Since 1993, March 22 of every year is observed as the World Water Day. This year, the focus of this World Water Day has been to accelerate the change in the behaviour and actions of the people and the way they use, consume, and manage water.
Undoubtedly, the world is passing through an unprecedented water crisis as the freshwater demand on the planet is feared to outstrip its supply by 40 per cent towards the end of this decade.
Despite the severity of the water problem, the multilateral engagement on the water issue has been quite disappointing. After almost five decades, the UN is organising the UN 2023 Water Conference on 22-24 March in New York, coinciding with its start with World Water Day.
Discussing specific challenges
The last UN Water Conference was held way back in 1977 in Mar del Plata, Argentina. Despite the global agenda being packed with environmental and climate concerns, at least since the end of the Cold War, countries at multilateral level have refrained from discussing specific challenges posed by the water crisis.
The reason for avoiding water-specific negotiations at the multilateral level is not because the countries don’t think the water issue is important but because the resource is so critical and strategic that they treat it as a non-negotiable national security matter.
Even during the Cold War period, when the UN General Assembly was debating to frame a convention on how to share international rivers, the voting pattern of the member-states was not as per the power blocs but whether they controlled the upstream or downstream of shared rivers.
Though this UN Watercourses Convention came into force in 2014 after being ratified by 36 countries, most of the signatories are smaller countries when it comes to sharing of the international rivers.
So, the world is far from agreeing to a ‘formula’ on how to share its 310 international rivers, covering 150 countries and half of Earth’s land surface. These river basins are home to 52 per cent of the world’s population.
Strong water footprint
Though countries have not fought wars over water-sharing issues, many wars have been fought in the past whose origins had strong water footprints. Even the ongoing war in Ukraine is, to some extent, connected to the water supply to Crimea.
There are also many water-sharing disputes among different provinces, whether in the US, Australia, India, or Pakistan.
Countries like the US and India also lack one cohesive national water policy. The water issue is becoming extremely serious, but the world, in general, and several large countries in particular, lack an effective legal and policy framework to address this challenge.
Population growth, industrialisation, and urbanisation have led to more demand for water while its supply is dwindling. Countries are also polluting more and more water.
Two billion people worldwide lack safe drinking water, and 3.6 billion have no safe sanitation. According to WHO, 1.4 million people die annually due to diseases related to poor water, sanitation, and hygiene.
A water-secure world
Climate change has worsened the water situation by bringing huge uncertainty to water supply and demand. Moreover, the rapid increase in the number of natural disasters, mainly water-related disasters, have made it absolutely necessary for the world to work together for a water-secure world.
Thus, the UN 2023 Water Conference provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to unite the world in finding ways to address the rapidly deteriorating water and sanitation crises.
In 2018, the UN adopted a resolution to convene this conference, and in 2020, the Netherlands and Tajikistan were welcomed to co-host it. The conference in New York will be organised around six plenaries and five interactive dialogues.
The report of the conferences will not only include summaries of these interactions, but it will also include the Water Action Agenda with voluntary commitments from member states and stakeholders.
This important UN conference aims to carefully understand, value and manage the water and take concerted actions to achieve the water and sanitation-related goals and targets set within the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Sustainable management of water
The hope is that the gathering of top leaders and experts in New York will mobilise cooperative water actions and build the political momentum that is needed to ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by the end of this decade.
Global leaders and negotiators must realise that the centrality of water for the survival of human beings and the planet can’t change. The only thing that can change is how we use and manage it.
There is no shortage of technology or knowledge about better management to overcome the growing water challenges worldwide.
The only key missing link is the willingness of the countries to work together. They still believe that they can manage the water issue on their own by focusing solely on the demand and supply of their respective countries.
The me-only approach will not work as the water crisis has become extremely critical, and climate change has made the world most water insecure. It is high time that the countries must work together in partnership to find ways and means to meet the challenges posed by the water crisis successfully.
Hopefully, the UN 2023 Water Conference will help to catalyse that much-needed idea and desire for partnership over the best possible use and management of water among the countries.