Water, like religion and ideology, has the power to move millions of people. Since the very birth of human civilization, people have moved to settle close to water. People move when there is too little of it. People move when there is too much of it. People journey down it. People write and sing and dance and dream about it. People fight over it. And all people, everywhere and every day, need it.


We need it for drinking, for cooking, for washing, for food, for industry, for energy, for transport, for rituals, for fun, for life. And it is not only we humans who need it; all life is dependent on water to survive.

But we stand today on the brink of a global water crisis. The two major legacies of the 20th Century - the population and technological explosions - have taken their toll on our water supply. More people lack drinking water today than they did two decades ago. More and more freshwater sources are being used-up and contaminated. Modern technologies have allowed us to harness much of the world's water for energy, industry and irrigation - but often at a terrible social and environmental price - and many traditional water conservation practices have been discarded along the way.


Most of the solutions to the crisis must be developed and implemented locally, and always with the view that water is not to be taken for granted, or unjustly appropriated by particular groups for particular needs.



 

Water is the most important single element needed in order for people to achieve the universal human right to "a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family." (Article 25, Universal Declaration of Human Rights) Without access to clean water, health and well-being are not only severely jeopardized, they are impossible: people without basic water supplies live greatly reduced and impoverished lives - with little opportunity to create better futures for their children.


Let us acknowledge that clean water is a universal human right, and in so doing accept that we have the corresponding universal responsibility to ensure that the forecast of a world where, in 25 years' time, two out of every three persons face water-stress is proven wrong. In this issue, United Nations' Secretary General Kofi Annan asks us to face up to the threat of a catastrophic water crisis and counter such bleak forecasts by adopting a new spirit of stewardship. To do otherwise would be nothing less than a crime and history will rightly judge current generations harshly for it.


The world's growing population should be seen not only as one of the causes of the water crisis, but also as the source of its solution, as is stressed by Former President of the Philippines, Fidel Ramos, using the example of the enormous potential of people-power in South East Asia. Human solidarity is the only force capable of facing a task of this magnitude. There must be solidarity in international and regional governance; there must be solidarity between sectors and stakeholders; and there must be political will amongst governments to work in good faith both with their neighbors and with their own people. These people, including often marginalized groups such as women and minorities, must have a voice, and the information and means necessary to use it.


Without water security, social, economic and national stability are imperiled. This is magnified where water flows across borders - and becomes crucial in regions of religious, territorial or ethnic tension. In some cases, as between India and Pakistan over the Indus River, successful cooperation over water resources can be cited as proof that even states with difficult relations can work together. In other cases, the opportunities to improve regional relations which a common watercourse presents have not yet been grasped. The Jordan Valley, shared by the people of Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, is one such example.


Water has been a fundamental security matter in the arid Middle East since antiquity. The allocation, use and rights to the increasingly scarce water resources of this volatile region remain sensitive, and potentially explosive, issues. Water is also largely sidelined, or hidden, in the mainstream peace negotiations. Hanan Sher of The Jerusalem Post sheds light on the trials and tribulations encountered on the road towards achieving water for peace in the Middle East, a road which I myself have recently revisited. Earlier this year I met with Prime Minister Barak, Chairman Arafat and King Abdullah of Jordan, and obtained their commitment to work with my organization, Green Cross International, and our partners, the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation, to find solutions to the escalating regional water crisis.


These three leaders explicitly recognized that there can be no unilateral solutions to their essentially trans-boundary water problems. This is as true in the Middle East as it is regarding watercourses shared between the United States and its neighbors. In all of the world’s 261 international basins, joint management should be built on a system of effective interdependence; a pooling rather than a restriction of each nations’ sovereignty.


While armed, inter-state conflicts over water are unlikely, it must be remembered that these are not the only types of conflicts facing water-stressed societies. Internal conflicts between ethnic groups, regions, users and small communities can and do arise over water. Inter-state cooperation is essential to the search for regional water solutions. Where such solutions are not easily forthcoming, international mediation and support should be available. A movement to provide such support has been initiated by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright with the establishment of a Global Alliance for Water Security.


In most cases, however, the practical solutions required are local, reflecting the geographically and culturally specific nature of water-use. The Cold War era of "the bigger the better", which prompted the construction of 45,000 large dams throughout the world, is over. This thoughtless tampering with nature has left a terrible legacy, not least in my own region where thousands of acres of fertile land have been lost, and man-made catastrophes such as in the Aral Sea region cause immeasurable suffering. The articles provided by Kader Asmal of the World Commission on Dams, and water expert Anil Agarwal, seek the path to a new era where social and environmental considerations are given precedence and the benefits of large constructs like dams are questioned. The United States, the second most "dammed" nation, after China, is already breaching many of its dams; elsewhere, particularly in the developing world, the question is how to provide the services supplied by dam projects through other initiatives, like rainwater harvesting and demand management.


At the heart of the matter is the value which we assign to different uses of water. Again, there is no universal blueprint, but it is clear that neither of the two extreme stances, one advocating that water should be free for all, and the other promoting full cost pricing for all water supplies, are desirable. We must remember that the value and the price of water are two very different things; it is substance which must be used efficiently, but must be available for the sustenance of all - including natural ecosystems. This makes the pricing of water a tricky business, as we gather further from World Commission on Water Chairman, Ismail Serageldin, and Douglas B. MacDonald’s insights on the subject.


Thus we are faced with a mighty challenge. Fortunately we have a history of meeting great challenges using imagination and our irrepressible capacity to adapt. To ensure that we journey in the right direction, we must allow our knowledge, experience and institutions to catch up with the overwhelming progress of science and technology, and learn how to become both good neighbors for each other and good guests of the natural environment.


Just as we are moved by water, we must move quickly in order to save it.


Introductory article written for Civilization, the Magazine of the US Library of Congress, October-November 2000, by Guest Editor Mikhail Gorbachev.