Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page

Part II - Background and Framework Documents

Sustainable Development & Resource Management: Twin Strategies for a New Millennium

Sustainable Development & Resource Management: Twin Strategies for a New Millennium

Stephen S. Light, Ph.D. and Marsha Kirchhoff1

1 Stephen S. Light, Ph.D., Policy Director; and Marsha Kirchhoff, Senior Public Communications Officer, South Florida Water Management District, West Palm Beach, Florida, USA.

In February of this year Frank Popoff, CEO and President of The Dow Chemical Company, speaking before the Economic Club of Detroit, said that the overarching challenge to the industrialized nations is to make environmental reform and economic development compatible (Popoff, 1993). The underlying theme of the Rio Earth Summit - sustainable development - was based on the recognition that there can be no environmental reform without economic development, and no economic development without environmental reform. Popoff referred to this tandem symbiotic relationship as the “...New Gemini - twin issues, interrelated and inseparable in policy and in fact - for all of us.”

This world view is a radical departure from the traditional “business” stance of the 1970s and 1980s - which completely separated environmental issues from the larger production processes of society. Defenders of that status quo dismiss the New Gemini as “magic” - eco-rhetoric - an unrealistic world view that is inflating government and forcing business to spend billions of dollars on unnecessary environmental costs (CE Roundtable, 1992). Fortunately, conventional wisdom has moved beyond that shortsighted view of the world, to a fundamentally new way of thinking, not just about the results of human activity, but also about our individual and collective relationships to nature, and to one another.

In many ways, civilization is in the midst of a metamorphosis - changing in spite of itself from a collection of discrete, often isolated cultures to a shifting amalgam of communities which are interlinked on a myriad of levels: by economics; and the elements of the “global commons,” the air, land and water resources upon which all life is dependent. This metamorphosis into a post-Cold War, post modern era is in many ways driven by a new kind of enlightened self interest which recognizes that all peoples' fates are intertwined.

Yet this new era is still in its infancy - struggling to emerge from a cocoon made rigid by the tendency of humanity to resist change and avoid unfamiliar, untried paths. Today, we all live in a world in transition, a world that is disordered and unpredictable, where distinctions between foreign and domestic threats or opportunities are shadowy, or ill defined. The end of the “Cold War” has been the most visible, and therefore the most recognized symptom of this change. But more subtle, and perhaps more powerful changes in the global “balance of power” are also occurring.

We face a new class of problems that require different solutions than the military and economic threats we faced in the post-WWII era. In fact, many of the solutions we developed during the Cold War to achieve a shifting, yet stable “balance of power” (weapon arsenals, large militaries, war-based economies) now stand in the way of global security, where power must be drawn as much from sharing finite resources, and sharing the responsibility for their protection.

National interests now span the globe, often ignoring political, geographic and cultural borders which once strictly defined them. Centuries of local and regional exploitation of resources have created worldwide problems. Excessive greenhouse gases are thinning the earth's protective ozone shield, fueling changes which could be disastrous. Rampant human development has changed the face of our planet. Unique habitats and ecosystems worldwide have been altered or destroyed, bringing accelerating rates of species extinction and the loss of biodiversity. Even renewable resources such as freshwater and forests have been harvested at reckless rates which could negate their ability to recover. The causes of these environmental problems are complex and multifaceted, and their manifestations are both local and half-a-world away. The environment has become our global commons, and its preservation and restoration a global responsibility.

In 1919, at the Versailles Peace Conference, President Woodrow Wilson foresaw this need for a shift in humanity's relationship to the world - to what Popoff called the “Gemini” era. Wilson still reminds us that we are participants in the life of the world. What befalls other nations is our concern as well. We are inevitably all partners - our fates are intertwined - in a global destiny.

Now, it seems obvious that sustainable development will be a central feature of international affairs in the 21st century. The end of the 20th century presents us with an unparalleled opportunity to launch the Gemini era, to internalize the lesson that human development does not and cannot occur apart from nature, that there is a subtle but critical balance between short-term individual human needs and the long-term needs which will shape our common future.

