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MEA Bulletin - Guest Article No. 88 - Thursday, 18 March 2010
Quality matters: World Water Day 2010
By Nicoletta Forlano, UN-Water Communication Advisor and UN FAO Communication and Information Manager
Full Article

The 22nd of March is fast approaching and with comes the celebration of World Water Day. UN agencies and programmes worldwide will be celebrating the day by giving strong resonance to the importance of water quality. It won’t be just a UN celebration, but everybody’s celebration: teachers, students, municipalities, around the corner’s cafés. All over the world, people, whether in small or large groups, will get together to celebrate World Water Day.

Since 2007, UN-Water has actively promoted and organized World Water Day to ensure a more coordinated approach among United Nations organizations, leading to additional attention and visibility for the theme and making sure that water issues are high on the political and media agenda.

Previous years have set the spotlight on transboundary waters, sanitation and water scarcity. This year will focus on water quality, under the overall coordination of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

While in the past water availability has almost always taken the centre stage, placing the attention on quantity whether or not water is “clean,” the theme for this year seeks to push the concept further. An exclusive focus on cubic meters per person and users’ allocation overlooks the physical characteristics that make water availability more meaningful. Water quality is a parameter that has often received inadequate attention, but good water quality is paramount for sustaining healthy ecosystems and human wellbeing.

On March 22nd, the world will celebrate World Water Day and UN-Water intends to raise awareness on water quality, recognizing the urgency to address it worldwide, because quality matters as much as quantity.

Clean Water for a Healthy World is the slogan chosen by UN-Water members to stress that water quality is an absolute necessity for the world as a whole. The staggering truth is that waterborne diseases kill 1.5 million children each year, and 2 million tons of sewage and other liquid waste drain into the world’s water every day.

The World Water Day campaign is a year-long operation harnessing the best UN knowledge and disseminating its messages at local and global levels. Scientific consultations, international fora, official statements and commitments to action, and orientation workshops for journalists are some of the activities to be carried out throughout the year to vigorously raise awareness on water quality. The World Water Day website ( provides clear arguments and tools aimed at addressing different stakeholders, channelling efforts to reach policy makers and the public at large. The site has become a window to inform and communicate, highlighting the threats of water pollutants, the risk they pose to human health, and highlighting the economic return from improved sanitation. These are all important factors that need to be clearly present when policies and laws are drafted or, more simply, when human behaviour poses a menace to our water resources. UN-Water, with its members and partners, is supporting this communication process aimed at promoting real actions and, ultimately, achieving long-term change.

The website also offers a public space to promote the international community’s response to each year’s theme. People post their events, with every continent offering something. On March 22nd, events will be organized and people will celebrate World Water Day worldwide. UN-Water is willing to act as a catalyst to improve and accelerate this process. Whether it is a walk, a day-out cleaning river banks or measuring the chemicals present in the water, someone, somewhere is taking action involving other people, turning the event into a “glocal” statement.

To celebrate World Water Day, UNEP, in collaboration with UN-Habitat, the UN Secretary-General's Advisory Board on Sanitation (UNSGAB) and the Government of Kenya, will host a three-day event at UN headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya. This event will bring together journalists, prominent personalities, scientists as well as policy makers for a dialogue to address water quality from many different perspectives. UN-Water will launch its statement on water quality, a scientific panel will address challenges and responses, a high-level panel will discuss policy options and actions to improve water quality, and the outcomes of the event will be communicated through a live web-cast to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, which is also organizing an event to celebrate World Water Day.

Protecting water quality is a shared responsibility for the common benefit. Governments, municipalities and civil society, from individuals to local communities, together with international organizations must all take actions to prevent our water sources from becoming polluted. But man is not the only player in this game. The impacts of climate change can heavily and easily compromise fragile ecosystems: prolonged droughts can dramatically reduce their ability to dilute polluted water, and with it trigger a chain reaction that can further severely stress, and therefore diminish, their natural functions. Coastal ecosystems are greatly at risk: mangroves, coral reefs and sea-grass beds are losing their role as storm protectors and breeding and nursery grounds. In some regions, we are already facing incredibly high risk of extinction for some fish species. This is why it is so important to act where we can: preventing, reducing and controlling pollution must be taken up at all levels, regardless of our role in society.

Through our lifestyle, we have an impact on water quality and water quality has an impact on our lives. Some people’s wastewater is other people’s drinking water. Maintaining healthy ecosystems triggers a virtuous circle. For example, thriving natural wetlands act as filters for excessive nutrients and other toxic substances, providing cascading benefits, such as potable water or healthy fisheries, up to the service industry, such as tourism. Most important it costs more to clean up after pollution than to keep our water resources healthy.

In developing countries, about 90% of sewage ends up untreated into rivers, polluting water and killing ecosystems. The cost of such pollution is counted in billions every year. Investing in water quality would have an incredible economic impact: WHO estimates that achieving the Millennium Development Goal for access to safe water and sanitation would bring an economic net benefit of US$ 84.4 billion a year.

But if the developing world pays the highest cost to poor water quality and lack of sanitation, it is the world as a whole that needs to address this issue at the global, national and local levels. More research and monitoring, as well as regulatory functions and compliance with rules on water quality, hold the future of our wellbeing because we all live downstream.
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