Photo: Two young women row in Lake Titicaca, the highest commercially navigable body of water in the world, near the Uros Islands, Puno, Peru. Credit: - Photo: 2018

UN Intensifies the Quest for Universal Access to Safe Water

By J Nastranis

NEW YORK (IDN) – World Water Day turned 25 on March 22. On that day, as UN-Water noted, 1.8 billion people were using a source of drinking water contaminated with faeces, putting them at risk of contracting cholera, dysentery, typhoid and polio.

And, as Global Citizen pointed out, girls and women around the world were being forced to spend 200 million hours collecting water instead of attending school and pursuing economic independence.

Besides, a recent survey of 100,000 facilities found that more than half lack simple necessities, such as running water and soap – and they are supposed to be healthcare facilities. The result is more infections, prolonged hospital stays and sometimes death.

Against this backdrop, UN Secretary-General António Guterres launched the International Decade for Action on ‘Water for Sustainable Development’ (2018-2028) on March 22. In his remarks on the occasion, he said: “Without effective management of our water resources, we risk intensified disputes between communities and sectors and even increased tensions among nations.”

All the more so because the demand for freshwater is projected to grow by more than 40 per cent by 2050, and with climate change having a growing impact, water scarcity is an issue of grave concern. By 2050 at least one in four people will live in a country where the lack of fresh water will be chronic or recurrent.

“Safe water and adequate sanitation for all – the object of Sustainable Development Goal 6 – are indispensable to achieve many other goals. Safe water and adequate sanitation underpin poverty reduction, economic growth and healthy ecosystems,” Guterres added. Moreover, safe water contributes to social well-being, inclusive growth and sustainable livelihoods.

Quite simply, water is a matter of life and death. Our bodies are 60 per cent water. Our cities, our industries and our agriculture all depend on it. “Yet, today, 40 per cent of the world’s people are affected by water scarcity; 80 per cent of wastewater is discharged untreated into the environment, and more than 90 per cent of disasters are water-related,” said Guterres.

The UN chief has prepared an Action Plan for the Water Decade, with the support of UN-Water – which, he said, he is determined to strengthen. His plan sets forth three core objectives.

“First, to transform our silo-based approach to water supply, sanitation, water management and disaster risk reduction to better tackle water stress, combat climate change and enhance resilience. Second, to align existing water and sanitation programmes and projects with the 2030 Agenda. Third, to generate the political will for strengthened cooperation and partnerships.”

These issues are discussed in detail by the 2018 edition of the World Water Development Report (WWDR 2018), which was presented at the 8th World Water Forum, in Brasilia (Brazil) on March 19.

The report informs policy and decision-makers, inside and outside the water community, about the potential of nature-based solutions to address contemporary water management challenges across all sectors, and particularly regarding water for agriculture, sustainable cities, disaster risk reduction and water quality.

The nature-based solutions use or mimic natural processes to enhance water availability (e.g., soil moisture retention, groundwater recharge), improve water quality (e.g., natural and constructed wetlands, riparian buffer strips), and reduce risks associated with water-related disasters and climate change (e.g., floodplain restoration, green roofs).

The UN commemorated the 25th anniversary of the World Water Day with the latest issue of UN Chronicle, a quarterly journal published by the Department of Public Information since 1946, choosing to focus on ‘The Quest for Water’.

In the foreword, Ramu Damodaran, the journal’s Editor-in-Chief recalls: One of the first resolutions adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, on the location of the headquarters of the Organization, gives the United Nations “exclusive rights over the subsoil of land conveyed to it, and in particular the right to make constructions underground and to obtain therefrom supplies of water.”

That was, in many ways, a metaphor for the rights of “we the peoples” who had constituted the United Nations and their legitimate claim to the fertile wealth of the land that was their home.

“It was also a metaphor in another sense, a reminder that no matter how vast the visible, the invisible can too be attained,” adds Damodaran who is also Chief of the United Nations Academic Impact, a network of more than 1200 academic and research institutions around the world which are committed to supporting United Nations goals and ideals.

The first 2018 quarterly issue of the journal carries insightful articles by experts from within and outside the UN who accentuate the need to mend the menacing situation as portrayed in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner: “Water, water, everywhere. But not a drop to drink.”

This tragic state is reflected in the fact that more than 2 billion people lack access to safe water, and more than 4.5 billion people lack adequate sanitation services.

In view of this, UN General Assembly President Miroslav Lajčák underlines the importance of achieving universal access to water and sanitation, adding: “At a most basic level, human beings cannot survive without water. Equally important is sanitation, a lack of which negatively affects our quality of life and claims the lives of millions each year.”

This and several related issues are looked at from different perspectives by: Emomali Rahmon, President of the Republic of Tajikistan and Member of the High-level Panel on Water; Oyun Sanjaasuren, Chair of Global Water Partnership, and a former Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Environment and Green Development of Mongolia, and Vladimir Smakhtin, Director of the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH), Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

Innovative approaches are spelt out by Lillian Volat, Project Leader, International Centre for Water Management Services (cewas), Middle East; Han Seung-soo, Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction and Water, and Chair of the High-level Experts and Leaders Panel on Water and Disasters (HELP); and Benedito Braga, President of the World Water Council (WWC).

Claudia Sadoff, Director General of the International Water Management Institute, Colombo, Sri Lanka; Meena Narula, Country Director of Water For People, India: Asma Bachikh President of the World Youth Parliament for Water; and Gilbert F. Houngbo, Chair of UN-Water and President of the International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD) join Arjen Y. Hoekstra is Professor in Water Management at the University of Twente, Enschede, the Netherlands; and Flavia Schlegel is Assistant Director-General for the Natural Sciences at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in the quest for universal access to safe water. [IDN-InDepthNews – 22 March 2018]

Photo: Two young women row in Lake Titicaca, the highest commercially navigable body of water in the world, near the Uros Islands, Puno, Peru. Credit:

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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