The Global Importance of Wise Water Management

Today's new, world class environmental threats are introducing even more uncertainty into an already uncertain realm of water resource management. Joyce Staff, chairman of the Global Water Summit Initiative for the United Nations, predicted that water will soon become as politically charged as oil has been, and become one of the most important foreign policy issues of the coming decade. This is already true in pans of the Middle East.

Water is wealth which can no longer be taken for granted. It is a strategic resource and a catalyst for generating additional wealth in any society. Water in sufficient quantity and quality is a fundamental building block of any healthy economy. Water repays for its wise management over and over again in the sheer variety and value of other products and services it enhances or makes possible. Water helps to stock and maintain the world's fish and wildlife, supporting natural systems and the human enterprises most directly dependent on functioning natural systems. It provides opportunities for recreation and tourism, and is at the very backbone of the propagation of crops and the production of most goods. Potable drinking water is one of life's most basic necessities.

In the western hemisphere, we are blessed with 42% of the world's freshwater supplies, yet only 14% of the world's population. Even with this abundance, there are huge disparities between demand and supply. For example, according to a recent National Audubon Society report (Nelson and Sandell, 1992), per capita water availability in Mexico is half that of the United States. The Mississippi River carries more water than all of Mexico's rivers combined. Close to 15% of worldwide rainfall is deposited within the Amazon, while in Iquique, a Chilean desert, no rain fell for 14 years! Similar disparities exist at smaller scales throughout this water-rich hemisphere.

Freshwater is a precious resource which is becoming increasingly scarce as a direct result of pollution and/or wasteful use. Only 3% of the Earth's water supply is freshwater, and 90% of the world's population rely on that limited supply. (Approximately 10% of the world's population relies on desalination or other costly water treatment technologies.) Already, 20% of the world's population has minimal or no access to adequate and/or safe water supplies.

The world's population is expected to double - from 5 to 10 billion - in the next 25 years. But the supply of water will remain constant, or will continue to decrease through degradation and mismanagement. In addition to the soaring food and housing needs represented by human population growth, and increased demands on water resources from burgeoning industrial development, unenlightened water management practices and inefficient uses add to the stress on available water supplies.

Our wanton exploitation of local, regional and global water resources is having another devastating side effect. Critical sources of biodiversity such as wetlands and rainforests - which also store, purify and mediate excess flows - are being lost at staggering rates. The time is now for the emergence of cross-scale strategies for dealing with these local problems which are also becoming global resource issues.

From Stockholm to Rio: A New World Vision Unfolds

To paraphrase Gus Speth (1992), recently appointed Administrator of United Nations Development Programme, the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse in our lifetime are: nuclear arsenals; widespread suppression of human rights; global poverty; and the unrelenting assault on the environment. The first two appear to be in retreat in most pans of the world (though individual examples are still all too common), while the latter two loom larger than ever. In recognition of these issues the United Nations (June 1972) held a conference in Stockholm, Sweden on the Human Environment. The initial intent was to focus on “local” environmental problems. The 1972 agenda was reportedly heavily influenced by modern intellects like Paul Ehrlich and Garrett Hardin (Hecht and Cockburn, 1992) - who blame increased population for environmental degradation and the destruction of commonly shared resources. While the developed countries still held to the hope for a “Green” technological revolution, the message from the developing world was quite clear and beautifully articulated by Indira Gandhi - “Poverty is the ultimate polluter.”

The Stockholm conference acknowledged states' sovereignty over national resources - but married that sovereignty to the belief that states also have a responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other states, or of other areas (Haas, et. al, 1992). The United Nations Environmental Program was established, and conventions on marine pollution, and world cultural and natural heritage sites were signed. As a final testament to its success, over two-thirds of the international environmental treaties in existence today have been signed since the Stockholm conference (French, 1992).

In the 20 years since this first UN environmental conference, the framework for a global environmental and developmental ethic has become more sensitive to local cultures and ecosystems, and to indigenous knowledge. The Brundtland Commission report in 1987 (Our Common Future) sharpened the vision by placing more emphasis on issues of equity and the critical need to eliminate the artificial separation of environment issues from economic production (Strong, 1992). Authors of “Our Own Agenda” and “Compact for a New World” helped raise awareness of the problems of sustainable development that relate directly to the Americas.

