(August 2002) PRB recently spoke with Karin Krchnak, program manager for the Population and Environment Program with the National Wildlife Federation about water in the context of the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD).

As an environmental lawyer, Ms. Krchnak has worked to improve policies and procedures related to environmental management and resource conservation worldwide. Most recently, she has worked with government officials, industry representatives, academics, nongovernmental organizations, and the public to reach a consensus on creating policies that will best manage health, resources, and environmental problems facing the former Soviet Union. In addition, she has worked as an environmental attorney for Science Applications International Corporation and the Environmental Law Institute and as an editor for the East Asian Legal Studies Program at the University of Maryland School of Law. Ms. Krchnak has also served as adjunct faculty at the University of Maryland School of Law as well as at universities and law faculties overseas. She is co-chair of the UN’s NGO Freshwater Caucus.

PRB: Why is freshwater such a priority?

Krchnak: There is such a crisis with regard to the lack of access to safe water and sanitation, just in terms of sheer numbers, and a lack of willingness by the WSSD to address the population growth factor. The Summit’s focus is on current numbers, rather than addressing the fact that these numbers will continue to grow in upcoming decades, due to population growth alone.

Water is also important because it is a bridge between several different sectors: forestry, industry, women’s rights, health… It touches everything. But water is finite. We can create other sources of energy. We don’t need oil to survive, but we do need freshwater to survive. Looking into the 21st century, water has to be a priority.

PRB: Why has water emerged as such a ‘hot topic’ within the context of the WSSD?

Krchnak: This is primarily because of sanitation issues, because sanitation is not a Millennium Development goal, though halving the number of people without access to safe water is. The U.S. government is to support the Millennium Development Goals but not anything beyond them.

PRB: How and why has water made its way onto the official WSSD agenda?

Krchnak: The May speech by Kofi Annan [UN Secretary-General] where he emphasized water as a priority issue has helped to push water into the forefront. The presence of private water interests at the PrepComs leading up to the Summit has also helped.

At PrepComs 2 and 3, the Freshwater Caucus came up with a set of action points and recommended language for insertion into the text that is to be negotiated and agreed upon at the WSSD. The Caucus also lobbied governments from all over the world to include this language. Though much of the text was accepted after PrepCom 3, a lot of it had been cut out by PrepCom 4. So we lobbied targeted governments again for this language to be reinserted into the text at PrepCom 4 and also came out with a statement with language to be inserted in the political declaration for the Summit. This lobbying process is actually still going on.

PRB: How did you choose which countries to lobby to sponsor and include the Freshwater Caucus’ language in the text for the Summit?

Krchnak: We chose governments based on the prevalence of water issues in their country and/or their position in the United Nations system — for example, if they were in a certain working group or held a chairmanship that is important to the issue.

PRB: What is being done to address the issue of freshwater scarcity?

Krchnak: Not enough. The current text that is going to the Summit in Johannesburg doesn’t take us any further than Agenda 21, which is what resulted from the Earth Summit in Rio, 10 years ago. In fact, the current language is actually weaker than Agenda 21. The chapter that dealt with freshwater in Agenda 21 was pretty comprehensive. Unfortunately, the current language lacks concrete steps and financial commitments — these were at least addressed to some extent in the original Agenda 21 text. There are no measurable steps currently outlined. Here we are, 10 years later and this text is certainly not 10 steps forward.

PRB: What are the Freshwater Caucus’ priority items for action?

Krchnak: There are several priorities right now: to continue lobbying governments for a conclusion on both the poverty and natural resources sections of the text that will be agreed upon in Johannesburg (there is some disputed language on water in both sections right now); to continue lobbying governments on the political declaration language; and to monitor and strategize the discussion and development of water partnerships.

The Freshwater Caucus functions on a consensus basis, so we’ll continue with daily meetings at the Summit. There, we’ll be dealing with sanitation as the most contentious issue. We’ll still be pushing for timetables and commitments on water. However, the thought now is that there might not be any new language accepted at the Summit itself. Instead, the focus will be on resolving disputed language that is already in the text.

After the Summit, the Freshwater Caucus will continue to work on water issues, as the Third World Water Forum will be in Japan, in March of 2003. And next year is the UN’s International Year of Fresh Water.

PRB: What do you hope to be the outcome of the WSSD?

Krchnak: Ultimately, we would love for world leaders to come up with at least a commitment to address water issues: safe drinking water, sanitation, and healthy freshwater ecosystems, which are not being addressed right now beyond a very minimal level. We would like for our leaders to at least affirm that they will follow through with some plan of action on all three aspects of freshwater: targets, timetables, and financial commitments.

I’d also like to see a commitment made to making sustainable development a household term. This depends on a government commitment. Right now, for example, the U.S. government doesn’t have a sustainable development strategy.

Speaking for the National Wildlife Federation, we would like for the U.S. to work with everyone else in the world rather than the current approach, which is tending towards isolationism, and show some leadership on the issue — development assistance, for example. For example, there is no guarantee that the money in the Millennium Challenge Account will be distributed for sustainable development. The three criteria are simply that a country has to rule justly, invest in people, and have economic freedom. If we want to build security worldwide, sustainable development is key. Our administration could go a lot more towards a secure world by addressing education, poverty alleviation, health, and security within the context of sustainable development.

For More Information

Millennium Development Goals: www.developmentgoals.org/

Millennium Challenge Account Update: www.usaid.gov/press/