The second day of the Ministerial Conference started with chilly, rainy and cold weather, but the atmosphere in the conference hall was pleasant, almost family-like. I expected a lot of emotions and disputes because it is the first time that environment ministers are talking about water. It is said that in the countries of Central Asia, only water ministers—understood as “water and agriculture management”—are competent to speak about water.
The second interesting feature is that the West is meeting the East to discuss the same problems from different perspectives. The reform of water policy in the EU region has led to harmonization of water related legislation in Europe while water reforms in Central Asia resulted in a divergence of legal and institutional regimes across five Central Asian countries.
The morning session was “Sustainable management of water and water related ecosystems.” Three ministers of environment (from Belarus, Moldova and Hungary) addressed issues of water management and a need to enhance legal and institutional frameworks of water resources management. An important point was made by the Romanian minister: that many pressures on water resources and their quality are due to other sectors such as agriculture. However, the keynote address of Central Asian representatives focused more on the importance of water (its quantity and quality) for agriculture and energy production rather than highlighting water’s eco-system value for maintaining a healthy environment.
NGOs and IGOs are able to share experiences with official ministerial delegations. Sascha Gabizon, representing more than 20 environmental NGOs, pointed out that especially weak progress has been made regarding access to safe water and adequate sanitation for vulnerable populations and those living in rural and remote areas in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Dr. Letitia A. Obeng, Chair of GWP, raised the question of an integrated approach (IWRM) as a development tool to help address fragmented sectoral planning and implementation processes. She underlined that policies and strategies must be developed taking into account the water related needs of all the sectors and that water is not only an environmental component, it is the crucial factor for socio-economic development and growth.
The GWP presentation also focused on planning processes, especially in light of efforts of many countries to develop adaptation strategies to climate change. Where governments have IWRM plans, they are well on the way to adapting to the changes that climate will bring. Bringing these and adaptation plans together will lead to better preparation and responses.
Although the Conference is half-way over, not much has been said about what policies are effective in addressing human and ecosystem health and adapting to extreme events and climate change. The intervention of Dr. Obeng was timely because she emphasized that if we fail to adequately plan and implement integrated approaches, we run the risk that sustainable management of water to serve development needs will remain illusive and financial investments will be wasted. At a same time, we run the risk that our adaptation responses may actually aggravate the problems and increase the vulnerability of communities rather than increase their resilience.
Dr. Thalmeinerova, Knowledge Management Officer for GWP, writing from Astana, Kazakhstan, at the Seventh “Environment for Europe” Ministerial Conference.