26.03.2013 - UNESCO Office in Brasilia

Water for Development (Op-Ed)

Water for development

by Lucien Muñoz


Published in O Globo newspaper, 26/03/2013, Opinion, p. 17

The UN recently announced that by 2015 the world would achieve the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving the number of people who do not have access to safe drinking water. However, there are enormous imbalances between regions and countries when it comes to access to clean water, and it will be difficult to reach the global target for sanitation. Nearly 40 million people still lack access to clean water, and 120 million lack adequate sanitation facilities, most of them poor people in rural areas in less developed countries.

The difficulty of access to safe drinking water and the scarcity of water resources in many parts of the world are intensifying.  In Brazil, the recent drought in the Northeast was the worst in decades.  With the forecast growth of urban populations, an increase in global demand for food in the order of 70% by 2050 and the expansion of industrial activity and energy production, coupled with the intensification of climate change the pressure on sources of freshwater is increasing.

Given this scenario, the International Year of Water Cooperation, coordinated by UNESCO, draws attention to the benefits of cooperation in water management, a fundamental resource, which, if well utilized and shared, could build trust among different groups, communities, regions and states, and also promote peace. However, if water were to become scarcer, or concentrated in the hands of a few, it could intensify tensions and conflicts and, in extreme cases, even lead to wars between nations.

Cooperation over water is therefore essential for security and peaceful coexistence worldwide. Water is not confined by national borders. There are currently 148 countries that share cross border river basins.  The Guarani Aquifer in Brazil, a country with 12% of the planet's freshwater, is a good example of cooperation with Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. In August 2010, the presidents of the four countries signed a cooperation agreement to expand knowledge about the aquifer and identify areas of concern. The countries pledged to conserve and protect the aquifer to ensure the equitable use of its water resources.

At a time of global crisis - economic, financial, political and environmental -, governments and society should be aware of the central role that cooperation over water has for economic development and the welfare of nations. More so after the 2012 UN World Water Development Report (WWDR4) predicted the intensification of economic disparities between countries and economic sectors or regions within countries, due to the increasing demand for water resources; the principal victims being poorer people. The report also highlighted the need for a concerted effort to ensure that benefits are distributed equitably through a collective approach from the sectors making intensive use of water.

Lucien Muñoz is an economist and Director of the UNESCO Brasilia Office.

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