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World Water Day 2002

22 March 2003 - Water for the Future

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  Why do we need a World Water Day?

The aim of this day is to highlight the importance of water resources. We find it everywhere in the nature and in our life, for drinking and eating of course, for sanitation, agriculture, industry and energy.

We may believe that water is inexhaustible, but the global water crisis is a reality, no science-fiction movie… There is no substitute for water and we all are concerned!

Lack of water or bad quality causes the deaths of thousands of people each day. To provide access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation for everyone is a global challenge. Halving the number of people without such services by 2015 from currently 1.2 and 2.4 billion is a major precondition to sustainable development. Many projects and activities are articulated around these and other water-related problems.

Too much water, e.g. during a flood, can also create big problems.

World Water Day 2003 provides an opportunity to highlight the responses of the European Commission with an emphasis on enabling action through knowledge. To coincide with this, the European Commission published Water for Life, a brochure on the EU Water Initiative The brochure presents the Commission’s recent experience in international research and development co-operation, and its commitment to pursue the Water Initiative goals through partnerships, not only within its own borders, but also in many regions around the world.

Water covers two thirds of the Earth’s surface, but fresh water represents only 2.5% of all water resources and less than 1% or 200 000 km2 is usable. Freshwater is renewable only by snow and rainfall at a rate of 40 000-50 000 km2 per year. Water resources per capita will steadily decline because of population growth, pollution and expected climate change.

For all those reasons, since 1992, the United Nations has designated March 22 each year as World Water Day. This event is an opportunity to inform the public about the real importance of the water issues, which concern everyone, though different regions in specific ways. It is important to encourage more responsible public and private water use and conservation. It is time to become aware of that problem and exercise choices for responsible water use individually and as groups and societies.


Looking back in history, we can see that our ancestors already grappled with serious water issues. Early high civilisations with urbanisation, development of script and other signs of advanced development, like Sumer in Mesopotamia, were enabled by sophisticated irrigation. Inadequate water management and unsustainable irrigation techniques played an important role in their decline and eventual collapse.

A thousand years later, the Maya civilisation in Central America had its economic foundation in the surplus of irrigated agriculture. Over expansion and deforestation are believed to have caused an increase in erosion, landslides eventually leading to famine and dispersion away from the cities. We have to remember the past and understand the stakes of the global water crisis.


Lake Aral - click on the image to see a larger version (140213 bytes)
Lake Aral has dramatically retreated and large parts formerly under water are now dry 
(© Mr Satubaldina/EC Delegation)

Our ancestors could leave a devastated place and settle down somewhere else. But today we are 6 billion people impacting, if not settling all parts of the globe and we can not readily move somewhere else. The degradation or even destruction of the environment already has tangible consequences on the lives of millions of people, particularly in developing countries.

While water demand is increasing, supplies are decreasing and are often polluted. Water of adequate quality for food production and basic needs is thus becoming either inaccessible or more expensive and the poorest people are the first to suffer from this. Every day, '6000 people, mostly children under the age of five, die from diarrhoeal diseases.' (1)

The poor are the most affected: '50 % of the population of developing countries are exposed to polluted sources of water.' (2)

The crisis will have to change the way we value and use water and the way we mobilise, nurture and manage water resources. We need better water management. The real challenge is to create the political will to address this issue. Ignoring the problem is no longer an option.

The EU Water Framework Directive of 2000 establishes a framework for the protection of inland surface waters, transitional waters, coastal waters and groundwater within in the EU. Action around its implementation at levels from international to local offers a shared learning ground within the European Union and its interested neighbours.


If current trends continue, 'by 2025 two-thirds of the world's population will be living with serious water shortages or almost no water at all.'

The outlook is bad: 'Humid areas will probably see more rain, while it is expected to decrease and become more dry in certain regions. Water quality will worsen with rising pollution levels and water temperatures.' (3)

But we must and can do something. Past research - within Europe and through international scientific cooperation between teams from Europe and developing, emerging and transition economies - has already generated much useful knowledge and there are many more projects in progress. However, research while essential is not sufficient to solve the problems. Its results need to be translated into innovation - digested, adapted and assimilated by water management bodies, companies, citizens. Growing awareness of public and private, social, economic and political decision makers enables better use of existing knowledge, targeting priority research and taking necessary action.

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  Which current projects address major water issues?

