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A better place

This is my last editorial for the OECD Observer before I step down as secretary-general in May 2006. Nevertheless, I will focus on the future, rather than dwell on the past. That is not to say that we should ignore John Maynard Keynes’ advice that we should examine the present, in light of the past, for the purposes of the future. But sometimes the present and the future cannot draw many useful lessons from the past.

This is certainly true of the unprecedented global environmental challenge we face today. I say unprecedented because although there have been periods of global warming in the past as evidenced by ice core analysis from Antarctica, never has the intervention of homo sapiens been a contributory factor. Today, there is hardly a scientist in the field of climatology who does not consider the rapid rise of carbon dioxide emissions since the beginning of the Industrial Age over two centuries ago as a major cause of the steady rise of CO2 in the atmosphere, which now appears to have reached above 380 parts per million (ppm) and continues to climb.

Many think we are approaching a threshold, perhaps around 550ppm, when global warming will become irreversible, causing seas to rise from the flow of melting glaciers and thermal expansion, causing coastal areas to erode, flood and become uninhabitable for millions of the world’s people, with the poorest regions of the world being particularly vulnerable.

Some crops will flourish, though others will wither away. Tropical diseases will migrate to once temperate climates. People too will be forcibly displaced, to access water or escape rising seas. Weather patterns will become even more erratic than today, and few will be spared from hurricanes, tornadoes, ice storms, monsoon-style rainfalls and droughts. We may already be too late to prevent some of this from happening, but we can take measures to slow the process and give ourselves greater time to adapt.

In March, Mexico hosts the 4th World Water Conference. I attended the last one in Kyoto in 2003. There is, perhaps, no issue more important than that being addressed at this event. After all, we can exist without oil; we cannot exist without water.

There are many questions to be addressed. Freshwater distribution over the planet is very uneven. As shortages become more acute, are we likely to see migration to oases? Will countries such as Canada come under pressure to share their abundant natural wealth? Will technologies bring forth solutions, such as cheaper desalination techniques? Will we be attracted to less water-intensive crops? How can genetically modified plants help?

In the OECD area, investment concerns are creeping up the water agenda, in part because of some rather old and creaking infrastructures, and greater attention is turning to encouraging more efficient use, particularly in farming. But in general, those of us who live in water-rich areas tend to focus on health issues. Can we drink the water? Must the distribution system be upgraded to make our water safe tomorrow? Is quality being carefully monitored for nitrates, toxins and pathogens?

Much of the world does not have the luxury of worrying too much about the quality of its water, but rather its very availability! And it appears that this worry will increase because of climate change.

Recently in China I had the pleasure of meeting a senior member of Greenpeace. He described to me the potential challenges of the infamous Yellow River. Apparently it is nourished by rapidly receding glaciers. If trends continue, these glaciers will soon be gone. And if they disappear, so too will the Yellow River as we know it. What then? Will all the world’s rivers fed by glaciers go the same route? This portends catastrophic social upheaval.

Will there be mounting pressure to divert water flowing into the seas to other purposes? Enormous quantities of fresh water flow daily into the Arctic Ocean from Russia and Canada. Should they instead be diverted to the south? If not, why not?

There are many challenges lying ahead which we have not yet begun to address, perhaps because we are not yet ready to accept the horrendous consequences of global warming. My generation enjoys in most ways the same world we knew as children: one of unspoiled natural beauty; of diverse animal and plant life; of new virgin frontiers to explore above and beneath the seas. All this may now be in jeopardy.

And time is not on our side. By that, I mean you, the next generation. Take hold of these challenges and bring the only inhabitable planet we know to a better place.

©OECD Observer No 254, March 2006

More:

www.oecd.org/water