Stockholm / Nairobi, 7 September 2010 - Governments and law-makers need to integrate environmental concerns into water-use legislation to avert an impending global water crisis, according to a new report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), titled "Greening Water Law".
According to the report, launched Tuesday at World Water Week in Stockholm, competition is increasing between the rapidly growing human population-which needs water for drinking, sanitation, food production and economic development-and species and ecosystems, which rely on water to sustain their existence.
The key challenge now facing governments across the world is how to meet the growing water needs of human society, while maintaining freshwater ecosystems and supporting environmental sustainability.
The Human Toll
Nearly 1.8 million children under the age of five die annually from diarrheal diseases (such as cholera, typhoid, and dysentery) attributable to a lack of safe drinking water and basic sanitation.
The UNEP report warns that if the international community fails to take action to improve freshwater supplies for drinking, sanitation, and hygiene purposes, as many as 135 million preventable deaths could occur by 2020.
Impacts on Ecosystems and Biodiversity
The unsustainable use of freshwater is a major contributor to biodiversity loss - and the effects are being felt in rivers, lakes and wetlands across the world.
In North America, for example, around 27% of continental freshwater fauna populations are now threatened with extinction as a result of depleted and contaminated freshwater resources. And in Croatia, over a third of all freshwater fish species are currently under threat.
Greening Water Law
So with more communities than ever before facing both human and environmental water crises, how can changes to the law help to tackle the problem?
"Simply put, it's the law that provides the structure through which new policies can be implemented", says Professor Gabriel Eckstein, lead author of the report. "Achieving a better balance between human and environmental water needs will require significant changes in legislation - and you need legal tools to achieve this."
The report cites several examples of green water laws that have already been introduced across the world. In New South Wales in Australia, the State's Water Management Act dictates that in the event of a severe water shortage, freshwater will be allocated first to meet basic domestic and municipal needs, then in response to the needs of the environment, and thereafter for all other purposes. Similarly, in Paraguay, the Water Resources Act ranks the water needs of aquatic ecosystems as second only to humans and ahead of agriculture, power generation and industry.
"These laws recognise the immense value of freshwater resources", says Eckstein. "Take wetlands for example - for humans to recreate their natural benefits, we would have to build massive water treatment plants at huge cost. Protecting these resources makes economic sense."
Protecting freshwater resources in national and internal law can bring economic gains. For example, the world's wetlands have been calculated to provide as much as US$15 trillion in ecosystem services. This includes benefits such as water purification and detoxification through their ability to extract and absorb pollutants from contaminated waters.
Freshwater resources are also among the 11 sectors being addressed under UNEP's Green Economy Initiative. The initiative is designed to assist governments in 'greening' their economies by refocusing policies and spending towards clean technologies, renewable energies, water services, waste management and other sustainable strategies.
Managing freshwater resources also forms a central pillar of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) project, hosted by UNEP. TEEB aims to develop guidance for policy makers at international, regional and local levels in order to promote sustainable development and better conservation of ecosystems and biodiversity.
Although over two thirds of the Earth is covered in water, only 2.5% of this is fresh water. Most is stored deep underground or in glaciers, meaning that only 1% of the world's fresh water is available for human use.
Today, this limited natural resource is under greater strain than ever before.
Regional and national governments must therefore be encouraged to seek a more balanced approach to water use - with regard to both environmental and human needs..
The life and wellbeing of people and the natural environment are intertwined. The greening of water laws represents an historic opportunity - and a real challenge - for communities around the world to ensure both human progress and environmental sustainability