Let’s look at just a few on-going projects with particularly interesting multiplier effects like PRINWASS. This project is a collaboration between European, Latin American and African research teams investigating 'Barriers and conditions for the involvement of private capital and enterprises in water supply and sanitation in Latin America and Africa: Seeking economic, social, and environmental sustainability'.

Clean piped water - click for larger image (363645 bytes)
Excitement in the  village about the first flow of clean piped water brought about by the EC project (©BURGEAP/EC)

Its purpose is to 'identify the socio-economic and policy conditions, and implementation measures that will favour progress in sustainable water and sanitation management systems in Latin America and Africa'. (4)

The teams investigate the increase but also the unequal expansion of the private capital investment in the water sector in developing countries. The collaboration is developing an indicative framework of strategy and processes for sustainable water supply and sanitation (WSS) in large cities in developing countries. Indeed, increasing the access to water supplies and better sanitation conditions in the developing countries will allow improving the living conditions of millions of people.

Numerous, and often contrasting comments, new data and interpretations are being stimulated through the analyses published on the project’s website and through workshops and conferences from within and outside the project partnership – a good indication that the research is addressing an important topic in a useful and clarifying way. Nevertheless, individual projects rarely achieve major policy or management breakthroughs: 'The reasons are not only technical, but also socio-economic, organizational, institutional, political and cultural. In this perspective, the adoption of sustainable WSS policies requires not only a consideration of the environmental dimension, but also involves achieving greater social equality and democratic accountability in the management of water resources… The project will also evaluate current policies and arrangements based on a number of case studies.'  

The research teams evaluate policy options that 'might contribute in establishing more sustainable water management models and propose adaptations to the current policy models in order to increase the chances of success of water and sanitation programmes.' (5)

The first case study concerned Buenos Aires in Argentina:

Prinwass picture - click for a larger image (32384 bytes)

'The privatisation of water supply and sewerage services in Buenos Aires in 1992 has been branded as a successful case. However, Argentina has also witnessed dramatic experiences with private involvement in WSS. For instance, water utility was cancelled by the private operator, after a succession of social and political conflicts with impact at the local (over 80 per cent of the users refused to pay the water fees due to quality problems), national and international levels. Similarly, in 2001 Azurix followed the same path and decided to give up the concession awarded in 1999 after recurrent technical, administrative and political problems.' (6)

The second one is in Tanzania :

'Tanzania started a slow process of economic liberalization in 1990, which had among other targets the reversal of the highly centralized government structure that concentrated economic and human resources in the capital, leaving an acute lack of capacity, resources and autonomy at the district and village levels.

The first democratically elected government has demonstrated its commitment to seriously addressing the nation’s complex problems, among other issues by establishing a policy of decentralization and undertaking civil service and local government reforms and pledging adherence to the principles of sustainable development.

Because lack of capacity at the local level was perceived as the most urgent need, most of these programmes were local level projects and, although many were excellent, lack of coordination among them was a major shortcoming. In addition, capacity building for sustainable development was not a feature of most of these programmes. The Government of Zanzibar has recently given high priority to the development of public utilities and services, among them water supply and sanitation.

The Development Plan provided comprehensive institutional and technical plans for urban water supply development until year 2015.

Among these, the Zanzibar Urban Water Supply Project (ZUWSP) covers improvement of water supply in Zanzibar town and nearby areas. In the new context, the Zanzibar Water Supply Authority is expected to reach financial self-sufficiency after 2000, including the funding of new investments, with a long-term goal of having a single authority covering urban WSS and rural water supply.

Likewise in the whole Sub-Saharan region, the extension of private involvement in WSS is still very limited in scope and the prospects for further participation of private investors are still unclear.' (7)

Children fetching water of dubious quality in Samoa - click for larger image (53430 bytes)
Children fetching water of dubious quality in Samoa (©EC Delegation)

The project example deals too with sanitation and hygiene. 'Sustaining changes in hygiene behaviour (Working towards higher effectiveness of water, sanitation and hygiene promotion programmes)' recognises that changes in hygiene behaviour are crucial to the health impact from new water and sanitation facilities. (8) The central question is how to ensure that the large investments often associated with infrastructure projects will really bring results.

Supply of safe drinking water in a rural or urban area is one thing, but, without education and hygiene, many potential benefits are lost. So, a large investment may have few results, particularly for the health of vulnerable groups, such as infants, without parallel or concomitant hygiene promotion.

A survey was organised in different countries on the health impact of hygiene behaviour. Infectious diseases generally spread among people due to poor sanitation. At least basic sanitation and hygiene in homes and communities are necessary, but were not yet found to be the rule. The results are a useful input to policy and should also have aid programming implications to increase the effectiveness of water and sanitation programmes.

