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U.N. Report Shows Progress in Water Policies
May 14, 2012

11 May 2012

A woman carrying a water jug
A woman carries drinking water from a public tap in Colombo, Sri Lanka. More than 1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water worldwide.
More than 80 percent of countries have reformed their water laws in the past 20 years, according to a survey conducted by the United Nations. The reforms have improved drinking water access, human health and water efficiency in agriculture, but have made less progress in the areas of irrigation, rainwater harvesting and investment in freshwater ecosystem services.

The survey assessed actions taken by more than 130 national governments to implement internationally accepted approaches to the management and use of water, known as integrated water resources management (IWRM), adopted at the U.N.’s 1992 Rio Earth Summit. IWRM integrates domestic, agricultural, industrial and environmental needs into water planning with the intent of balancing the various demands rather than considering each need in isolation.

The survey is released as the U.N. prepares to convene the Rio+20 meeting in June. It also comes as the United States is developing a strategy to ease the strain bearing down on worldwide water resources in the decades ahead. Tapping a broad range of expertise and resources, the U.S. Water Partnership will focus heightened international attention on the need for smarter water policy, greater conservation and more efficient use.

The partnership will also provide assistance and expertise to other countries as they work to achieve water security for the future. Explaining the plan to a Washington audience May 9, Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria Otero said the U.S. effort will help developing countries “prioritize so that water and sanitation are part of their national plans, part of their budgets and part of their overall thinking.”

The U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) conducted the study on behalf of U.N.-Water, an interagency campaign focused on the issue. More than 90 percent of the nations surveyed found water policy reform had positive results:

• Estonia reported that the adoption of water charges and pollution taxes helped improve water efficiency and reduced pollution in the Baltic Sea.

• Chad reported that population access to water supply increased from 15 percent in 1990 to 50 percent in 2011.

• Tunisia has built 110 wastewater treatment plants.

“A more sustainable approach to water has resulted in tangible benefits for communities and the environment,” said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner. “At Rio+20, governments will have the opportunity to build on these innovations and chart the way forward for sustainable development, where the water needs of a global population, set to rise to 9 billion by 2050, can be met in an equitable way.”

A May 4 UNEP press release summarizing the survey results says developing countries still express a need for increased capacity-building, investment and infrastructure development to make further progress in implementation of IWRM.