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Water Runs Through Rio+20

Zona Sul Rio de Janeiro
Much of Rio's seductive Zona Sul (South Zone) is surrounded by water. Photo: Brian Clark Howard


 Freshwater species of the week will return next week.

Although it looks like world leaders are not going to adopt specific Sustainable Development Goals at Rio+20, the delegates from 190+ countries did spend a lot of time talking about water in Rio de Janeiro.

Before the United Nations conference this week, advocates had hoped international leaders would make firm commitments on clean water, especially when it comes to extending infrastructure and sanitation to the 1 billion or so people who still lack access.

While the Brazilian negotiation team was leading the effort to hammer out the road map document to present to the leaders at Rio+20, the UN special rapporteur for safe drinking water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, was urging member states to support those goals in as strong terms as possible.

Although water was already recognized as a human right by the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council (in 2010), there is still a long way to go, she argued.

de Albuquerque told the Inter Press Service that during the negotiations for Rio+20, a number of states lobbied to remove the words “right,” and to weaken commitments around water in other ways.

The final draft document did retain relatively strong language on water, although it does not present specific actionable targets or detail funding mechanisms. This has left many activists to deride it as so much hot air, although it’s also true that mission statements can help set an agenda.

Photo: Woman drinking bottled water at the beach
The human body is dependent on water. Photo: Mark A. Vargas, Flickr Creative Commons


Water Day at Rio+20

June 19, Tuesday, was Water Day at Riocentro, the suburban conference center that hosted the main part of Rio+20. Unfortunately, that was also a day of intense press conferences around the last-minute pre-negotiations, which many say sealed the fate of the official negotiations. So water issues didn’t get as much traction as they otherwise might have.

Still, the agency UN-Water released a statement for the day, noting, “Success of green economy depends on sustainable, integrated and resource-efficient management of water resources and on safe and sustainable provisioning of water supply and adequate sanitation services. This approach must be underpinned by timely measurement of economic performance in terms of indicators of social and environmental sustainability.”

UN-Water added, “Universal coverage of water supply and sanitation services must be a central development goal in the post-2015 period. UN-Water urges national governments to set realistic intermediate targets and goals.”

To get down to more specifics, several panels were held throughout the day, with speakers from water ministries around the world, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and others.

H.E. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia and Goodwill Ambassador for Water and Sanitation in Africa, chaired one of the panels.

In May, Sirleaf told the Summit for Sustainability in Africa, “How do we ensure that our watersheds, forests, fisheries and other ecosystems are protected from overuse and degradation because we need one more hospital or one more school? Development and conservation can go hand in hand, provided we develop a framework for action around a shared vision.”

It’s too early to say what the result of Rio+20 will be for the water space, but hopefully new connections were made between those with experience and those with problems. Member countries have said they are concerned about protecting freshwater, so that may be a solid first step.


Brian Clark Howard is on location at Rio+20. Follow updates here.

Howard is an Environment Writer and Editor at National Geographic News. He previously served as an editor for TheDailyGreen.com and E/The Environmental Magazine, and has written for TheAtlantic.com, FastCompany.com, PopularMechanics.com, Yahoo!, MSN, Miller-McCune and elsewhere. He is the co-author of six books, including Geothermal HVACGreen Lighting and Build Your Own Small Wind Power System.


  1. Ima Ryma
    June 23, 2012, 4:07 am

    The U.N. powers that be talk
    Of clean water shortage that tiz
    For a billion humans should shock
    Movers and shakers of world biz.
    But they have other games to play,
    So clean water gets watered down,
    With dryed up talk on Water Day,
    Lots of hot air in Rio town.
    Maybe if such powers that be
    Could drink no water till agreed,
    Clean water would be given free
    To all humans – not talk, but deed.

    Maybe powers that be in thirst
    Could do best instead of talk worst.