Steiner Speaks of Brazil's Evolving Water Management Initiatives at GEO Launch in Brasilia

Remarks by Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director at Launch of Global Environment Outlook(GEO) on Water Resources in Brazil Report

Agencia Nacional de Aguas (ANA)--Brasilia

5 March 2007—Mr. Jose Machado, President of the Agencia Nacional de Aguas and members of his team, representatives of Brazil´s Ministry of the Environment, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, colleagues and friends.

We meet here to launch this important report on the Brazil´s water resources and how best to manage them over the coming years and decades.

The significance of the report lies not just in the findings and they way they are applied. It also lies in the way this report was compiled.

It has been a truly collaborative effort bringing together so many partners from the Ministry, ANA, UNEP´s office in Brazil, UNEP´s regional unit of the Division of Early Warning and Assessment and countless Brazilian institutions and specialists.

If we are to overcome the challenges facing this planet and its people, there is no room anymore for narrow self-interest or single interest group solutions.

Partnership, mutual self-interest, cooperation and collaboration are our allies—allies that should and must operate across all government ministries, agencies, the private sector, the scientific community, civil society, multilateral organizations and individuals.

The inclusiveness of the GEO process, particularly as evidenced and embraced in Brazil, is a real beacon on our road to building knowledge at the national and regional level--knowledge upon which we can build the firm foundations for capacity building and for well-targeted action.

It is cooperation mirrored in Brazil´s evolving water management initiatives such as those on river basins, where the Federal and state level to the private sector and non- governmental organizations are represented.

Water is central to all life on Earth and thus is central too to UNEP´s work. You can find people today who, rather like those who think milk comes from a carton, are convinced that water comes from the tap.

This report and others like the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, make it clear that water comes from nature-- from forests and other natural features that play their role in managing the world´s watersheds.

How we manage our ecosystems and the services they provide will ultimately determine our ability to manage water supplies and our chances of meeting the Millennium Development Goals by 2015 and beyond.

Water is not a scarce resource in Brazil. The report points out that at the present level of demand, the country has enough water to supply a population of up to 32 billion people or five times the current global population.

It is a finding that is echoed in many parts of the world—Africa has enough water falling from the skies to supply the water needs of 13 billion people.

Yet like Brazil and like many countries and regions, it is the unevenness of water supplies that is one challenge and the mismanagement that is the other.

The report outlines clear directions on how management might be improved. The imbalance between water scarce regions and water rich ones raises in some ways more complicated questions.

One way forward may be water transfers being looked at in Brazil and indeed in other rapidly developing countries like India.

But there is need for a precautionary approach and for honest environmental impact assessments. One thing we all too often learn, sometimes when it is too late is that making narrow economic and social choices can mask the wider environmental and economic impacts that may be hard if not impossible to reverse.

It is a similar argument for dams. Sometimes they may seem the obvious and sensible way of generating power and collecting water supplies for irrigation and drinking water.

Wider costings may however lead to a different conclusion. If we factor in the economic losses as a result of say land and ecosystems destroyed, impact on fisheries down stream and emissions of greenhouse gases like methane from submerged vegetation, then the risks might out weight the rewards.

And there may be other options some of which are smaller scale. In China and some developed countries like Germany and Japan, there has been a lot of investment in small-scale water collection systems known as rainwater harvesting.

Many million of people in China rely on rainwater harvesting for drinking water and back-up irrigation.

More efficient irrigation systems in themselves can cut demand significantly and there are the choices to be made in terms of the crops or produce being produced.

Indeed this may have significance not just for domestic water management but also for future exports.

Consumers in developed and developing countries are becoming increasingly interested in the environmental footprint of goods and products.

Take climate for example. Some consumers are asking for, and supermarkets in Europe are planning to supply, labels that explain how much carbon was generated in getting the crops to market.

Do not be surprised if water is next. The world today grows twice as much food as it did in the 1970s, keeping pace with population growth. But to do that we take three times more water from rivers and underground reserves.

Few realize how much water it takes to get through the day. On average, we drink no more than five litres. Even after washing and flushing the toilet and hosing the car Europeans get through only about 150litres per head.

However, it takes it takes 2000 to 5000 litres of water to grow 1kg of rice. That is more water than many households use in a week. It takes 1000 litres, one tonne of water, to grow 1kg of wheat and 500 litres for 1kg of potatoes.

When you start feeding grain to livestock for animal products such as meat and milk, the numbers become yet more startling. It takes 11,000 litres to grow the feed for enough cow to make a hamburger; and 2000 to 4000 litres for that cow to fill its udders with one litre of milk.

Every teaspoonful of sugar in your coffee requires 50 cups of water to grow it. Which is a lot, but not as much as the 140 litres of water (or 1120 cups) needed to grow the coffee.

I am clearly not advocating that we stop growing rice or drinking coffee. But I am suggesting that there may be more intelligent, less water-consuming ways, of doing it ranging from growing methods, matching crops with different climates and the varieties chosen in the first place.

For example there are some scientists who have concluded that much of the rice the world needs could be grown in dry rather than the traditional wet paddy field conditions.

Ladies and gentlemen, the significance of all this takes on extra significance in 2007—a year in which climate change is striking a chord everywhere.

I know that last week Brazil launched a national climate assessment that spelt out significant changes likely to occur across biodiversity to water resources if the world fails to act on this global threat.

The time to act is now, for as the recently leaked third Working Group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changes (IPCC) spells out in bleakly honest terms, we may have far less than a generation to act—we may have less than two decades to avoid ´dangerous climate change´´.

Water resources can be managed at a national and regional level but that management will be increasingly challenged and less reliable in a climate changed world.

The spirit behind the GEO Water Resources Brazil report was one of cooperation--— combating climate change requires cooperation at every level and common purpose among all governments and all sectors of this global society.

In any community and in all societies, there are those that must shoulder the responsibility more than others—there are those who by virtue of their legacy and contribution to the problem, or by virtue of their wealth, must do more than other segments.

So it must be with our global community of nations and climate change. Rich countries, responsible for the lion´s share of the greenhouse gas emissions, must rise first and furthest to the challenge. But that does not mean that others cannot show leadership too and join in common cause against a threat that is both global and national.

Climate change was last week described by Ban Ki moon, the UN Secretary-General as being as dangerous as war. There is often talk about water wars too.

A study by UNEP shows that there is cause for optimism here. Over four thousand five hundred years, few water wars have occurred and when tensions have emerged, most parties eventually cooperate.

Since 1948 only 37 incidents of acute conflicts over water, such as those involving violence, have occurred most of which have been in the Middle East.

There is no reason for complacency. There are still river basins without trans boundary treaties and many more whose treaties most be kept under constant review.

Underground water supplies, like the one the stretches from southern Brazil to Argentina, should also reflect modern trans boundary management and cooperative trans boundary agreements lest they also raise the specter of water wars—out of sight should not mean out of mind.

So there is much to do to ensure that future water wars do not in fact occur. But if the past is our guide, then we can cooperate regionally and as an international community on water.

If we can do that then there is a real chance we can cooperate with equal success on the over arching threat of climate change.

I sincerely believe that 2007 is the window of opportunity, when we have a chance to damp down the fire we have put under the planet.

If political leadership can be shown by all, then I am sure we will look back on this year as a watershed when the science of climate change was matched by a climate of change in the willingness to act.


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