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Asian meet looks to confront water crises


by Kyoko Hasegawa*


Asian nations came together yesterday for a first "water summit" to plan action amid warnings of a dire situation with water resources shrinking and natural disasters on the rise.

The 49-nation conference in Beppu, a southern Japanese town famed for natural hot springs, comes amid growing concern that climate change is aggravating water-related incidents in Asia and elsewhere.

Japan's Crown Prince Naruhito, known for his studies of water, said Asia was home to 60 percent of the world's people but had only 40 percent of its water resources.

"The situation in the Asia-Pacific region does not allow us to be optimistic," said Naruhito, who is honorary president of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's advisory board on water and sanitation.

"As of 2004, there were 700 million people who had no access to safe drinking water and 1.9 billion who were without basic sanitation" in Asia, he said.

"In this respect, our region is in the most serious situation in the world, especially in providing sanitation," he said.

Officials, including several heads of state, will hold two days of talks here on ways to step up cooperation on water-related issues that cross borders. The meeting was set up by last year's World Water Summit in Mexico City.

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda said Japan hoped to focus on the environment, as well as health and development issues, when it assumes the presidency of the Group of Eight industrial nations next year.

"The Asia-Pacific region, which is enjoying remarkable development and prosperity, is also facing various problems related to water," Fukuda said.

"We have to say the situation is very serious, considering that a majority of water-related problems are concentrated on the region," he said.

The water summit coincides with the opening of a key international conference in the Indonesian island of Bali which is tasked with charting out a new action plan to fight global warming.

Rising temperatures are a particular concern in Asia as they are believed to contribute to the growing frequency of floods and storms, said Shuichi Hirayama, an official at the Asia-Pacific Water Forum which organised the meeting here.

"Past conferences on water-related disasters used to focus on water shortages, but the situation is changing in recent years because of global warming," he said.

The Asia-Pacific Water Summit is designed to take place every two to three years to improve coordination among experts and officials handling water problems that stretch beyond borders, Hirayama said.

One area of attention at the conference was toilets, with experts here warning that the billions of people who defecate each day outside were ruining water meant for washing hands and dishes, and for drinking.

Kouo Ue, an engineer at the Japan Toilet Association who took part in a recent world toilet summit in New Delhi, called for efforts to dig simple toilets.

"You can save the lives of many people by just digging a hole in the ground, to be used for a toilet," Ue said.

Other problems to be addressed here include the rise of sea levels — a life-or-death issue for small-island countries — and the shrinking of Himalayan glaciers, which are a key water source for South and Central Asia.