Issue of November, 07, 2005
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Women washing clothes in a river in Matagalpa, Nicaragua.
Credit: Mauricio Ramos.
Report
Big Commitment to Water
By Humberto Márquez

New commitments for clean water are being adopted by Latin America's environment ministers. Some 100 million people in the region don't have access to sanitation services.

CARACAS, (Tierramérica).- The fury and quantity of storms and torrential rains that have thrashed the Caribbean and Mesoamerica, and the unprecedented droughts in Cuba and Brazil put water resource management back on the Latin American agenda this year, and pushed commitments at the 15th regional forum of environment ministers, which ended Nov. 4 in the Venezuelan capital.

The region assumes an increasingly difficult commitment to back its plans for watershed management and programs for residents to have access to potable water and sanitation, said Tim Kasten, policy specialist for the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in a conversation with Tierramérica.

In the 2006-2007 Action Plan, 33 Latin American and Caribbean governments supported about 50 projects and programs for boosting the region's capacity to supply the population with clean water, sewage treatment and watershed and coastal management, and to take on the delicate matter of territorial regulation.

These commitments will be seen in the World Water Forum to take place in Mexico City, said Kasten. Slated for March 2006, the meeting will bring together experts and officials from around the globe under the theme "Local Actions for a Global Challenge".

"Rains and mudslides caused by hurricanes have punished watersheds in areas that should never have been populated, or at least not to the extent they have been. Throughout the Caribbean, people live mostly along the coasts, and their exposure to natural disasters is greater," Nelson Andrade, UNEP's coordinator for the Caribbean, told Tierramérica.

Latin American-Caribbean region holds a third of the planet's freshwater resources, but there are serious problems when it comes to distribution: in Venezuela, for example, 80 percent of the population lives where there is barely five percent of the country's freshwater. And in the island countries, this precious resource is on the decline.

One goal established at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, held in Johannesburg in 2002, is to halve the region's population without access to potable water and sanitation services by 2015.

In that situation today are some 100 million people -- or 20 percent of the region's population. And the management plans must also take into consideration that by 2015 there will be an estimated 120 million more people living in Latin America's cities.

The ministers agreed that at the World Water Forum in Mexico they would press strategies that consider water an essential element for life and human health, and that focus on environmental sustainability and economic and social development, leading to integrated water management, involving actors from national government to local communities.

The aim is to cultivate the idea of the social and economic services provided by natural resources, said Ricardo Sánchez, UNEP regional director. "If you eliminate a coastal mangrove forest to open space for a shrimp farm, for each harvest you'll earn 400 or 500 dollars per hectare. But then, if a hurricane comes and you no longer have the mangrove for protection, the economic losses could be so much greater," he said as an example.

"The evaluation of ecosystems shows that quality of life increases with human intervention, but compromises access to water," warned Fernando Casas, from the Colombian non-governmental Humboldt Institute. "The use of natural resources doesn't necessarily mean reducing poverty, but it provides strategic leverage to reduce it," he said.

In addition to that premise "is South-South cooperation, because many of the technologies employed in developing countries for natural resource management come from the industrialized North, and tend to be more expensive, which is why the Forum in Mexico is a great opportunity for exchange," said Kasten.

For Venezuelan delegate Alejandro Hitcher, another important idea has to do with the "culture of peace". "We've introduced a new notion in this Caracas meeting, which is that we Latin Americans consider water a tool for peace among peoples, as a counterweight to the discourse in vogue that the wars of the future will be about water," he said.

The 15th Forum of Environment Ministers of Latin America and the Caribbean, celebrated Nov. 4-5 in Caracas, also discussed renewable energy, chemical management, the importance of ecotourism and shared environmental management between government and citizens.

* Humberto Márquez is an IPS correspondent.

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