Education about sanitation and hygiene in school is very important to adopt good practices. Schools provide the biggest and most sustainable network in the world. Yet the project’s field research shows that hygiene and basic education are not necessarily part of the school curriculum, where they are most needed. Systematically washing hands before meals would be a good starting point.

Another point arising from this and other research is the crucial importance to involving women, and investing in girl’s education when looking for cost-effective and sustainable changes in hygiene behaviour. 'Water, soap, absence of garbage piles around the school, latrines kept clean, cleaning tasks properly planned, health education part of the school programme' (9) are some of the things which promote hygiene.

The results of research can be amplified by development co-operation. So, making judicious use of research results, the impact of aid and of research can be multiplied.

For instance, a successful aid project entitled "Small Towns Water Supply in Ghana" ensures safe water and to facilitate the use of sanitation facilities, thus improving living conditions in about 20 towns, could possibly further increase its impact by acting on the research results showing that hygiene education is not yet generalised in schools.

Back to Europe, numerous research projects in the various areas of water management, from river basin to drinking water, are bringing together their capacity forming working groups (known as clusters) aiming at better co-ordination and integration of on-going efforts.

The CITYNET project cluster (10) consists of six individual projects under the Fifth Framework Programme and deals with the integrated aspects of water management in urban areas (water supply, sewerage, drainage) including their urban/rural interfaces (raw water sources, receiving waters, groundwater). The CityNet cluster consists of 47 research partners and 59 end-users thus comprising a significant part of the European R&D capacity and implementation potential in urban water systems. It aims to widen and deepen the joint activities of the cluster partners with respect to three aspects of integration, i.e. (1) the urban water system and its water resources (2) the necessary infrastructure for water supply, urban drainage and wastewater management, and (3) the socio-economic aspects of urban water management.

In the area of drinking water quality, a cluster titled WEKNOW (11) has as its primary goal to bring together all stakeholders involved in the process of supplying drinking water to European citizens in order to maximize the impact of European research and effort in all related areas. Exchange of information and knowledge focuses on 

  • Drinking water quality;
  • Smooth implementation of the Drinking Water Directive;
  • Co-ordination of research on topics linked to water quality;
  • Dissemination of knowledge;
  • Support to standardisation, identification and priority setting of knowledge needs.

The cluster represents a bottom-up approach towards the collective ambition for safe drinking water within Europe.

The Water Framework Directive (WFD) provides a European policy basis for water management and the adoption of river basin approaches to water policy and management plans. It prescribes the development of river basin management plans.

The development of these plans increasingly needs high quality computer based tools (ICT tools), as well as appropriate approaches to socio-economic analysis and stakeholder participation. Though many tools have been developed, there is neither a complete  overview of what is available nor a simple recipe for which tools to use in which situations. HarmoniCA will establish a forum for unambiguous communication and discussion concerning the use and development of all tools relevant to the implementation of the WFD. Six work packages structure how key aspects of integrated modelling will be considered in close collaboration with the modelling community, the policy makers and the users.

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  Water-related research in the Sixth Framework Programme

The Sixth Framework Programme aims to contribute to the creation of a true "European Research Area" (ERA). ERA is a vision for the future of research in Europe, an internal market for science and technology. It fosters scientific excellence, competitiveness and innovation trough the promotion of better co-operation and co-ordination between relevant actors at all levels. (12)

International cooperation represents an important dimension of the Sixth Framework Programme. The general objective of international cooperation activities is to help open up the European Research Area to the rest of the world: providing European researchers with access to knowledge in other parts of the world, but also supporting EU foreign and development aid policies.

The Sixth Framework Programme (FP6, 2002-2006), has been opened to third country participation. In particular, in the Specific Programme ‘Integrating and Strengthening the European Research Area’ makes €285 million are available for the active participation of teams from INCO partner countries in all thematic priorities. Water is a major focus within the various areas of the thematic priority 'Sustainable Development, Global Change and Ecosystems' as well as the thematic priority 'Aeronautics and Space' in the specific area of ‘Global Monitoring for Environment and Security’ (GMES). In addition, €315 million from the same specific programme has been allocated to 'Specific measures in support of scientific co-operation’ (INCO - water being among the focal topics) to mobilise European and partner teams, e.g. in developing countries, on solving problems in partner regions. 

