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Great Lakes Article:

Cry for water draws world ministers to conference in Japan
By Yuri Kageyama
Associated Press

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 said.

"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," it says.

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," he said.

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 priorities."

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