World Rallies Around United Nations Call to Protect Water
Thousands of delegates from over 170 countries gathered in New York this week for the first United Nations meeting on water security since 1977.

At the first international conference on water security in five decades, governments, international organizations and civil society groups from over 170 countries committed to nearly 700 new initiatives to address a global water crisis that is causing record droughts, threatening food security, and threatening global supplies of drinking water. 

This week’s UN Water Conference is only the second of its kind. The last high-level meeting convened by the UN on water security was in Argentina in 1977.

The substance of the voluntary commitments in the conference’s outcome document – the Water Action Agenda – varies widely. They range from new investments in sanitation and hygiene services, to investments in desalination technologies, to transnational collaborations to preserve shared lakes, rivers, wetlands and aquifers.  

Around a quarter of commitments relate to water-related biodiversity preservation, health and hunger targets, while over half relate to climate change, according to preliminary data provided by UN Under-Secretary-General Li Junha at a press conference on Friday.

Putting water on the climate agenda

While no binding commitments were made, the Water Action Agenda made one thing crystal clear: water must be central to all future climate negotiations.

That must begin with COP28, scheduled to take place from November to December of this year in Dubai, said Henk Ovink, special envoy for international water affairs in The Netherlands, which co-hosted the conference along with Tajikistan. 

“We have to make sure that water will never be left out of any COP, be it the Convention on Biological Diversity or a climate COP,” Ovink said. “We see a [binding] pact for the future where water is core and central. This conference did not give us the mandate to do so, but we brought the world together to ensure that there is a follow-up.” 

Despite the fundamental impacts of climate change on water quality and access, it has so far been neglected in the climate agenda. COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh was the first-time ever that water was mentioned in a high-level climate negotiation outcome document – and even then, it was only mentioned in the cover text. 

UN officials said they hope this week’s conference will be remembered as a turning point.  

“The past three days have proven that water truly unites the world,” Junha said. “From now on, water should be in every major global agenda for discussions among the member states.”

Li added that the framework set out in the Water Action Agenda will contribute to a series of high-level negotiations this year, where countries will have a chance to turn their voluntary  commitments into binding statements or resolutions. Those include the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Summit in September and COP28. 

“There is a direct connection between this conference and COP28,” Ovink said, adding that discussions about fixing water at the center of the COP28 agenda with United Arab Emirates representatives began even before last year’s meeting in Sharm-el Sheikh. 

States issue call for Special UN Envoy for water

Coinciding with this week’s event, some 149 member states called upon UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to appoint a special envoy for water to oversee and coordinate international water security efforts.

Water, unlike biodiversity and the climate, does not have a dedicated forum in the UN. The call signaled the growing political will to solidify water’s position on the UN agenda.  

“We suddenly understood a strong request from the member states to appoint a special envoy for water,” Junha said. “I’m pretty sure that the Secretary-General will give very serious consideration to that.”

Demand for fresh water will outstrip supply by 40% within the decade

Access to clean drinking water is a human right under international law. Today, women and children spend 200 million hours every day collecting water.

After years of inaction, a raft of reports published throughout the conference appear to have focused international attention around the growing urgency of water degradation, drought and depletion of resources.   

A new report by the Global Commission on the Economics of Water, published on day one of the conference, predicted that global demand for water will outstrip supply by 40% as early as 2030.

This shortfall could lead to between 1.7 billion and 2.4 billion people living in cities facing water scarcity within the next 30 years as population growth pushes urban demand for water up by an estimated 80%, according to the new UN World Water Development report published on the eve of the conference.

Another 10% of the world population lives in countries experiencing chronically “high or critical water stress”. 

“It is easy for some to think that water simply comes from the tap, but this limited perspective fails to acknowledge the vital ecosystems from which our water comes,” said Ibrahim Thiaw, UN Executive Secretary for the Convention to Combat Desertification. “When rivers run dry or become polluted, when groundwater is over-exploited, and when ecosystems are degraded, it is only then that we begin to understand the true value of water.”

Some 4 billion people worldwide experience water stress at least one month per year, according to UNICEF. Half of the world’s population could face water scarcity as early as 2025, the agency projects. 

Deaths increasing from lack of WASH services

The United Nations University rang out another alarm bell: 2019 saw increased rates of mortality from the lack of access to water and sanitation services (WASH) in 164 countries compared with 2016 World Health Organization estimates. 

That follows years of mortality reductions from unsafe water and sanitation reported by the World Health Organization due to the gradual improvement of WASH services. 

Even as access to safe drinking water and sanitation have increased over the past decades, some 2 billion people still lack access to clean drinking water. Around 3.6 billion people – or 46% of the world’s population – still lack access to basic sanitation. 

Unsafe water and sanitation continue to cause over a million deaths from infectious diseases annually – far surpassing the 50,000 killed globally by natural disasters, the UNU report estimated.

“Far more people die from lack of access to water then die from lesser climate disasters,” said Dr Charlotte MacAlister, a senior researcher at the UNU, told the Associated Press. “I’m not saying that people aren’t dying, but far more people are dying from lack of safe water, safely managed water, and safely managed sanitation.”

The world is also far off-track to meet the SDG goal of universal access to safe drinking water and sanitation, the 2023 Global Water Security Assessment said.

Globally, Africa was the only region to make progress in reducing WASH-related deaths between 2016 and 2019. But it continues to suffer from the lowest levels of access to safe sanitation services and drinking water overall. 

Nearly 31% of people across Africa’s 54 countries do not have access to basic water drinking services, and 82% live without access to proper sanitation. 

“Deaths due to inadequate WASH provision are preventable and should no longer occur anywhere in the 21st century,” UNU said. “This is unacceptable.”

Draining humanity’s ‘lifeblood’

The UN Secretary-General called on the world to “bring the water agenda to life”.

“We are draining humanity’s lifeblood through vampiric overconsumption and unsustainable use and evaporating it through global heating,” UN Secretary General Antionio Guterres told the conference. “Water is a human right — and a common development denominator to shape a better future.”

Without a “quantum-leap” in the actions being taken by member states to address the water crisis, Gutetres said, the world’s lifeblood may soon run dry. 

The commitments submitted to the Water Action Agenda will be vetted by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) and other research institutes to assessthat countries can follow-through on their targets.

The results of the audit will be published at the high-level political forum hosted by UNDESA in July this year, laying the groundwork for future UN negotiations. 

Image Credits: UN, UNICEF, US Mission to the UN.

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