Water is an argument for peace, twinning and cooperation. Credit: United Nations - Photo: 2024

A Growing Water Crisis Risks Military Conflicts & Undermines UN’s Development Goals

By Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS | 23 March 2024 (IDN) — The volatile politics of the Middle East have long been dominated by the fluctuating fortunes of a single treasured commodity: Oil.

“Whenever we dig for water in our parched deserts”, a diplomat from the Middle East once confessed, “we end up striking oil”.

But the growing water crisis has spread far beyond, impacting mostly the lives of billions of people living in the developing world—who, unfortunately, have neither oil nor water.

A new UN report released March 22 warns that tensions over water are also exacerbating conflicts worldwide.

The UN World Water Development Report 2024, published by UNESCO on behalf of UN-Water, says to preserve peace, States must boost international cooperation and transboundary agreements.

While more than 3 billion people globally depend on water that crosses national borders, only 24 countries have cooperation agreements for all their shared water.

Today 2.2 billion people still live without access to safely managed drinking water and 3.5 billion lack access to safely managed sanitation.

Of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), SDG 6 seeks to ensure safe drinking water and sanitation for all, focusing on the sustainable management of water resources, wastewater and ecosystems, and acknowledging the importance of an enabling environment.

But, as of now, none of the SDGs, including SDG 6, appear to be on track.

The situation with respect to safely managed sanitation remains dire, with 3.5 billion people lacking access to such services. Cities and municipalities have been unable to keep up with the accelerating growth of their urban populations.

“The UN goal of ensuring access to water for all by 2030 is far from being attained,” the report warns.

Speaking on World Water Day on March 22, the President of the 193-member UN General Assembly Dennis Francis said water is the very essence of life—a resource that knows no borders, flowing freely through frontiers, and civilisations.

“A drop of rain that falls in New York today may have journeyed from the mighty Nile or the picturesque Seine vividly illustrating the inter-connectedness of our ecosystems, hydrological cycles and ultimately, our world,” he said.

The intricate complexities surrounding water—whether its abundance, scarcity, or contamination—are compounded by the relentless impacts of climate change.

These challenges amplify societal tensions, economic disparities, and political instabilities—heightening the risk of conflict and unrest, he said.

Yet, past these shared obstacles, lie an opportunity for collective action and collaboration.

Water cooperation is not merely beneficial; it is essential for ensuring a water-secure and peaceful world.

“We must urgently come together—within and among nations—to protect and conserve our most precious resource,” he declared.

“As water stress increases, so do the risks of local or regional conflict. UNESCO’s message is clear: if we want to preserve peace, we must act swiftly not only to safeguard water resources but also to enhance regional and global cooperation in this area,” said Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO.

“Water, when managed sustainably and equitably, can be a source of peace and prosperity. It is also the literal lifeblood of agriculture, the major socio-economic driver for billions of people,” said Alvaro Lario, President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and Chair of UN-Water.

According to the UNESCO report, between 2002 and 2021 droughts affected more than 1.4 billion people.

As of 2022, roughly half of the world’s population experienced severe water scarcity for at least part of the year, while one quarter faced ‘extremely high’ levels of water stress, using over 80% of their annual renewable freshwater supply.

Climate change is projected to increase the frequency and severity of these phenomena, with acute risks for social stability.

Meanwhile, a report released by Oxfam on March 21 warns that only 28 percent of the world’s most influential food and agriculture corporations report they are reducing their water withdrawals and just 23 percent say they are taking action to reduce water pollution.

Oxfam’s new analysis of 350 corporations using World Benchmarking Alliance data was released ahead of World Water Day March 22.

The UN, which last year convened the first major conference on water in over 45 years, estimates that 2 billion people do not have safe drinking water, and up to 3 billion people experience water shortages for at least one month each year.

The 350 corporations analyzed, including Carrefour and Avril Group, together account for more than half of the world’s food and agriculture revenue. 70 percent of all freshwater withdrawals are used for agriculture, which is by far the largest water-using sector worldwide. Industrial farming plays a major role in water pollution.

Oxfam’s analysis also found that only 108 of these 350 corporations are disclosing the proportion of withdrawals from water-stressed areas.

“When big corporations pollute or consume huge amounts of water, communities pay the price in empty wells, more costly water bills, and contaminated and undrinkable water sources. Less water means more hunger, more disease and more people forced to leave their homes,” said Oxfam France Executive Director Cécile Duflot.

“We clearly can’t rely on corporations’ goodwill to change their practices—governments must force them to clean up their act, and protect shared public goods over thirst for profit,” said Duflot.

Water and wealth are inextricably linked. Rich people have better access to safe public drinking water—and money to buy expensive private water—while people living in poverty, who often don’t have access to a government-backed water source, spend significant portions of their income to purchase water.

The fast-growing bottled water industry is an example of how corporate giants commodify and exploit water, intensifying inequality, pollution and harm.

According to the UN, the multi-billion-dollar bottled water industry is undermining progress toward the key Sustainable Development Goal (SDG6) of providing universal access to safe drinking water.

For two months, starting in May 2023, French authorities imposed water-use restrictions on thousands of people living in the drought-hit department of Puy-de-Dôme, including the commune of Volvic.

The restrictions did not apply to Société des Eaux de Volvic, a subsidiary of French multinational Danone, who during this time continued to extract groundwater to supply its Volvic bottling plant. Danone raked in €881 million in profits in 2023 and paid out €1,238 million to its shareholders, according to Oxfam.

Rises in global temperatures will further reduce water availability in many water-scarce countries, including across East Africa and the Middle East, because of the increased frequency of droughts, and changes in rainfall patterns and run-off.

Oxfam has seen first-hand how people are facing the daily challenge of accessing safe water sources, spending countless hours queuing or trekking long distances, and suffering the health impacts of using contaminated water.

For example, in Renk, a transit camp in South Sudan, more than 300 people are now sharing a single water tap, increasing the risk of cholera and other diseases. Oxfam warned last year that up to 90 percent of water boreholes in parts of Somalia, Northern Kenya and Southern Ethiopia had entirely dried up.

Oxfam is calling on governments to:

  • Recognize water as a human right and a public good. Profits should not be the priority when it comes to providing water services to people.
  • Hold corporations accountable for abusing and violating human and environmental rights and laws, including water pollution.
  • Invest in water security, subsidized public water provision, sustainable water management and climate-resilient water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services. National planning and policy around WASH must commit to women’s leadership, participation, and decision-making at all stages. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Photo: Water is an argument for peace, twinning and cooperation. Credit: United Nations

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

Related Posts

Begin typing your search term above and press enter to search. Press ESC to cancel.

Back To Top