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Water as the engine room of the Green Economy

The international UN-Water Conference, “Water in the green economy in Practice: Towards Rio+20,” held on 3-5 October in Zaragoza, Spain, facilitated the exchange of experiences and best practices in implementing water and green economic policies. These experiences highlighted that water plays a key role in moving towards a green economy; and will be used as input for the preparation of a toolbox on “Water in the green economy” which will be presented in the lead up to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD or Rio+20).
The Conference brought together more than eighty experts, UN organizations, civil society representatives and other stakeholders, and drew renewed attention to the International Decade for Action “Water for life” 2005-2015. This Decade, approved by the United Nations General Assembly in February 2004 (Resolution 58/217), aims to support UN Member States to uphold and fulfill their commitments made on water by 2015, including Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 7c to halve the number of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and sanitation.
Opening the Conference, Zafar Adeel, Chair of UN-Water, explained the objectives of the Conference, as well as how water relates to the green economy framework as defined by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). He further explained that the Conference would feature eight thematic sessions, covering issues such as (i) economic incentives to support the transition towards a green economy; (ii) green jobs and the need to re-allocate workers from contracting to expanding sectors and firms; (iii) sustainable financing to address unsustainable patters of consumption and production; (iv) investments in biodiversity, as well as in innovative water technology; and (v) water planning. Kenza Robinson from UN-DESA outlined the Rio+20 preparatory process, and reflected upon the role of water in this process.
Following the opening session, the Conference continued with the first out of the eight thematic sessions, which focused on economic instruments. Panelists highlighted that incentives can contribute to achieving water security and enabling water to become an engine for growth. Some of these economic instruments include marginal pricing (incorporating the scarcity value of water), introducing water and pollution rights markets, and the buyback of water use rights for the environment. For example in Israel, they implemented a water pricing policy to manage the demand of water in the country. The price of water in agriculture was increased with 40%. As a result, the amount of water used was considerably reduced and the use of recycled and desalinated water sources for irrigation purposes was encouraged.
The second session focused on green jobs. Carlos Crespo from the International Labour Organization (ILO) underlined that the transition to the green economy could have positive and negative consequences on employment levels. Panelists agreed that a green economy can result in job creation, social inclusion and poverty reduction, but emphasized the need for supportive measures and policies. In particular, a green transition in the provision of water services was discussed, as well as the need to actively involve workers and communities in such services, since they are the principal actors in that transition.
In terms of sustainable financing, covered in the third session of the meeting, participants agreed that it would be key to not only mobilize sufficient funds for sustainable development and poverty reduction, but also to make better and more efficient use of already existing resources.
On the second day of the meeting, more tools to enhance water management and to support the transition towards a green economy were discussed. The session focusing on investments in biodiversity underscored the importance of properly recognizing and valuing ecosystem services. It explained that today over 60% of the worlds’ ecosystem services, as evaluated in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, are actually used in an unsustainable way. Panelists from Kenya and Ecuador provided examples on how their countries tried to address the issue. Ecuador, for example, has a Fund for the Protection of Water, which is a private trust fund that uses its revenues to finance conservation activities of water basins.
In the session on water technology, participants called for high-tech as well as low-cost green technologies, which some defined as “lean-tech.” Some participants argued that all States should look at their own resources and support their own innovation and development. There is a need to move from technology transfers to technology development.
Following two regional sessions, the Conference concluded with a session on water planning. Participants agreed that planning is essential for aligning water use with development, and for coping with environmental challenges such as water scarcity, pollution, and climate change. Moreover, with the right institutional mechanisms in place, water planning can be a powerful social tool by involving all users in identifying ways for better water use.
Zafar Adeel closed the conference by stressing that “water is the engine for the green economy” and that “we need to make sure that it gets plugged in.” The meeting had highlighted that governments have an important role to play in designing and implementing policies that would enhance the transition to a green economy. Moreover, participants agreed that the role of local communities should not be overlooked as they have access to places that are hard to reach for governments. Therefore, social dialogue and community participation were seen as key elements for making the green economy a reality.

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