A UN-backed International Decade for Water kicked off on Tuesday with addresses, media-friendly demonstrations and awards aimed at drawing attention to the plight of the world's most plentiful but most abused resource.
Placed under the banner "Water for Life," the decade seeks to lobby support for the United Nations' Millennium Goals, which hope to halve the number of people without access to clean drinking water or sanitation by 2015.
Some 2.4 billion people have no toilets or sewers, and 1.1 billion do not even have drinkable water. Every day, an estimated 22,000 people, half of them children, die of diseases borne by polluted water, such as typhoid, cholera, malaria and diarrhoea.
In countries stricken by shortage, the start of the water decade -- coinciding with the annual World Water Day -- took on special significance.
In Thailand, King Bhumipol Adulyadej personally supervised a cloud-seeding operation -- in which chemicals are shot at clouds to encourage rainfall -- to alleviate a drought that has afflicted 71 out of 76 provinces, drying up reservoirs and baking rice paddies.
In Beijing, the city warned that a severe water shortage would prompt a further hike in water prices, by up to 20 percent, after an increase of 25 percent in 2004.
"Water is a strategic and precious resource, so water prices will continue to rise," said the head of the Beijing Water Service Bureau, Jiao Juzhang.
Other countries worried by regional droughts today include Portugal, France, Brazil and Uganda.
Scientists say that the risk of shortages, but also floods, is bound to amplify in the coming years as global warming affects traditional rainfall patterns.
In Paris, leaders of the French environmental party the Greens defied city regulations to bathe in the River Seine to draw attention to the problem of heavy metals, pesticides and fertiliser runoff from farms and industry.
Party secretary Yann Wehrling, dressed in a blue and black wetsuit, said the demonstration cocked a snook at French President Jacques Chirac.
"In 1977 and again in 1998, Jacques Chirac said he would take a swim in the Seine because it was so clean. He still hasn't done it," said Wehrling.
"We did, but we donned rubber suits for protection because the water is still a little dangerous for bathing."
Nearby, European and African delegates attended a UNESCO conference to assess water problems in Africa. The continent paradoxically has some of the mightiest rivers in the world, but its populations also have the greatest need for fresh water.
In an opening message to the meeting, Chirac noted that demographic growth "is exacerbating tensions" in countries crossed by the Nile, Congo and Niger rivers.
"Water is abundant in Africa but unequally shared," Chirac said, as he urged a "fresh mobilisation of the international community" to fix such problems.
The Millennium Goals on water were spelt out in 2000 and reaffirmed at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002.
The promises have so far proved empty, because UN members made no provision for the hundreds of billions of dollars of new investments needed.
To meet the targets would mean providing sanitation for more than 300,000 additional people every day and clean water for nearly 150,000 a day.
But public aid for water projects declined from 2.7 billion dollars (two billion euros) in 1997 to only 1.4 billion dollars in 2002, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and has stagnated at that level ever since.
In fact, less than five percent of multilateral development aid goes to water projects.
That has placed the emphasis on the privatisation of water resources and distribution -- a politically contentious issue in many countries -- and on finding novel ways of harnessing water supplies and channelling them to poor people.
In Sweden, an Indian environmental organization, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), on Tuesday was named winner of the annual 150,000-dollar (114,000-euro) Stockholm Water Prize for its work on rainwater harvesting.
The organization will receive its prize from the hands of King Carl XVI Gustaf at a ceremony at Stockholm's City Hall in August.All rights reserved. © 2005 Agence France-Presse. Sections of the information displayed on this page (dispatches, photographs, logos) are protected by intellectual property rights owned by Agence France-Presse. As a consequence, you may not copy, reproduce, modify, transmit, publish, display or in any way commercially exploit any of the content of this section without the prior written consent of Agence France-Presse.