Working together to provide water for all


Freshwater is the common denominator of today’s most pressing challenges, such as health, agriculture, energy, and urbanization. But this limited, finite resource is often poorly managed and faces severe pressure everywhere. How can the world work more closely together to overcome these present challenges, and ensure that access to freshwater, a human right, is available to all? To advance this most vital cause, UN-Water has designated UNESCO to lead United Nations International Year of Water Cooperation (IYWC) in 2013. Celebrations will kick off at UNESCO’s Paris Headquarters on 11 February.

Two capital cities on opposite banks of the Congo River: Brazzaville on the north side, and Kinshasa on the south side.

Freshwater flows freely, unconfined by political boundaries. For example, the world has 276 river basins with at least one tributary crossing an international boundary. These transboundary basins cover an estimated 46% of the Earth’s land surface, which host about 40% of the world’s population. Communities sharing freshwater resources may have competing needs or claims, requiring that traditional stakeholders in freshwater management -- namely, scientists, governments, policy makers -- join forces with individuals or organizations outside this “water box”, such as sociologists, ministries for women or indigenous peoples, community activists and civil society.

What does improved water cooperation look like? Gretchen Kalonji (UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Natural Sciences) suggests several scenarios: "It would mean convincing the food, water and energy sectors to work together, rather than in silos. It will take strong institutions at both the national and international levels to satisfy competing demands and defuse tension when it arises, such as over proposals for shale gas extraction, mass irrigation or dam construction.” Currently, these different constituencies are not working together, or not anywhere closely enough. Efforts must focus on joining them up to create a more comprehensive, integrated approach to water management. It is a missing key to making access to freshwater a reality for all, and it is long overdue.

The stakes are high today. Water security is essential to sustainable development, and vital to building inclusive, peaceful societies. Yet billions of people remain vulnerable to water scarcity, deteriorating water quality and such water-related disasters as floods and droughts. Women, children and those living in poverty suffer the heaviest burden. As highlighted in the 2012 MDG Report (LINK), women are disproportionately affected by water scarcity. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 71% of the water collection burden falls on women and girls; this heavy burden is also the case in other parts of the world. If women hold less than 6% of all ministerial positions in the environment, natural resources & energy, how about increasing women in decision-making, in the spirit of water cooperation?
The IYWC may be taking place over the course of 2013, but its fundamental goal is to start paving the path for a more peaceful and sustainable future. The projected world population increase from 7 billion today to 9 billion in 2050 will intensify demand for freshwater, boosting global agricultural consumption by 20% and hydroelectricity & other energy needs by 60%. Would these figures spell imminent water wars, notably in regions where water supplies are declining? Fortunately not, thanks to water cooperation! Contrary to popular belief, people are not more likely to fight over water when there is less of it. Cooperation is more frequent than conflict when it comes to water. Over the past 70 years, incidences of cooperation have outnumbered conflicts by 2 to 1. The Indus Waters Treaty signed by India and Pakistan in 1960 survived three major conflicts and remains intact today.

The IYWC is ultimately about finding common purpose around freshwater, in the diversity of our interests and points of view. By choosing cooperation, not competition, we can make freshwater a force for peace.

UNESCO contributes to the mdg of ensuring environmental sustainability thru freshwater

© UNESCO/Vytautas Knyva
Zuvintas lake, Lithuania

Freshwater is a priority for UNESCO. We have contributed to the relevant Millennium Development Goal of ensuring environmental sustainability across what may be called the UNESCO Water Family, including:

  • the flagship International Hydrological Programme;
  • the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education in the Netherlands, the world’s largest postgraduate water education facility, which has trained 15,400 water professionals from over 160 countries;
  • a network of 18 water-related centres under UNESCO auspices;
  • the World Water Assessment Programme hosted by UNESCO, the flagship UN-Water programme that brings together 30 UN agencies and produces the now-yearly World Water Development Reports; and
  • the 29 water-related UNESCO Chairs and UNITWIN networks.
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