Image credit: United Nations - Photo: 2023

Water, Water Everywhere But is it Fit to Drink?

By Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, 22 March 2023 (IDN) — A much-quoted line in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s lyrical ballad, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, reads: “’water, water everywhere—nor any drop to drink’.

The poem goes back to the year 1798—and more than five centuries later, the cry for water, described as a basic human right, is reverberating throughout the UN General Assembly Hall and committee rooms as hundreds of delegates gathered in New York for a three-day UN Water Conference, scheduled to conclude March 24.

Secretary-General António Guterres pointed out an irony of ironies: a shortage amidst plenty. “The world is facing a crisis of “too much water” (extreme rainfalls and flooding), “too little water” (droughts and groundwater scarcity) and “too dirty water” (pollution), he said.

“Urgent action is needed to ensure a sustainable and equitable distribution of water for all needs.”

The UN 2023 Water Conference, currently underway, “will be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to raise awareness, define a roadmap and advance the water agenda,” he added.

According to the UN, billions of people worldwide still live without safely managed drinking water and sanitation, and almost three-quarters of all recent disasters are water-related, having caused economic damage of almost $700 billion in the past 20 years.

On top of this, water-intensive industry, agriculture and energy generation are growing to meet the needs of an expanding population.

Co-hosted by the Governments of the Netherlands and the Republic of Tajikistan, the Conference is described as a unique opportunity to tackle challenges, scale up solutions and accelerate action surrounding water and Sustainable Development Goal 6: Ensure access to water and sanitation for All.

The Conference is expected to culminate in the Water Action Agenda—a collection of bold commitments that will mobilise the progress needed to ensure a water-secure world.

According to the United Nations, over 100 countries are not on track to have sustainably managed water resources by 2030, a global threat to food security, health, economic growth and the environment.  

Accelerating international efforts to achieve a water-secure world will be at the heart of this week’s deliberations. According to the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the Conference comes at a critical time when the world is facing a global water emergency that puts at real risk the progress towards reaching Sustainable Development Goals and even sustaining the current way of life. 

SDG 6 calls for universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water by 2030. Yet, climate change, pollution and mismanagement of resources are sharply decreasing water access and security every day.

“Access to water is gravely unequal and the Conference is a key opportunity to restore that right. Today half of the world population, four billion people, live with severe water scarcity for at least one month of the year,” the UNDP said.

About half a billion face water scarcity year-round. Approximately 4.2 billion lack sanitation, 2.2 billion people lack safe drinking water, and 700 million people could be displaced due to scarcity of water by 2030, 50 million in Africa alone.

The US, described as one of the world’s richest countries, is also facing its own water-related problems.

In a statement released on March 22, the US said more than two million Americans lack access to clean drinking water at home, and more than one million Americans don’t have the plumbing required to flush a toilet.

Native American households are 19 times more likely to lack indoor plumbing compared to non-Native households. Nearly a quarter of US households on private wells have contaminants in their water, like arsenic or e.coli, that pose a risk to household and community health.

The US announced more than $49 billion in domestic and global action to ensure that equitable access and climate-resilient water and sanitation infrastructure remain a priority at home and around the world.

Meanwhile, 10 States in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America have pledged to join a key water-sharing treaty.

“In an unprecedented political push for cross-border water cooperation”, says the UN, Ministers from Africa, Latin America and the Middle East declared on the sidelines of the UN Water Conference their resolve to join a key United Nations accord known as the Water Convention.

In what could constitute a major long-term outcome of the summit, governments are seizing the UN Water Convention to support practical cooperation measures—urgently needed as 153 states worldwide share water resources—as a precondition to tackle the global water crisis.

According to the UN, Governments to join UN Water Convention include:

Nigeria today officially became the 48th Party to the Water Convention and the 7th African nation to join since 2018 (following Chad, Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Ghana, Togo and Cameroon), marked with a ceremony. With over 213 million inhabitants, Nigeria is the most populous state in Africa, and shares with its neighbours most of its water resources, which include Lake Chad and the River Niger. Joining neighbouring Parties will bolster conflict prevention, climate change adaptation and development.

Iraq declared its forthcoming accession, which would make it the first country in the Middle East to join the Convention, opening the door to expanded membership in a region facing acute water challenges.

Panama stated it will soon become a Party, which would make it the first in Latin America, paving the way for reinforced cooperation in a region with a very limited number of agreements on the management of shared waters (and a value of the associated Sustainable Development Goals indicator at less than 10%).

Namibia reaffirmed its commitment to join the Water Convention following the approval of its national assembly last week. Namibia shares all its perennial rivers with neighbouring countries and is a mid- and downstream country. Its accession would make it the first country in the Southern African Development Community to join the Convention, opening the door to further expansion and reinforcement of cooperation in a region where the majority of freshwater crosses state borders.

For the Gambia, whose parliament approved its accession to the Water Convention last week, membership will make a significant contribution to the more dependable management of its water resources, jointly with its neighbouring states. The Gambia is a downstream country along the Senegal River, which shares all its land borders with Convention Party Senegal. It also shares the Senegalo-Mauritanian Aquifer, for which the Convention already supports cooperation.

Niger confirmed its intention to join, bringing all major Lake Chad bordering nations under the Convention’s legal framework. This is a decisive step in the increasingly drought-prone Sahel region since it gives Lake Chad—whose volume has shrunk by more than 90% since 1963—full legal protection under the Convention.

Uganda affirmed its intention to accelerate accession to the Water Convention. Expansion of the Convention’s membership to East Africa would open significant new possibilities for stronger cooperation in the region.

Benin, Sierra Leone, and South Sudan also declared their commitment to accede to the Convention. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Image credit: United Nations

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