for water draws world ministers to conference in Japan
By Yuri Kageyama
KYOTO, Japan - The war in Iraq chipped away at their
guest list, but participants at a global water conference
that opened Saturday in western Japan say water scarcity
is a growing crisis that must not be overlooked.
Water supplies are dwindling and pollution is worsening,
with a billion people still lacking access to clean water
and too many children dying each day from diseases caused
by poor sanitation, delegates at the World Water Forum
"We reaffirmed the critical importance of water,"
Chikage Ohgi, the Japanese minister for land, infrastructure
and transport, told reporters. "The problem of water
is a common issue for all humanity."
From the start, the crisis in Iraq cast a shadow over
the meetings, which began earlier in the week among senior
officials ahead of this weekend's sessions for ministers
from nearly 100 nations.
The Iraqi delegation has gone home. Japanese Foreign Minister
Yoriko Kawaguchi, who was to chair Sunday's session, and
United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan have canceled.
But host nation Japan proposed Saturday that the conference
take up the topic of help for Iraq after the war ends
to ensure the availability of clean water.
A ministers' declaration is set to be adopted Sunday,
but it is already getting criticized from all sides as
too general and weak.
A draft document urges nations to work together in managing
water resources, gathering funding, including private
sector money, and promoting regional approaches in making
clean water available to the poor.
"Prioritizing water issues is an urgent global requirement,"
Khalid Sulehri, president of human rights group International
Human Rights Observer, said the key is to add water to
the list of fundamental rights and urge countries to adopt
legislation to that end.
"It's the only way we can address the issue,"
Salvano Briceno, director at the U.N. International Strategy
for Disaster Reduction, said the document needs to stress
the importance of acting before disaster strikes.
He denied the war in Iraq, which began without backing
from the United Nations, has made the world body less
relevant especially in issues such as water.
"The U.N. is not really losing credibility. It's
one country attacking it," he said, referring to
the United States, which is leading the invasion on Iraq.
Still, the challenges for the conference are immense.
Safe drinking water, irrigation for agriculture, water
pollution and water disasters from floods to droughts
are just starters for the agenda.
And different regions have different interests. Asia wants
to develop water supplies for farming and prevent floods.
Europe seeks to protect its water resources. Sanitation
is a top issue for Africa.
"Today's meeting is a reflection of the way that
water has become everyone's business," said Koichiro
Matsuura, director-general of the United Nations Educational,
Scientific and Cultural Organization.
"We have witnessed growing anxieties and, indeed,
alarm about the problems surrounding the use, availability
and quality of fresh water," he said. "Clearly,
water has risen higher on the agenda of international