Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
2 - 8 December 1999
Issue No. 458
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Defending 'the right to water'

By Dahlia Hammouda

Water -- the source of life and human civilisation -- is set to become one of the major issues of the 21st century. Water is scarce, the world's population is increasing and the climatic environment is currently unfavourable. Can the planet tolerate the present rhythm of exploitation of its fresh water resources?

Not without proper management. This was the thrust of a three-day Aswan meeting -- presided over by Mrs Suzanne Mubarak -- of the working group on use of fresh water resources. The group is an arm of UNESCO's World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST). Attending the conference, which began on 27 November, was former President of Iceland Vigdis Finnbogadottir, chairwoman of COMEST, and the Earl of Selborne, the working group's president. Local and international experts and scientists were also present.

In her opening address, Mrs Mubarak appealed to the international community to combine efforts in order to achieve the goal of the rational use and management of water resources. "Efforts in this respect are being hampered by the insufficiency of analysis, diagnosis and strategies, as well as the lack of studied plans that depend on the participation of all those involved," she said. It is this fact that makes the conference, as well as similar international undertakings, all the more important.

Mrs. MubarakCOMEST was created in 1998 to provide an intellectual forum for the exchange of ideas and experience on the ethical aspects of water management, energy and information. COMEST's mandate is to detect the early signs of risk situations, to advise decision-makers and to promote dialogue between them and scientific communities and the public. In January 1999, Mrs Mubarak was named by UNESCO's director-general as a member of the commission.

Mrs Mubarak emphasised the urgency of public participation and the necessity of raising public awareness of the subject. "The right to water is the right to life ... The basic ethical rules that govern water rights are the same as those that govern human rights -- they both depend primarily on duties and responsibilities," she said.

Mrs Mubarak expressed the need for the scope of this responsibility to be widened to include not only international organisations, governments, universities, research institutes and professional societies, but individuals as well.

Two factions of society who use water the most -- farmers and rural women -- should especially be targeted for education on more advanced and less wasteful usage of water. Mrs Mubarak added that the rural population should also be educated on hygienic methods of water use as preventive measures against diseases caused by water contamination. "Educating mothers in good practices has a long-term beneficial effect. These practices will be passed on to their children -- the future of nations," she said.

Nearly half the countries of the world face problems of aridity and scarcity of water resources. Studies show that these countries will be in deficit in the next century, which could lead to a serious water crisis and to possible conflicts in the case of shared water resources. "We call upon the countries who have an abundance [of water] and those who have a shortage of water resources to establish an integrated network to deal with the global water problem, so that water becomes an agent for growth and peace, not for competition and conflict," Mrs Mubarak said. Cooperation between countries situated within the Nile River basin represents a success story for the world to emulate.

Mrs. MubarakIn this respect, Mrs Mubarak said COMEST could be instrumental by establishing national sub-committees and regional entities specialising in the regulation of water usage and its protection, as well as the recommendation of solutions to problems that could arise.

Mrs Mubarak also pointed out that the media plays a valuable role in spreading awareness of the water problem among the people. Most importantly, she said, children need to be taught to respect water with environmental curricula in schools and through reading material to be made available in libraries.

Since children, ultimately, are the ones who will bear the brunt of today's ill-practices and mismanagement of water resources, it was quite fitting that they took part in the event. Young girls and boys dressed in traditional Egyptian garb staged a musical play, Bride of the Nile, at the close of the conference's opening session. The performance dealt with the strength of ties that bind the people of Egypt to their life-giving source -- the Nile.

The conference bore immediate fruit at the local level. During a subsequent session, Minister of Public Works and Water Resources Mahmoud Abu Zeid announced the setting up of an Egyptian national committee on water ethics and the enacting of a statute on water ethics to be implemented on both the national and international levels. Abu Zeid also announced the establishment of a section at the Ministry of Public Works and Water Resources devoted to the protection of the quality of the Nile water.

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