The theme of this year’s annual gathering is sanitation and hygiene issues.
Almost half of the world’s population lacks proper toilet facilities, a situation that can have dire consequences on public health and which poses a challenge to resolve since water is becoming an increasingly scarce resource.
Climate change, soaring population numbers and the rapid economic development of Asia and Africa have all put a strain on the world’s water supply.
Twenty percent of the planet’s population in 30 countries face water shortages, a figure that is expected to hit 30 percent by 2025, according to the United Nations which has declared 2008 the International Year of Sanitation.
The meeting, which opens on Monday and is entitled “Progress and Prospects on Water: For a Clean and Healthy World,” will focus in particular on the dangers that the lack of adequate toilets and hygiene facilities presents to 2.6 billion people.
“It’s not very popular to talk about toilets and excrement and where to go when you are menstruating. This is something that makes people feel uncomfortable,” Stephanie Blenckner, spokeswoman for the Stockholm International Water Institute that is organising the event, told AFP.
“Five thousand children die every day of diarrhoea because of a lack of hygiene and sanitation and nobody really cares,” Blenckner said, stressing that educating decision-makers about these issues was a priority.
Among those attending the various workshops, seminars and plenary sessions will be scientific experts as well as representatives of major corporations, non-governmental organisations and government.
Another theme to be discussed will be the impact that mankind’s activities are having on the environment.
“We have to understand that what we eat and the products we buy have an immediate implication for the availability of the world’s water resources,” Blenckner said.
And the planet’s natural resources are expected to come under increasing pressure as efforts to combat poverty result in rising demand for goods, food and services, which also puts a strain on waste management.
As a result, talks will focus on how sanitation, water supply, ecosystem management and economic development can all be coordinated.
On Tuesday, delegates will devote their discussions to Asia, which represents 60 percent of the world’s population and whose rapid economic development is having enormous consequences on water resources.
The amount of water available per person in Asia today represents about 15 to 30 percent of what was available in the 1950s.
Blenckner pointed out that even Europe was not spared water problems, noting that “surprisingly … 20 million Europeans need access to safe and affordable sanitation.”
Concrete solutions will be discussed during the week, as well as how human behaviour can be changed to improve the situation.
“Now we’ve stopped discussing whether or not there has been climate change, or where or who has been contributing to it,” Blenckner said.
“Now it’s all about: it’s there and we have to live with it and the question is, okay what to do? How to adapt,” she said.
World Water Week, first organised in 1991, has over the years become one of the most important rendezvous for water issues. It will be officially opened on Monday by British Professor Anthony John Allan, the winner of the 2008 Stockholm Water Prize.