving water quality.

Specifically, WWF would like to see governments making commitments to achieve the following targets:

· By 2007: Sustainable management of transboundary waters
- Establish multilateral river basin management authorities for more than 50% of the world's 261 transboundary rivers by 2007;
- Cooperate regionally to ensure that 50% of the transboundary river basins are under integrated river basin management by 2007. This should be undertaken with public participation and address key causes of deteriorating environmental health, such as water timing, quality and biodiversity.

· By 2015: Conserving the source of water and facilitating its equitable and efficient use
- Establish river basin management authorities and implement integrated river basin management for 80% of the world's rivers and lakes. This should be undertaken with public participation and address key causes of deteriorating environmental health, such as water timing, quality and biodiversity;
- Halve the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water [Agreed in WSSD draft plan];
- Halve the portion of people lacking access to improved sanitation [In dispute in WSSD draft Plan];
- Reduce by a third the volume of water required to produce a unit of each of the world's major irrigated crops; and
- Reduce by 80% the volume of water lost to leakage in urban water supply systems.

In order to contribute to achieving these goals WWF has developed a concept African Rivers Initiative that is being discussed with partners in government, public and private sector in Europe and Africa. Currently WWF is working closely in the development of the EU Water Initiative that is being developed containing components addressing both water supply and sanitation and also integrated river basin management in Africa. The Africa Rivers Initiative is part of this EU Water Initiative and would focus on work to establish sustainable water management in rivers that in many cases flow across several countries.

The need for these trans-boundary rivers and their catchment areas to be managed effectively and in international accord in coming years will be critical in ensuring the prevention of conflict arising from increasingly water stressed nations.

For further information, please contact:
Kyla Evans, Head of Press, WWF International, tel: +41 22 364 9550 email:
or visit our web site:

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