A fragile and limited resource
A fragile and limited resource
David Smith*

BUENOS AIRES - Last month, at the magnificent Palacio de Aguas Corrientes ("Palace of Flowing Waters") in Buenos Aires, representatives from 12 Latin American countries came together to discuss something so basic, and so vital.

How can we work together in our region to make best use of that priceless resource: water?

I had the pleasure to be the first speaker. For me, the facts speak for themselves globally. More than 800 million people on our planet live without drinking water. More than 2.5 billion (that's one third of humanity) don't have toilets. Between six and eight million people -- all of us have to ponder those numbers -- die every year because of catastrophes and illnesses related to water.

And then there's tomorrow. What will the battle for water be like when our global population goes to 9 billion in the middle of this century? Consider this fact and then we will stop with the statistics. The world will need 70% more food produced in the year 2050, when we have that number of people. And no one cares more about water than the farmer.

Such facts can overwhelm the spirit, and the brain. But this past week we heard, at all levels, from the large, state water companies and the private sector alike, a determination to confront the challenge, not to walk away from it. In the words of the Argentine leader of the Latin American Association of Water companies (ALOAS): “We have to invest, invest, and then invest some more, and do it today, for peace and security tomorrow”.

By common consent, the same call for action emerged at the Palace of Flowing Waters. Countries that are proud -- and rightly so -- of what they have achieved in recent years nevertheless admit how far they still have to go. A delegate from Mexico offered the official figure that 90 per cent of its population has drinking water, but then revealed that millions in rural areas still live without it.

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Buenos Aires' Palace of Flowing Waters - Photo: HalloweenHJB

A senior manager from Peru diagnosed the tension that emerges when mining companies want to invest and create jobs, but seek water 24/7, in a country where 30% of the population still lives without it.

A water company CEO from Colombia ventured the thought that 100% coverage of his country may simply never be possible because of its extraordinary topography. “But at least today, we are talking across borders about how to best deal with this”.

Indeed, Latin America does offer some examples of best practices, certainly for us at the United Nations, in this year of International Water Co-operation. Look at the Guarani Aquifer, bringing together Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay to preserve and guarantee the best use of that rare water resource with a vast reservoir. Or take a look at Bolivia and Peru. They have created a binational umbrella organisation to safeguard Lake Titicaca, even though they are not always such close friends.

At the UN, our Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has pointed to such as evidence of the way the world must go. The stakes are high. Co-operation in terms of water is crucial when it comes to security, social justice, gender equality, and the campaign against poverty, not to mention the protection of our global environment.

Climate Change, coupled with the needs of a population growing at such a pace, seeking prosperity, means that we must work ceaselessly at protecting and managing water: such a fragile and limited resource”, concludes the Secretary-General.

One number cried out to all of us this week in Buenos Aires. It came from a colleague at the Pan-American Health Organisation, PAHO. We were told that for every dollar we invest in water, infrastructure, and sharing this vital resource across frontiers, we will save 34 dollars currently spent on the consequences of inaction.

We would transform the lives of those who suffer every day. Be it a mother walking for kilometres to find dirty water, a child who ends up in hospital after drinking it, or the elderly facing dehydration. Spend one dollar today to save 34 tomorrow. Now there's a statistic worth contemplating.

*David Smith is the Director of the UN Information Centre for Argentina and Uruguay

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