By the turn of the century, 21 mega-cities, 18 of them in developing countries, and innumerable smaller cities and towns will be competing for an ever more shrinking and degraded freshwater supply. To deal with urban water issues, 150 international experts from governments, private agencies, development banks and UN agencies gathered in Beijing in March, 1996, for the Habitat II Conference on Managing Water Resources for Large Cities and Towns. In discussing issues of international concern such as urban water management and allocation, water supply cost and financing, water demand management and control of wastewater, customer's participation and partnership and sustainable utilization of water, this conference served as preparation for the Habitat II World Conference held in Istanbul in June, 1996, and sought to ensure that water and sanitation would be high on the agenda. In each session one issue paper and two case studies were presented. Issues papers focused on resource management and allocation (case studies from Beijing and the Rhine basin), demand management and control of waste (case studies from Bangkok and Istanbul), water supply and sanitation partnerships and stakeholder participation in lowincome urban areas (case studies on privatization of water supply in Ivory Coast and Argentina), and environmentally sustainable management and use of freshwater (case studies on Cairo and the Gange River cleaning project).
Many of the papers focused on the uncontrolled growth of urban and periurban settlements which force choices to be made as to the most efficient allocation of water to competing users according to economic, social and environmental priorities. Some warned that water may become a bone of contention between competing interests such as domestic, agricultural and industrial and even between countries as supplies shrink. The problems of the poor in periurban areas are highlighted as unmanageable crises in housing, health and infrastructural services threaten to overwhelm city administrators. There is a call for substantially more investment in sewage, wastewater treatment, and water pollution control measures to restore and protect the quality of surface and groundwater. Although the technical means are available to reverse current trends, fundamental changes in approach and much higher levels of investment will be necessary. Partnerships among governments, the private sector (formal and informal), NGOs, community-based organizations, and external support agencies are advocated as a vital way of alleviating some aspects of the water crisis. However, a warning is issued that governments should retain responsibility for monitoring and ensuring the quality and standards of services related to water supply and sanitation even if contracted to others. These arrangements and approaches promise increased access to water and environmental sanitation services for lowincome urban areas which until now have not been recognized as requiring specific policies and strategies.
The essential principle underlying this Conference is that freshwater is a finite vulnerable resource, essential to sustain life, development and the environment. In seeking to uphold this principle, and to publicize the acute global urban water crisis, the Conference has formulated several recommendations for the national development and utilization of urban water resources and the protection of the ecological environment. Water resources management should consider long- and short-term demands, continuity, quality and quantity of supply, and should be integrated into broader economic, environmental and social objectives. Effective management should link land and water uses across the whole water basin or groundwater aquifer, and should promote preventive measures for pollution at the source. Cities should follow sustainable development policies and, rather than remedial measures, should use the principles of protection, efficient use at all levels and conservation including wastewater recycling and reuse. Water demand management should be strongly pursued through legal, technical and financial means and, through public information and education programmes. The public can assume their responsibility for the most effective use of limited resources in an environment of rapid growth. Water development and management should be based on a participatory approach involving users, planners, and policy makers at all levels. The government (central, provincial and local), utilities (public and private), community-based organizations and users have responsibilities in the provision of water and environmental infrastructure services to the cities. Through community-based organizations decisions can be taken at the lowest appropriate level and a flexible approach matching solutions to local conditions can be fostered. Women are central in organizing user communities; providing, managing and safeguarding water; and in influencing water policy and practice. Recognizing that water has an economic value, the cost of the provision of water supply and sewage services should be met by tariffs that encourage resource conservation, discourage wastage, and ensure that the urban poor have basic services at an affordable price through targeted subsidies. Finally, since mobilizing financial resources is critical to effective water resources management, government and external funding need to be supported by other sources like private capital, commercial and development banks, cooperatives, revolving funds, credit associations and loan guarantee schemes. Demand management must be the first alternative to new investment.