The Rio Conference

In 1989, the United Nations agreed to host a Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (June, 1992) to: (1) celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Conference on Human Environment; (2) extend the international dialogues on the continuing deterioration of the worldwide environment and (3) encourage sustainable development in countries on the verge of repeating the mistakes of developed countries. According to Maurice Strong (1992), the Secretary General for the conference, UNCED's purpose was to elaborate strategies and measures to halt and reverse the effects of environmental degradation in the context of environmentally sound development in all countries, to raise standards of living worldwide without harming world resources.

This conference, more than any of the past, recognized that environment and development were really “two sides of the same coin” - a dual, yet symbiotic entity - which should not be treated separately. In actuality, the use of the term “conference” in this instance was misleading. The Earth Summit, as it has become known, was in reality an international negotiating process, spanning the globe with two years of intense formal and informal discussions involving representatives from non-government organizations (NGOs) as well as government officials.

The Rio Earth Summit reportedly attracted 130 heads of state and delegates from over 170 nations. Thousands of journalists attended. In addition to the formal meetings, an Alternative Global Forum was held in downtown Rio. It is estimated that thousands of representatives of NGO groups participated in this dialogue - from 165 different countries. Overall, as many as 250,000 people participated in the meetings, performances and exhibits.

In line with this more holistic approach to the twin concerns of environment and economy, the Earth Summit also embraced the segment of society most associated with cooperation, caretaking and nurturing - women. Although only two dozen women took the podium during several hundred speeches at the Summit, thousands of women worked at the Women's Planet tent at the Global Forum. A full chapter of the Conference recommendations (Agenda 21) focuses on women's economic and social needs. In addition, one of the 27 principles in the Rio Declaration pledges commitment to women's participation in all environment and development work (Esserman, 1992).

The Rio Earth Summit, the largest assembly of world leaders ever held, resulted in three non-binding agreements: the Rio declaration in environment and development; Agenda 21; a statement of forest principles as well as two binding agreements on global warming and biodiversity. Maurice Strong, the UNCED General Secretary, summarized the Conference by focusing on new beginnings and not conclusions - “The Earth Summit is the first step on a pathway to our common future” - a pathway that puts development and environmental objectives on a par with international political and security commitments (Haas, et al., 1992).

Agenda 21

Agenda 21 is a blueprint for a global partnership to integrate environment and development into the 21st Century. It is a key product of the Earth Summit and a point of reference for governments, NGOs and the public at large. It is also a remarkable expression by the world's leaders calling for fundamental reform in our economic behavior - based on a new understanding and awareness of the impact of human activity on the biosphere. Agenda 21 is a mandate for global environmental security, with security defined as the maintenance and support of economic and environmental values. The document is a 600-page non-binding agreement that covers a broad range of conservation and natural resource topics including combating deforestation, promoting sustainable agriculture and rural development, the conservation of biodiversity, managing fragile ecosystems and the protection of freshwater systems.

Of special interest to the Interamerican Dialogue on Water Management, Chapter 18, entitled the Protection of the Quality and Supply of Freshwater Resources, sets forth objectives, activities and means of implementation in seven distinct program areas:

· Integrated Water Resources Development and Management
· Water Resources Assessment
· Protection of Water Resources, Water Quality and Aquatic Ecosystems
· Drinking. Water Supply and Sanitation
· Water and Sustainable Urban Development
· Water for Sustainable Food Production and Rural Development
· Impacts of Climate Change on Water Resources
Implementing Agenda 21

“The challenge after Rio is to maintain the momentum of commitment to sustainable development to transform it into policies and practice and to give it effective and coordinated organizational support.” (U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali) What has happened since Rio? At the United Nations, the General Assembly established a Commission on Sustainable Development to oversee Agenda 21 implementation; to monitor its follow up; and to ensure that UN programs share this common commitment to sustainable development. Some view this Commission as a transitional organization that will eventually be succeeded by an “Environmental Security Council” (French, 1992).

Other institutions that were inspired by or embrace this philosophy include the Business Council For Sustainable Development, Geneva, Switzerland; the Earth Council, San Jose, Costa Rica; and the International Institute For Sustainable Development, Manitoba, Canada.

