Dr. Thalmeinerova, Knowledge Management Officer for GWP, shares her thoughts on the Seventh “Environment for Europe” Ministerial Conference:
As I walked the spacious corridors of the Palace of Independence in Astana, Kazakhstan, it didn’t take long before I ran into about a dozen ministers of the environment from Europe and Central Asia. Since I am a water manager, this conference gave me hope that the ecosystem leg of the Dublin principles on Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM), adopted nearly 20 years ago, would not be forgotten. The main agenda item of the 54 ministerial delegations (together with international organizations, NGOs, the private sector, and civil society groups), was about water.
Water is a vital part of the environment and a home for many forms of life on which we humans ultimately depend. But the consequences of many countries’ economic growth is polluted fresh and marine waters, depletion of groundwater, loss of wetlands, increased water borne diseases, and land degradation. This is a self-inflicted water crisis in which the available water within a region is less than the region’s demand.
It’s no wonder that ministers of the environment discussed water together with economic growth that must be done in a green way. (The Astana Conference motto was “Save Water, Grow Green.”) Fortunately, more than 700 participants agreed that “growth first, clean up later” is not sustainable and, at the end of day, it brings enormous economic cost and harms development. I think politicians of Europe and Central Asia are beginning to understand that wiser water resources management is more than a new fashion to behave environmentally friendly. Water resources management is about development.
In the Ministerial Declaration, ministers agreed to make a substantive contribution to the discussions on the green economy within the context of sustainable development and poverty alleviation at Rio+20. In addition, 19 countries committed under the Astana Water Action to implement concrete projects leading to sustainable development. And most of them fall under Integrated Water Resources Management! Almost all presentations highlighted the importance of an integrated approach, whether delegates spoke about sanitation or wetland protection or hydropower generation or flood protection. Also, IWRM was recognized as the primary tool to address climate change mitigation, food security and poverty eradication. Simply put: no one to date has come up with anything better than IWRM as a process to deal with sustainable development.
I’m sorry that the Astana Water Action document does not define deadlines for its ambitious actions so it will be difficult to monitor how the “water friendly” atmosphere of Astana will be implemented. My second regret is that finance ministers did not take part. So it is up to countries’ delegations to win approval of their Conference commitments in their cabinet rooms and parliaments.
Some argue that ministerial conferences should be phased out. But if we take the Aral Sea as an example, it was recognized that only through international and regional cooperation can such tragedies be avoided. Jan Kubiš, Executive Secretary of UNECE, said in his keynote that the root causes of the problems lie in the policy environment, resource allocation, and country capacity. He noted that the main value of the UNECE Water Convention is its requirement for a holistic view. He stressed the Convention’s role as a conflict prevention instrument in Central Asia and other regions.
This was the first time the UNECE Conference was held in Central Asia, a good signal, noted Dr. Michael Scoullos, Chair of GWP Mediterranean, that Central Asia is moving toward environmental protection.
Also, the establishment of a shared environmental information system was discussed and tested in the Second Assessment of transboundary rivers, lakes and ground waters (UNECE, July 2011). The proposed Shared Environmental Information System (SEIS) is an integrated, web-based system to create networks of public information.
The Ministerial Declaration gave a clear mandate to the European Environmental Agency to facilitate and administer the SEIS. In addition, the declaration recommended that an Environmental Information System be established at the global level. It’ll be a challenge, but maybe it’s something that Rio+20 can deliver.