Rahima Khatun from Khanpur village in Bangladesh has to fetch drinking water from another village every day Image Credit: Yusuf Ahmed

Today, 22 March, is being celebrated as World Water Day. Since 1993, the world observes this day to focus the attention on the importance of freshwater. The theme of this year’s Water Day is valuing water. Water’s value is not to be seen only in economic terms.

Water is an essential condition for life, and it also plays a fundamental role in human development. However, it is seriously worrying that the world still needs to be reminded about water’s importance.

The world’s three largest religions, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, among smaller others, have long recognised the critical importance of water and have condemned those who do not treat and manage water with respect.

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To Christians, God is the ‘fountain of living water.’ In Islam, Muslims are instructed to ‘violate not the sanctity of the symbols of God’, and water is seen as one of those symbols. For Hindus, the Laws of Manu ask Kings to protect public water for all.

Not only in religions, but human history is itself also an embodiment of the importance of water. Water in general and rivers, in particular, have been the source for nation and state-building in the past. Dynamic cultures and great civilisations have grown across the river resources. Water has brought many countries and cultures together.

Cooperation over the Rhine River has most likely put the foundation for establishing the present European Union. Mekong and Zambezi rivers have also set the stage for other forms of cooperation among their basin countries. The positive contribution of cooperative arrangement over the Colorado, Columbia, and Limpopo Rivers to their basin states’ bilateral relations is significant.

Consequences on environment

However, water scarcity has become a significant issue of concern in recent decades. The origins of this crisis are now well known. As the World Water Council had plainly put in the 1990s: “ ... population growth — coupled with industrialisation and urbanisation — will result in an increasing demand for water and will have serious consequences on the environment.”

Water scarcity, however, is not anymore a problem for the distant future. The world is already experiencing a severe global water crisis. More than 40 per cent of the global population is suffering from water scarcity.

By 2050, an additional 2.3 billion people from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East are expected to live in severe water stress. Despite more than three decades of alarm-bell ringing and big-talk in global summits, the global water crisis has continued to become a massive challenge to humankind’s survival and well-being.

Approximately one in three people in the world, 2.2 billion are living without access to clean drinking water; 4.2 billion people lack safely managed sanitation services; and 3 billion lack basic handwashing facilities. More than 800,000 people die every year from diarrheal diseases due to unsafe drinking water, lack of sanitation, and hand hygiene. Compared to this, only about 51,000 people were killed in 2019 in 54 active armed conflicts globally.

The water crisis has become so huge that it is growing into a common global concern. And the situation is bound to get exponentially worse. Besides the apparent poverty creation inherited in and human development impediments held up by water scarcity, recent research points out that variations in water access are turning into political repression, gendered violence, and ethnic conflicts.

World’s water problems

The growing insecurity has put water scarcity on the high political agenda and made it a critical national security issue. Dangers arising from the world’s water problems often impact across state borders, with devastating consequences.

Approximately half of the global freshwater is to be found in 310 international river basins in the world. While regional and local politics complicates the policies towards efficient management of shared water resources, the threat of global climate change is increasingly undermining the existing sharing arrangements.

There is no doubt that climate change poses extreme challenges to water sharing, and it has all the potential to create political instability and violent conflicts. Thus, climate change requires the countries to have more flexible, hands-on, politically smart water resources management. But that is not happening.

Instead, many rivers have already become the source of bitter conflicts, particularly in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.

It is not that there is a lack of knowledge on managing the water in cooperation to make the best possible use of the increasingly scarce resource to avail its direct and associate benefits.

Water professionals do have that blueprint. But, to implement that, there is a basic necessity of political will for risk-taking. Unfortunately, the political leaders have found it convenient due to societal insecurity over water scarcity to do politics over water.

Rise of populism worldwide

The rise of populism worldwide has made it worse as water is being projected through the ethno-nationalist prism. Thus, it is becoming almost impossible to put the existing water management ideas into action.

The political leaders are not only at fault. Even the water professionals with their ‘we know it all’ mindset don’t care to understand the politics and political hazards while framing the water management strategies. Given the threat of water scarcity, it is essential to take politics into account while crafting water management strategies. And, at the same time, the political leaders need to learn to keep water out of their politics and delegate the water professionals the power to manage this highly precious and increasingly scarce resource.

Thus, the World Water Day celebration should send an unequivocal message towards bringing water professionals and political leaders to work together and create a synergetic water governance system. World’s water crisis is real and serious; climate change has made it exigent — there is no time for the blame game; it is high time for them to work in tandem.