Individual states are being encouraged to establish national coordination structures responsible for the follow-up to Agenda 21; and are also being invited to prepare national action plans and reporting mechanisms. Recently United States President Clinton established a President's Council on Sustainable Development. Its mission is to develop an overall strategy for implementing Agenda 21 in the United States (Barron, 1993).

The need for regional and subregional cooperation was highlighted at the Conference. Specifically, organizations that advance technical and economic cooperation were seen as contributing to the process by promoting capacity building, the integration of environmental policies and cooperation on transboundary issues at the regional level.

Finally, NGOs were recognized as partners in the implementation of Agenda 21. Organizations representing scientific and technical communities, the private/business sector, women's groups, and others were encouraged to contribute to sustainable development and to establish relationships with the United Nations system. Less formal alliances, which reach beyond outdated social structures, politics, ideologies or economics are likely to be as important as the more traditional alliances in fulfilling a vision of global prosperity and ecological well-being.

Moving Beyond the Earth Summit

The international networks which embody the “new organization” are sometimes described as being without boundaries. But this characterization can be misleading. A true international network functions more like nature's untamed rivers than like human-engineered waterways; forming natural and constantly evolving borders that follow the elemental contours of “problemsheds.” The networks or groups' shape should change as problems change, because problemsheds - like rivers, lakes and deltas - neither see nor are they moved by political boundaries. To succeed or problem-solve like a river, we must let go of our isolated, human-centered view of the world. Our Native American leaders prescribed this kind of functional vision by maintaining a healthy respect for and interdependent relationship with the world.

From a water management perspective, the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, under the United Nations' aegis, helped advance the labor of many water related activities before it, particularly the action plans adopted at the Mar del Plata (1977) and the Dublin (1992) conferences. The 1992 Earth Summit challenged the peoples of the world to recognize this defining moment.

We can choose to perpetuate business as usual and ignore the growing disparities within and between nations, the worsening of poverty, hunger and the deterioration of the ecosystems on which we depend. Or we can decide to change course, to assume personal and collective responsibility for the welfare of all mankind and our natural systems.

No nation or international institution can achieve this alone. No set of edicts, treaties, and laws - no matter how well written or well-meaning - can blaze the trail toward global ecologic and economic equity. This path is one that must be marked and cut out in small parcels, beginning at the grassroots and continuing in the interactions between scientists, citizens and politicians. These are solutions that need to be constructed from the ground up, by people who are familiar with the view. That's a large part of the reason why we are gathered here: to start the needed groundswell, and to establish a support system for individuals, agencies or work groups, regions or nations - for the people who are a part of the Interamerican Dialogue on Water Management.

Building an International Water Resource Network

To implement the UNCED Agenda 21 principles, the conferees of the Interamerican Dialogue on Water Management have assembled to help fashion an international network. This network can provide the support, energy, and cross-scale collaboration needed to build bridges between existing institutions and emerging transnational organizations; to link action at local and regional levels with other efforts and resources at larger geographic scales; and advance the cause of sustainable development and integrated water resource management.

The major objectives of the Interamerican Water Resources Network must be defined. The following is an initial offering for the conferees of the Interamerican Dialogue on Water Management to consider.

· Clarify water-resource needs and priorities at the hemispheric level.

· Build collaborative partnerships to solve problems that are technically complex and uncertain. Enable people to pool existing resources and mobilize new untapped resources in creative and efficient ways.

· Build shared understandings around basic values when dealing with divisive issues that transcend national and ideological boundaries, so that we may learn from each other's successes, trials and tribulations.

· Seek ways for institutions to create structures/processes which give individuals and identifiable groups a stake decision-making - more influence, responsibility and greater accountability over policy making. Help institutions and governments to actively involve their constituencies?

· Increase hemispheric access to skills, knowledge and strategies for water management problem solving. Support the development of new organizational forms that build new cooperative attitudes and capacities for the sustainable development of water resources.

· Begin to build cross-cultural bonds and a sense of trust and respect for diversity, especially where misunderstandings or apprehensions already exist.

· Enhance awareness of the history and vital role of water in sustaining natural and social systems in the hemisphere.

· Encourage cross-cultural appreciation and respect for diversity in language, culture and other sociologic variations - to advance the hemisphere's capacity to manage water in sustainable ways.

