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MEA Bulletin - Guest Article No. 105 - Thursday, 2 December 2010
Making Progress in Water and Health Related Issues Across the Pan-European Region
By Sonja Koeppel and Tomasz Juszczak, UNECE/WHO-EURO Joint Secretariat of the Protocol on Water and Health
The second session of the Meeting of the Parties to the UNECE/ WHO-EURO Protocol on Water and Health took place on 23 -25 November 2010, in Bucharest, five years after the entry into force of this innovative instrument. The Meeting was held at the invitation of the Government of Romania and co-chaired by Norway and Romania. Delegates representing 33 countries, several UN, intergovernmental and non governmental organizations gathered in Bucharest to assess progress achieved and agree on actions to tackle future challenges in the field of water and health.

At present, nearly 140 million people – 16 percent of Europe’s population – still live in homes that are not connected to a drinking-water supply and about 85 million people do not have access to adequate sanitation. According to the best estimates of the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 13,000 children under the age of 14 die every year from water-related diarrhoea, mostly in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Thus, contrary to common perceptions, access to safe drinking water and to improved sanitation remains a challenge in several countries of the UNECE region, with some of them actually regressing instead of progressing towards the Millennium Development Goals. Mortality and morbidity related to unsafe water and inadequate sanitation remain unacceptably high; and water resources are often used in an inefficient manner. Also, in the Western part of the region where access to water and sanitation are of lesser concern, a range of pollutants, including nutrients, metals, pesticides, microbes, industrial chemicals and pharmaceutical products, have adverse effects on freshwater ecosystems or raise concerns for public health.

The UNECE/ WHO-EURO Protocol on Water and Health is the first international legal agreement adopted specifically to protect human health through the prevention, control and reduction of water-related disease, the improvement of water management and the protection of ecosystems. It aims to attain access to safe drinking water and provision of sanitation for everyone. Implementation of the Protocol requires an integrated approach and the alignment of policies and strategies in different sectors: from health protection to environmental management, to regional development, investment, infrastructures, education, etc

Target Setting and Evaluation of Progress and Reporting
The Bucharest meeting adopted the Guidelines on the Setting of Targets Evaluation of Progress and Reporting, a document elaborated to facilitate the implementation of the Protocol. The Guidelines illustrate the steps that need to be taken when setting targets, implementing relevant measures and reporting on the progress achieved with respect to protecting human health and well-being and the sustainable management of water resources, in accordance with articles 6 and 7 of the Protocol.

Articles 6 and 7 are among the most important and at the same time most challenging obligations under the Protocol, requiring Parties to set target and target dates in areas covering the entire water cycle. In spring 2010, Parties reported for the first time on their targets set as well as planned measures to achieve them. At the Meeting, Parties reviewed the results of the first reporting exercise under the Protocol. The reporting exercise illustrated the Protocol’s positive impact on water and health issues in the region, but also pinpointed gaps and common challenges in these fields, to be addressed in the future.

Preventing and Addressing Water-Related Diseases
There are more than 170,000 cases of water-related disease in the Pan-European region every year. In order to reduce this much too high number, countries should establish surveillance and early-warning systems, as well as contingency and outbreak response plans. To support Parties in these efforts, a Policy and a Technical Guidance on water-related disease surveillance have been adopted at the meeting.

Adapting Water Supply and Sanitation to Extreme Weather Events
Extreme weather events and disasters such as floods and droughts represent an additional challenge to the sustainable management of water resources and the provision of safe water and adequate sanitation. Climate change amplifies the vulnerability of these services, especially in terms of performance quality, protection against microbial and chemical contamination, adaptation of new technological developments, and uninterrupted protection of human health. Parties recognized these challenges already in 2007 and developed a Guidance on Water Supply and Sanitation in Extreme Weather Events, which was adopted at the meeting. 

Human Right to Water and Sanitation
Access to water and sanitation is no longer a purely technical problem. On 28 July 2010, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution declaring that access to clean water and sanitation is a human right. In October, the UN Human Rights Council has - by consensus - adopted a decision affirming this right. The Protocol on Water and Health embodies the close linkages between human rights, health, environmental protection and sustainable development. The Protocol guides its Parties on how to translate the human right to water into practice, and how safe, acceptable, affordable, accessible and sufficient water can be provided, in accordance with the principles of non-discrimination and of transparency of information. In Bucharest, Parties decided upon future activities to promote the exchange of experience on measures supporting equitable access to water and thus addressing affordability issues and access to water and sanitation in remote communities.

Supporting Small-Scale Water Supply and Sanitation Systems
In the Pan-European Region, approximately 30% of the total population live in rural areas, in which small-scale water supplies prevail and where access to improved drinking-water sources varies between 61% and 100%. Therefore, the specific challenges of small-scale water supply and sanitation systems have been discussed at length at the meeting. Based on the outcomes of a workshop on this topic, held 2008 in Germany, awareness-raising material on the specific challenges of such small-scale water supplies was prepared. The Meeting decided to provide further support to Parties in tackling issues related to small water supplies and sanitation through preparation of Guidance material, exchange of experience as well as, possibly, pilot projects.

Providing Assitance and Improving Compliance
Implementing the Protocol is a complex and challenging process. To help Parties to comply with its obligation, a comprehensive framework for mutual assistance between Parties has been established. The Project Facilitation Mechanism was confirmed as an important body under the Protocol. The meeting reviewed the work done and Parties that received assistance, within the framework of the Mechanism, shared their experience and progress made in the implementation of the Protocol’s provisions.

But there is also a transparent, non-confrontational, non-judicial and consultative arrangement for reviewing compliance with the Protocol, the Compliance Committee. The Chairperson of the Protocol’s Compliance Committee presented the Committee’s report to the Meeting of the Parties. The report contained information on the Committee’s work since its establishment and work done on the development of the Committee’s rules of procedure and analysis of summary reports submitted by Parties and non-Parties within the first reporting cycle. The Meeting of the Parties adopted a decision on general issues of compliance prepared by the Committee, in which the Committee recognized that, by failing to establish national and/or local targets and dates for achieving them, some Parties were not in compliance with article 6, paragraphs 2 to 5 of the Protocol. The decision summarized the Committee’s main findings and included recommendations to strengthen implementation. Moreover, in accordance with the rule of procedure, the Meeting of the Parties elected four new independent members of the Compliance Committee.

Involving the Public
The Protocol on Water and Health puts great emphasis on access to information and public participation, recognizing public involvement as a vital prerequisite for successful implementation of its provisions. At the Meeting in November, Parties agreed upon an innovative cooperation with the UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention), which will include, for example, the organization of a workshop on public participation to implement the Protocol and preparation of manuals.

Planning for the Future
One of the most important decisions of the meeting in Bucharest was the adoption of the programme of work for 2011-2013, which contains activities in all areas mentioned above as well as activities related to capacity-building and promotion.

For more information, please visit: http://www.unece.org/env/water/whmop2.htm

Press release on the meeting: http://www.unece.org/press/pr2010/10env_p37e.htm or contact: Francesca Bernardini, Co-Secretary to the UNECE/ WHO-EURO Protocol on Water and Health: francesca.bernardini@unece.org
A view of the meeting room
L-R: László Borbély, Minister of the Environment and Forests, Romania, and Attila-Zoltán Cseke, Minister of Health, Romania
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