INCO partner regions are Developing countries, Mediterranean Countries, Western Balkan countries, Russia and the other New Independent States.

For more information on the Sixth Framework Programme in general visit the Commission's Europa FP6 web site, or take a look at CORDIS for details of international scientific cooperation opportunities in particular.

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  What can you do?  (13)

* Keep your community clean, recycle and do not litter. You will actually save water!

* Make environmentally smart choices in your daily life in terms of products. Eat products that come from agriculture that respects the environment and uses little pesticides, chemicals and less water than intensive agriculture.

* When washing dishes by hand, don't let the water run while rinsing.

* In many countries the water is of excellent quality and hence there is no need for drinking bottled water. Drink the water from the tap and save our environment from plastic bottles. If you do buy bottled water, reuse the bottles or buy bigger bottles.

* When you clean your fish tank, use the water you've drained on your plants. The water is rich in nitrogen and phosphorus, providing you with a free and effective fertilizer. In general, never throw away water that could be used for something else.

* Take short showers!

* Turn off the water while you brush your teeth, shave, etc.

* We're more likely to notice leaky taps indoors, but don't forget to check outdoor taps, pipes, and hoses for leaks. These waste huge quantities of water.

* Always water your plants during the early morning hours, when temperatures are cooler, to minimize evaporation. Keep in mind that in some families this represents 50 percent of their use of water.

* Capture rainwater to water your plants.

* Fill a milk bottle with water and put it in the toilet cistern – this reduces the volume of water used for flushing by 45 litres every day!


  1. World Water Development Report, Water for People, Water for Life, UNEP, 2003

  2. ibid.

  3. ibid.


  5. ibid.

  6. ibid.

  7. ibid.

  8. INCO Hygiene Project

  9. School Sanitation and Hygiene Education, UNICEF –




  13. Recommendations from


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Fast facts and figures

World Water Day events

3rd World Water Forum (Kyoto, Japan – 16 to 23 March)

Water Water (NY, USA – 16 to 23 March)

3rd European Youth Congress for Water (Belgium – 21 to 28 March)

Wasser Berlin (Berlin – 7 to 11 April)

Water World 2003 (Obninsk, Russia – 12 to 14 May)

Second PRINWASS International Conference, Private Participation in Water and Sanitation (Mexico City - 2 to 3 April)

1st International Yellow River Forum on River Basin Management (Zhengzhou, China – 12 to15 May )

International Stockholm Junior Water Prize (deadline 6 June)

Water Project (Canada – 1 to 31 July)

Putaruru Water Festival 2003, (Putaruru, New Zealand – 28 to 30 March)

Aquatech Fitma Brazil 2003 (Sao Paulo, Brazil – 3 to 5 June)

Other links

World Water Day 2002

European Commission's Environment web site

Institute for Environment and Sustainability

European Environment Agency's water website

Water Aid

Stockholm International Water Institute links

UNESCO water portal

The 3rd World Water Forum in Kyoto, Japan

Global water partnership

School Sanitation and Hygiene education

Johannesburg Summit fact sheet on water (PDF)

UNESCO International Year of Freshwater

International Water Management Institute


The World’s Water, Information on the World’s Freshwater Resources

Selected publications

Water for Life, brochure of the European Commission, Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, 2003

Water for People, Water for Life, United Nations report, 2003

Vital Water Graphics, an Overview of the State of the World’s Fresh and Marine Waters, UNEP, 2002

Water and Sanitation in the World’s Cities, UN-Habitat, 2003

Blue Gold,
The Battle Against Corporate Theft of the World's Water
, M. Barlow and T. Clarke, 2002

Farmer Innovation in Africa, A Source of Inspiration for Agricultural Development
C. Reij and A. Waters-Bayer, 2001

World Water Vision, Making Water everybody’s business, W.J. Cosgrove and F. R. Rijsberman, Earthscan Publications, 2000

Alternative Irrigation,
The Promise of Runoff Agriculture
, C. J Barrow, 1999
The Blue Revolution
Land Use and Integrated Resource Management
I. Calder, 1999

The Water crisis, Constructing Solutions to Freshwater Pollution,
J. Stauffer, 1998

Water: The International Crisis
Swedish Red Cross,
R. Clarke, 1991

Water: A vital resource under threat

Water Framework Directive brochure


Search for water-related 'Headlines' from the EC's Research website
Search for water-related articles in the EC's Research News Centre
Search for water-related articles on the EC's Environment for Europeans website


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Scientific Contacts

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