Water crisis: where is the political leadership?
The UN is seeking to accelerate global action to protect the world’s threatened water resources and provide safe drinking water for all by 2030. But it won’t be able to do so without addressing the political dimensions of water.
As the Earth’s freshwater resources dwindle away, millions of people risk being left without access to water and food and entire ecosystems are threatened. The seriousness of those implications was the focus of the recent UN Water Conference held in New York – the first in nearly half a century.
The three-day meeting, convened by UN secretary general António Guterres and co-hosted by the Netherlands and Tajikistan in March, was meant to gather political momentum for action to protect water as well as ensure access to it and sanitation for all by 2030. Csaba Kőrösi, the president of the General Assembly, told reporters in Geneva he hoped it would be “a Paris moment on water action”.
But instead of a “blue deal”, what resulted was a list of nearly 700 non-binding pledges making up the so-called Water Action Agenda.
For Mark Zeitoun, director general of the Geneva Water Hub, it revealed that what is lacking is political leadership.
“If you compare it with climate change, which is now so firmly on the agenda that Guterres himself is calling for everyone to wake up and the International Court of Justice is pronouncing on it, water is way behind at the highest level,” Zeitoun, who attended the conference, told Geneva Solutions.
“The water world is lacking leadership, and this is in contrast to all the really good science and community groups that are active on this.”
SDG 6 not on track
Roughly two billion people across the globe don’t have access to safe drinking water, according to UN figures. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned last year that climate change is putting pressure on water resources as rising temperatures disrupt rain patterns and cause more frequent and severe flooding and droughts. By 2050, five billion people could experience water scarcity for at least one month per year. That’s two thirds of the global population.
Meanwhile, human activities are polluting freshwater resources with pesticides used in agriculture, wastewater from mining and other industrial activities and untreated sewage water.
While the science exposing the severity of the water crisis has piled up, countries have been slow to take action. To Zeitoun, it is partly because of the very nature of water. “There are so many important issues around water. The links between water and health, for example, are totally different from conflict over resources,” he said.
Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG 6), for instance, is comprised of eight targets, including improving water quality and getting states to cooperate to manage shared water resources. A report by UN-Water from 2021 found that countries would have to quadruple the rate of progress in reaching SDG 6 targets in order to meet the 2030 deadline.
Improvements in areas such as water, sanitation and hygiene (Wash) have nonetheless taken place, according to Zeitoun, whereas progress in other areas of concern has lagged behind.
“The SDGs themselves should be questioned. They're clearly good for certain aspects, but for example on transboundary water, they're not so strong,” he said. The SDGs have been criticised for strengthening silos rather than breaking them as originally intended. The Geneva Water Hub is working on a document exploring what the UN’s agenda after 2030 when SDGs run out, could look like. Zeitoun suggested that water needed to be better integrated with other development goals.
Something that some actors say could raise the profile of water security is giving it its own spotlight moment, such as climate change was able to achieve with its 1.5ºC limit agreed in 2015, or biodiversity with countries agreeing last year in Montreal to protect one third of land and water.
This is unlikely to happen with water, according to Zeitoun. “For water, there's just so much that I don't think there can be a Paris moment. I think we have to operate full throttle on multiple tracks,” he said.
The UN Water Conference also concluded with an agreement to appoint a special envoy on water, who could push the issue in the right direction. “If the terms of reference of the envoy are ambitious in the sense of integrating water with everything else, going beyond cooperation towards higher goals, and putting water out of harm's way in emergencies or in conflicts, then we might achieve a more coordinated response. But right now, it's all over the place,” said Zeitoun.
Confronting the politics
One of the key reasons why water is not being protected effectively as it should is that the UN has shied away from addressing the political aspects of water, according to the Geneva Water Hub chief.
“Water is a very political resource, and we can't ignore the politics,” he said. As the precious resource runs scarce, water is becoming a driving factor for conflict rather than cooperation, as seen in the Sahel or in Syria.
“The more that we use water, the less that is readily available, and the more competition there is,” he said.
At the UN, however, water is framed as an apolitical, development and humanitarian issue. “Sometimes the UN prefers to ignore the politics because confronting the politics at the state level would be very awkward,” he said.
The Geneva Water Hub’s main mission is to address the political dimension of water and use it as a tool for peace. The organisation has been working for example with local actors in the Sahel to discuss how water access may be used as a common ground for dialogue in the conflict-struck region. It is also supporting Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Mauritania and Senegal in their discussions to jointly manage the Senegalese-Mauritanian Aquifer Basin.
Read more: The water we share
But Zeitoun admits that even in water cooperation, the bar has been set too low. “The goal should be peaceful relations and prosperity. But we're stuck talking about cooperation and not even equitable cooperation but just cooperation,” he said.
With violent conflict spreading across the world, water infrastructure is increasingly becoming a means to hurt the adversary by either destroying supply networks or polluting waterways.
In the hopes of encouraging states to keep water from harm’s way, the Geneva Water Hub produced in 2019 a set of rules on how water infrastructure should be protected during conflict. “The Geneva Principles on the Protection of Water Infrastructure restate the different types of relevant law for the protection of water during armed conflict, including international humanitarian law, but also environmental law and water law,” Zeitoun explained.
Switzerland, which also sponsors the Geneva Water Hub, has been using those principles in their efforts to push for water for peace. Ahead of the UN Water Conference, the Alpine country along with Mozambique proposed an informal discussion at the Security Council, on extending the legal protection framework for water, similar to what schools and health facilities have in armed conflict.
Recognising that the water for peace movement has yet to catch on, Zeitoun is optimistic when it comes to less dominant voices, such as women’s youth and indigenous groups as they explore new ways of using water as a tool for social change.
“If this idea for water for peace can become infectious and can become popular, then decision makers will follow us, instead of us following the decision makers,” he said.