Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific

Hiroyuki Konuma

FAO Regional Representative for Asia-Pacific

Dr He Changchui
Assistant Director-General and
Regional Representative for Asia and the Pacific

World Water Day celebration ceremony

22 March 2007, 9:15-9:30
Theatre, United Nations Conference Centre (UNCC), Bangkok, Thailand

Dear Dr Kim Hak-Su,
Dear colleagues from sister UN agencies,
Distinguished guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to address you on behalf of FAO at the World Water Day 2007 celebration. Water is a subject made for partnership among UN agencies and is among the best examples of how the United Nations system can deliver as "One United Nations" – the cohesive force for progress and change that Member States have demanded in support to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.

Since January of this year, FAO has been requested to chair UN-Water, the mechanism for coordination among the 24 United Nations Agencies, Funds and Programmes that have a significant role in tackling global water concerns. As the main rice producing region, agriculture plays a crucial role in the region's water management, accounting for 84 percent of water withdrawal in Asia. It is thus an opportunity, but also a great challenge, to significantly improve the coordinated support the United Nations as a whole can provide to member countries in addressing the issue of Coping with water scarcity, a subject many of us consider the challenge of the 21st Century.

Water scarcity: local crises of regional and global dimensions

Water scarcity affects all social and economic sectors. As population increases and development call for increased allocation of water for cities, agriculture and industries, the pressure on water resources intensifies, leading to tensions, conflicts, and excessive strain on the environment. The increasing stress on freshwater resources brought about by ever-rising demand and growing pollution is of serious concern to all. This year, in Thailand, drought in 52 of the country's 76 provinces has affected 7.9 million people and some 713 700 rai of farmland.

Although local in nature, the water crisis is a crisis of global and regional dimensions. In the last century, the world population has tripled, and water use has been growing at more than twice that rate. Today, 2.8 billion people are affected by some form of water scarcity, and the number of regions affected by water shortages is on the rise. By 2025, two-thirds of the world's population will live in countries affected by water scarcity, including one third of the populations of India and China. Rapidly growing cities place heavy pressure on local water resources. A regional crisis need not stem from a single cause with widespread impact alone, but rather it can be made up of an increasing number of similar local incidents.

Water, poverty and livelihoods

Water scarcity is first and foremost an issue of poverty. Today, unclean water and lack of sanitation are the destiny of poor people across the world. They affect poor children and families first, while the rest of the world's population benefits from direct access to water supply systems for the water they need for domestic use. And the poor always pay more: for them, water scarcity is about guaranteeing fair and safe access to the water they need to sustain their lives.

Millions of people rely on water for their daily income or food production. Farmers, small rural enterprises, herders and fishing people – all need water to secure their livelihood. It is probably in rural areas of the developing countries of the region that water scarcity affects people most. A large majority of households produce their own food. Smallholder farmers make up the majority of the region's rural poor, and they often occupy marginal land and depend mainly on rainfall for production. They are highly sensitive to climate changes and variations, including droughts and floods. Already affected by land degradation and desertification, they face the very real world of water scarcity. Water and food are not only essential elements for life, they are both universally recognized human rights. The right to water and the right to food go hand in hand when it comes to realizing access to food and the necessary environment to be able to feed oneself.

Water scarcity induces competition for water between users, between sectors of the economy, and between countries and regions sharing a common resource, as is the case for international rivers. Competition for water is already affecting agriculture in China, India, Malaysia, the Republic of Korea and Thailand. Many different interests are at stake, and equitable solutions must be found. Water conflicts can arise in water stressed areas among local communities and between countries. The lack of adequate institutional and legal instruments for water sharing exacerbates already difficult conditions. In the absence of clear and well-established rules, chaos tends to dominate, and power plays an excessive role, leading to inequitable allocation of water. Greater focus is needed on the peaceful sharing and management of water at both international and local levels. The Mekong River Commission is a good and inspiring example of such cooperation.

In addition, climate change is expected to account for about 20 percent of the global increase in water scarcity. Countries that already suffer from water shortages will be hit hardest. There will be major increases in water scarcity, and the impact of a changing climate will affect not only bulk water availability but also worsen the extremes of drought and floods.

Water plays a key role in achieving all the Millennium Development Goals, including hunger reduction, universal education, empowerment of women, improved health, environmental sustainability, and advancing partnership for development. Judicious management of increasingly scarce resources is needed if those goals are to be reached. But progress remains too slow, and the number of hungry people in the region stagnates around 524 million, about 16 percent of the undernourished population in developing countries. Now is not the time for weak governance.

We face a range of challenges and constraints, but still we are confident that together we can do more even better and more quickly. There are massive opportunities and practical possibilities to improve the ability of poor people to lift themselves out of poverty with greater water security and sustainability. With the right incentives and investments to mitigate risks for individual farmers, improving water control in agriculture holds considerable potential to increase food production and reduce poverty, while ensuring the maintenance of ecosystem services. Interventions need to be tailored to national and regional characteristics. In the short term, small-scale water harnessing and irrigation and drainage work carried out at the rural community level with local labour are a priority. Their cost is low, their technology simple and their maintenance easy. A second priority for the region is well targeted investments in rural infrastructure, including the modernization of larger-scale irrigation and drainage facilities and associated institutional reforms, which can boost productivity and develop local economies. To a large extent, irrigation has allowed a majority of countries to achieve self-sufficiency in cereal crops, but its disappointing performance can no longer be accepted. Longer-term actions include the sustainable management of large river basins for the benefit of the economy as a whole.

The potential exists to provide an adequate supply of quality water for all, today and in the future in a sustainable way. But it is our common duty to take the measure of today's water crisis and address it in all its dimensions.

At international and regional levels, countries need to increase their cooperation in dealing with the management of transboundary waters, focusing on negotiations and dialogue and on the quest to optimize the overall societal benefits of water. At the national level, policies and institutions need to be adapted to address competing uses in a fair and equitable way. At the local level, better management practices are needed in all fields for sustainability and equity in access to water. At all three levels, effective conflict-resolution mechanisms will become increasingly important. Together with its partners in UN-Water, FAO, for one, is committed to assist member nations in reaching these objectives.