Goals, Objectives and Key Questions for the Dialogue

The goal of the Interamerican Dialogue on Water Management is to launch a continuing network that couples existing resources in the hemisphere for sustained information sharing, project review, technology cooperation, as well as internship and training. There are two major Dialogue objectives. One is to increase the awareness and understanding of the importance of sustainable development and the management of water resources. The second is to find ways in which water management policy makers, practitioners and NGOs can develop and enhance communication and cooperation leading toward the sustainable development and management of water resources.

Key Questions

The following questions will be the focus for participant discussions, case study presentations, panels, papers and keynote presentations. By the conclusion of the Dialogue on Saturday, the conferees will provide answers to the following questions.

1. What are the most important problems and priorities that need to be addressed to move toward sustainable development and improved management of water resources? (WHAT SHOULD WE BE DOING, AND WHY?)

2. What has experience taught us about the problems and obstacles, and the opportunities and successes in sustainable development and management of water resources? (WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED?)

3. What can water management policy makers, practitioners (businesses, engineers, scientists and other professionals), NGOs and others do to improve communication and cooperation in their quest for sustainable development and more effective management of water resources? (HOW CAN WE HELP ONE ANOTHER?)


An Interview with Gro Harlem Brundtland. “The Road from Rio.” Technology Review, April 1993, pp. 61-65.

Barron, Tom. “EHS Manager Heads New Clinton E-Panel.” Environment Today, July 11, 1993, p. 80.

CE Roundtable. “Business and the Green Theology.” September 1992, pp. 62-74.

Esserman, Lauren. “Earth Summit: Women Break Into the Process.” Ms., September/October 1992, pp. 14.

French, Hilary F. “From Discord to Accord: International Environmental Governance and the New World Order.” National Forum, Fall 1992, pp. 37-39.

Haas, Peter M., Marc A. Levy and Edward A. Parson. “Appraising the Earth Summit: How Should We Judge UNCED's Success?” Environment, Vol. 34, No. 8, pp. 7-33.

Hecht, Susanna and Alexander Cockburn. “Rhetoric and Reality in Rio.” The Nation, June 22, 1992, pp. 848-853.

Kirschner, Elisabeth, Ronald Begley with Rik Turner. “Beyond the Earth Summit: Industry Says It Can Guide the Way.” Chemical Week, June 24, 1992, pp. 18-19.

Light, Stephen S. “Extraordinary Times, Uncommon Opportunities: The Need for an Interamerican Network on Water Management.” Prepared for the Interamerican Dialogue in Miami, Florida on October 27-30, 1993, pp. 6.

Martin-Brown, Joan. “Rethinking Technology In the Future.” Environment Science Technology, Vol. 26. No 6, 1992, pp. 1100-1102.

Michaelis, Dr. Anthony R., ed. “The Earth Summit - Environment and Development, Hopes and Fears.” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 1992, Vol. 17, No. 2, pp. 97-99.

Nelson, Kisanne and Cathie Sandell. Population and Water Resources, The National Audubon Society, 1992, pp. 65.

Popoff, Frank. “The New Gemini: The Economy and the Environment.” Executive Speeches, February-March 1993, pp. 26-28.

Sachs, Ignacy. “Transition Strategies for the 21st Century.”

Scheer, Hermann. “Will It Do More Harm Than Good?” The Nation, April 20, 1992, pp. 522-524.

Speth, James Gustave. “On the Road to Rio and to Sustainability.” Environment Science Technology, Vol. 26, No. 6, 1992, pp. 1075-1076.

Strong, Maurice F. “Environment and Development: The United Nations Road from Stockholm to Rio.” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 1992, Vol. 17, No. 2, pp. 112-115.

Thacher, Peter S. “Evaluating the 1992 Earth Summit - An Institutional Perspective.” Security Dialogue, 1992, Vol. 23, No. 3, pp. 117-126.

“The Global Partnership for Environment and Development: A Guide to Agenda 21.” UNCED, Geneva, April 1992.

Worcman, Nira Broner. “Local Groups Think Globally.” Technology Review, October 1992, pp. 36-40.

Previous Page Top of Page Next Page