Private sector takes action to improve watershed management

The World Economic Forum, in association with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), recently launched a Water Initiative to create public-private partnerships to improve the management of watersheds "from the summit to the sea".

June 19, 2003 -- The World Economic Forum, in association with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), recently launched a Water Initiative to create public-private partnerships to improve the management of watersheds "from the summit to the sea". Members of the initiative include, among others, top businesses, NGOs, international organizations and governments.

Their aim is to improve the quality and quantity of water for both business and communities by sharing best practices and partnering in the maintenance and management of water and watersheds around the world.

On the occasion of World Environment Day, José María Figueres, Senior Managing Director at the World Economic Forum, said: "Shared responsibility for the management of watersheds from mountain ranges to coastal areas will improve the quality and quantity of water for business, populations and the environment."

Additionally, Klaus Töpfer, UNEP Executive Director, stated: "We must not only increase public awareness about the challenges the world is facing in relation to water, but we must also change the way the water issue is perceived: from being a driver of conflict to being a catalyst for collaboration."

Public opinion appears to be clear about the urgent need to protect water resources. According to the results of a Gallup International survey, more than half of the world's population believes that access to clean drinking water should be added to the list of basic human rights even if additional taxes would be required to ensure universal access.
Responses by the 36,000 people surveyed in 36 countries are strikingly similar: 61% approval in the EU (Spain 81% and Ireland 88%), 68% in non-EU countries, 62% in Eastern and Central Europe, 50% in the Middle East, 53% in North America, 60% in Latin America, and 56% in Africa.

"Reliable access to fresh drinkable water is one of the most important and fundamental issues for many communities," said Travis Engen, President and CEO of Alcan Inc., "I am pleased that Alcan can bring to bear its 101-year experience with the management of watersheds and water resources to enhance the availability of this precious resource."

The World Economic Forum Water Initiative is intended to facilitate private sector participation in the maintenance of watersheds and put water management at the forefront of economic development. The Water Initiative has three principal objectives. First, the initiative will serve as an incubator for public-private partnerships that address the importance of watershed management for the environment and the need for better use of water in the business production cycle.

Second, it aims to contribute to better understanding of how to structure and balance the costs and benefits of payments for environmental services. Third, it seeks to establish and promote best practices in the management of watersheds and related payments for environmental services.

"Water resource management is one of the most important challenges the world faces. Freshwater is the critical resource of the 21st century and for the future of humankind," stated Kristalina Georgieva, Director, Environment, World Bank. Of the Earth's water, 97% is saltwater found in oceans and seas, and 3% is freshwater, of which only 1% is available while 2% is currently frozen in glaciers and polar icecaps. More than half of humanity relies on water from mountains, often thousands of kilometres away from the source. All of the world's major rivers originate in the mountains.

"The water crisis in the world is due essentially to the unsustainable use and management of water resources and to the destruction of ecosystems such as forests, wetlands and soil that capture, filter, store and release water," said Philippe Roch, Director of the Swiss Agency for the Environment, Forests and Landscape. If 1.1 billion people do not have access to safe water supplies, some 2.4 billion people do not have access to adequate sanitation, causing the death by water-borne diseases of over 3 million people, mostly in developing countries, with among them 2 million children.

"A clean sustainable water supply depends on the ecosystems that capture, filter, store and distribute water, such as forests, wetlands and soils" Roch said. This sentence has been used in the Ministerial Declaration of the Third World Water Forum that took place in Kyoto in March 2003, and now it has been taken by the Ministerial Declaration Environmental Meeting of the G-7/G-8 in April. "If we fail to protect forests and wetlands, if we do not manage soils with precaution, water will disappear. We can build all the water pipes and treatment plants we want, there will be nothing to drain or clean" Roch concluded.

Some key issues related to Water:

Water and development. Water is the key to sustainable development and food security. Water supplies of good quality are also fundamental to the eradication of poverty. But water supplies are dependent on the protection and sustainable use of ecosystems that naturally capture, filter, store, and release water, such as wetlands, forests, and soils. The so-called ecosystem approach is thus one of the essential conditions for poverty alleviation.

Solidarity. On the basis of the ecosystem approach, solidarity between the generally poorer mountain populations and the richer valley dwellers should be reinforced in the area of water. Innovative approaches, such as payments for environmental services, need to be adopted to ensure that downstream populations have sufficient water at their disposal while upstream populations are compensated for their contributions to the protection, management and sustainable use of ecosystems.

Private-sector investment. Investments made by the private sector should take into account the need to protect ecosystems in any projects relating to food or water supplies. Partnerships between governments, the private sector, international organizations and other partners are desirable so as to increase the resources made available for ecosystem protection. Such partnerships should also involve a commitment to provide water supplies to the poorest populations at an affordable price. The World Economic Forum Water Initiative is an excellent opportunity for such partnerships.

The World Economic Forum ( is an independent international organization committed to improving the state of the world. The Forum provides a collaborative framework for the world's leaders to address global issues, engaging particularly its corporate members in global citizenship.

Incorporated as a foundation, and based in Geneva, Switzerland, the World Economic Forum is impartial and not-for-profit; it is tied to no political, partisan or national interests. The Forum has NGO consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.

The World Economic Forum Water Initiative includes representatives of business, government and international organizations and members from academia, media, NGOs, as well as the Forum's Global Leaders of Tomorrow and Social Entrepreneurs of the Schwab Foundation. If you have a question about the Water Initiative, please contact the initiative's Project Manager, Andrei Iatsenia at or Oliver Haugen at You can also e-mail

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