UN Conference Shifts to Water Issues, Peace and Security

Published June 7th, 2017 - 05:00 GMT
Saving the oceans: Participants in the Fijian Traditional Welcome Kava Ceremony open the Ocean Conference on June 5 at the United Nations in New York. (AFP/Don Emmert)
Saving the oceans: Participants in the Fijian Traditional Welcome Kava Ceremony open the Ocean Conference on June 5 at the United Nations in New York. (AFP/Don Emmert)

The United Nations was inundated on Tuesday by water issues: The Ocean Conference focused on rising, polluted seas while the Security Council examined the threat to international peace and security by conflicts involving fresh water that crosses borders.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, sitting alongside President Evo Morales of Bolivia, this month's president of the Security Council, issued a warning to panel members.

"With demand for freshwater projected to grow by more than 40 percent by the middle of the century, and with climate change having a growing impact, water scarcity is a growing concern," he said, adding: "By 2050, at least one in four people will live in a country where the lack of fresh water is chronic or recurrent."

"Without effective management of our water resources, we risk intensified disputes between communities and sectors and even increased tensions among nations," said Guterres.

"Three quarters of UN member states share rivers or lake basins with their neighbors and there are more than 270 internationally shared river basins, which serve as the primary source of fresh water for approximately 40 percent of the world's population," he said.

Luhut Binsar Pandjaita, coordinating minister for Maritime Affairs of Indonesia, the largest archipelago nation with 17,000 islands, only 4,000 of them inhabited, expressed Jakarta's concerns over the ocean.

"How do we deal with debris on land ... and minimize (debris) at sea? How do we deal with illegal fishing?" he asked. "We experienced years of over-fishing (and) also destroyed a lot of reef."

He then said answers to how those problems could be mitigated were being sought during the Ocean Conference that ends Friday.

Where Indonesia is located, there are 99,000 km of coastline and 1 million fishermen. "We are in a very strategic position," he said, adding that "we can be victims of debris from anywhere."

The Ocean Conference drew a total of 1,738 delegates to the week-long convention at the UN Headquarters in New York, said the meeting's spokesman Damian Cardona Onses.

Among the delegates were eight heads of state from Bolivia, Gabon, Ghana, Micronesia, Monaco, Nauru, Palau and Zimbabwe, a vice president from the Seychelles, and seven prime ministers from the Cook islands, Fiji, Grenada, St. Lucia, Samoa, Sri Lanka and Tuvalu, he said.

Sweden's Crown Prince Carl Philip and Prince Albert II of Monaco, two deputy prime ministers and 85 ministers, including 15 foreign ministers, also attended.

The lists of states represented at the highest levels demonstrated concerns of coastal or island nations on ocean problems.

The spokesman said voluntary commitments were made from 835 organizations, including 45 from governments, with the North Atlantic region providing the highest number of 201, followed by 183 in the South Pacific and 152 in the North Pacific.

"Iceland will map its ocean areas, establish harvest control rules for important fishing stocks and reduce marine litter and ocean acidification through its climate change mitigation plan," he said.

"Costa Rica underlined its intention to protect 100 percent of marine and coastal areas, integrate marine and coastal management, regulate fisheries and protect turtles," said Cardona.

"Indonesia has called for the creation of a UN office for coordination and coherence of the marine environment," Cardona said, adding: "Prince Albert II of Monaco outlined his country's measures including a ban on single use plastics."

Later, the prince announced the establishment of a three-year campaign of around-the-world scientific explorations at sea. An exploration vessel, Yersin, will depart from Port Hercules in Monaco in July and return in the summer of 2020 after visiting some nine areas to conduct scientific research in remote sea locations.

Such scientific research is sorely needed, said Irina Bokova, director-general of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

"The ocean is transboundary by itself and we need international cooperation in order to make more research and mobilize the government and partners," she told a panel.

"Not a single scientist or institution or a university scientific center can invest so much in order to bring the right solutions and also the study of the ocean is interdisciplinary," she said.

"We have to mobilize all the necessary sciences in order to study the ocean," she added.

"A very small percentage of the ocean has been studied," Bokova said. "The sea floor hasn't been studied, only 5 percent, and we know that there might be 1 million species that haven't been discovered as yet."

"I think it is quite obvious that we need more and better scientifically-based action," she said, adding that "that is why we want to mobilize governments. We want to have a United Nations international decade about ocean science."

Sitting alongside her on the same panel was Erik Solheim, executive director of the UN Environment Program, who put an emphasis on action.

"There are two main issues," he said. "It is a health problem, through micro-plastics, and also a huge economic issue, plastic."

"It is a huge economic issue for Asia," Solheim said. "How many people would really want to go to Bali or the Caribbean or to Fiji if all the beaches are full of plastic? In national parks it is also a problem."

"You can also go down to your beaches and start taking up the plastics," he said, advocating for more action. 

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