Stirring up ideas on water woes

An all-day discussion on water issues held here recently was a good example, in format and content, of the work of the Canadian Centre for Foreign Policy Development.

Some three dozen men and women from academia, aid organizations, and business, as well as government, gathered to consider water as a global "human security" issue. In other words: Will war break out over water, and if so, where?

The group concluded that, although the world water situation is dire, no shooting war was imminent. Tensions over water in various parts of the world could, however, afford Canadians an opportunity to be useful in conflict resolution.

Water is something that Canadians, with 20 percent of the world's freshwater resources, feel they know something about. Water is also typical of the "new" foreign-policy issues facing governments nowadays.

There's no shortage of international conferences on water, but there's "no place to put the hooks in" either, as Jim McCuaig of the Canadian International Development Association put it.

Ralph Daley, of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, said, "I still think the issue is, Who is doing what in concrete terms? Canada has unique experience. I think Canada could occupy a niche that hasn't been recognized - could offer concrete leadership."

There was no shortage of grim statistics. Some 20 percent of the world's population lacks safe drinking water; global water use is growing at twice the rate of population increase; half the world's population lacks adequate sanitation. But the group didn't buy the idea that water disputes, especially in the Middle East and Central Asia, were likely to trigger war. "We've got to be careful not to be distracted by a false problem," as one participant put it.

Moreover, they said, inexpensive, low-tech solutions exist for many water problems. Richard Denham, a water-issues consultant, suggested that Canada develop a cadre of skilled facilitators to parachute into trouble spots to mediate water disputes. "I think we should pick some pilot projects and get some successes."

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