EUOBSERVER / FOCUS - Europe is becoming aware of how global water shortagescould result in new conflicts and create millions of water refugees in the developingworld, but on the occasion of the UN's World Water Day, the upcoming Portuguese EUpresidency showed far more interest in ensuring sound water management in its ownbackyard."Because of the consequences of climate change there's a real danger [water] scarcity willget worse not better and fewer people will have access to safe water in future," Germanenvironment minister Sigmar Gabriel told a gathering of European water managementexperts in Brussels on Thursday (22 March), referring to the UN's millennium goal ofhalving by 2015 the global number of 1.1 billion people who do not have clean water todrink.The minister underlined that out of the total figure, 465 million are children, who arealready dying in droves from dirty water-linked gastro-enterological disease in placessuch as the Middle East, Central Asia, Africa and the Far East.Studies predict that melting glaciers in the Himalayas pose a serious risk to Asiandrinking water resources. The World Bank estimates bad water management will cutsupplies by 50 percent in North Africa by 2050."We need to be aware there's a world outside Europe," Mr Gabriel went on. "There's apolitical dimension here - if we don't get climate change under control and the Himalayanglaciers start to melt, we will endanger 40 percent of drinking water in Asia.""The refugee crisis in Africa will also be far worse in the future and lead to war becauseof water," he said, even as the EU's border management agency - Frontex - gears up foranother summer of African migrants trying to reach Europe in rickety boats.Speaking at a parallel event in Rome, development commissioner Louis Michel urgedthat "Good regional governance of water basins - from the point of view of conflictprevention and natural catastrophes - is of capital importance." The Belgian politicianadded that "Each time we open a tap, I'm talking about rich countries, we should beaware that this is a privilege. Access to good water must become reality for all."It would be unfair to say the EU's commitment to the global water challenge ends inpretty words, with EU states just two weeks back agreeing to cut greenhouse gasemissions and use more renewable energy by a factor of 20 percent by 2020 in the hopethey inspire the world's other biggest polluters - the US and China - into wider action onclimate change.Water management as a tool of conflict prevention is also climbing the agenda in termsof EU foreign policy, with a large chunk of the EU's ¤719 million budget for Central Asiaaid in 2007 to 2013 devoted to drinking and irrigation water provision. In Gaza, EU statesare investing over ¤20 million into water treatment plants despite the fact the US haspulled many of its Palestine water projects, citing unsafe working conditions.In terms of broader development aid, the European Commission between 2006 and 2010plans to invest ¤230 million into 97 water projects in African, Caribbean and Pacificstates as well as using international trade bodies to try and pull in private sector investorsto build pumps, wells and pipes in deprived zones. Focusing on one project in Tanzania,Mr Michel said that just ¤1.6 million of EU cash will bring drinking water to 40,000people living in the rural Njombe district in the next three years.But the EU policy picture as well as the integrity of EU public concerns on global waterproblems remain open to doubt. Many analysts fear the EU's ambitious climate changegoals could unravel as member states get down to business on who will pay what for the"industrial revolution" needed to bring them about. The main thrust of the EU's newCentral Asia policy is to secure gas and oil for Europeans, not water for Asians.Mr Michel's policy came under attack this week by a coalition of over 60 NGOs whichsay Brussels' focus on private sector investment in water projects is doing more to helpgiant water management corporations get an edge in emerging markets than to bringwater to urban poor.The EU public - which is quick to tick the "yes" box in opinion surveys on globalconcerns - itself spends more than ¤25 billion a year drinking fancy bottled water, despiteUN statistics suggesting that an extra spend of some ¤12 billion a year would bring the2015 millennium development goal within reach.The UN's World Water Day was launched in 1992 to help generate interest in globalwater problems and raise cash for new projects. The day is being marked by a variety ofevents around the world and in several EU states including Austria, Belgium, Italy, theNetherlands, Romania and Sweden as well as Australia, the US, Canada, Brazil, India,Iran, Mexico and Kenya.The Portuguese agendaIn this wider context, the Portuguese environment minister Francisco Nunes Correia'scontribution to the water and climate debate in Brussels on Thursday struck a ratherfeeble note. The minister, who will become part of Portugal's six-month EU presidencyteam in July, said Lisbon's main water priority will be to midwife a new directive onwater scarcity and drought problems in Europe by the end of the year."Water scarcity and drought constitutes a priority of the forthcoming Portuguesepresidency. We feel it should be deeply embedded in EU environmental [policy]," he saidin reference to a July 2007 European Commission "communication" on droughtprevention, with Portugal hoping to transform the soft law instrument into a harddirective before its presidency mandate expires.The communication will contain "a complete and specific regulation of water scarcityand drought impacts at EU level, plus analysis of measures that need to be adopted" MrCorreia went on, foreseeing "recommendations on specific actions" as well investmentcost and funding breakdowns, with Portugal and Spain - both with large farming sectors -set to be among the worst hit EU states commercially-speaking when climate changebegins to bite in Europe.The Portuguese minister went on to praise Portuguese and Spanish cooperation onmanagement of shared river basins in the Duoro and Tajo river systems, which began inthe 1990s - well before the EU started to tackle river basins in 2000.His keynote 10 minute speech failed to pick up on Mr Gabriel's "hot topic" of globalwater shortages however, and neglected to mention that both Portugal and Spain arecurrently facing EU court action for breaches of EU water pollution law.
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