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GEO Year Book 2003  
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Sound water management is key to sustaining the future of both humanity and the environment. It is closely linked to the internationally-agreed development goals. Properly harnessed and utilized, water becomes an indispensable resource for development; squandered and abused it becomes a source of human suffering.

An adequate freshwater supply is required to maintain the viability of life-supporting ecosystems. Polluting water not only damages ecosystems, but renders water unsafe for drinking, and unsafe drinking water is, on a global scale, currently the single most important environment-related health threat. Irrigation has significantly improved crop yields, but in many areas, it has lead to serious environmental degradation – such as salinization and the depletion and contamination of aquifers – which in turn reduces the amount of food that can be produced. Negative environmental impacts such as these soon translate into poor human health and economic loss. One of the main global challenges to sustainable development is, therefore, to balance water consumption for economic and social development as well as for ecosystem functions and services.

Although the water outlook is still too often one of degradation and depletion, a crisis is not inevitable. UNEP’s Executive Director has described 2003 as “a year where the world has more than ever come to understand that cooperation over water is something like a peace policy for the 21st century.” Coupled with this, more governments and other freshwater stakeholders are recognizing that an approach that integrates the protection of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems within the context of sustainable development is the way forward to improved water supply and sanitation, food production, human settlements, and other priority issues. In many parts of the world, we are far from achieving efficient and effective management of the limited amount of freshwater that is available on our planet. And the longer we wait to change prevalent patterns of water use, the more difficult and expensive it will be to achieve the MDGs and WSSD targets for sustainable environmental, social and economic development, including poverty eradication.

A broad range of policy instruments, management techniques and longstanding as well as innovative technologies are at our disposal. Firm commitments by political leaders and decision-makers are needed to implement prioritized action plans incorporating water management to achieve the relevant goals and targets at different levels: local, basin, national, transboundary, regional and/or global. To do so, countries must strengthen institutions and legal frameworks, secure sufficient financial resources, build capacities in managing water resources and equitably involve all stakeholders – including women – in the design and implementation of integrated water resource management plans and frameworks.

More than a billion people still live in a world of want in terms of water and sanitation and their numbers are still increasing. Meeting this water challenge is vital to moving toward a world where people are “free from want” as underlined in the Millennium Declaration in 2000. The 2003 International Year of Freshwater has re-emphasized the urgency behind this commitment by the world leaders at the Millennium Summit. Achieving the agreed goals and targets requires the urgent and concerted attention of freshwater stakeholders at all levels – today.

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