Deputy UN chief calls for ‘hydro-diplomacy’ as world faces growing water shortages

Photo: UNICEF/Wathiq Khuzaie

30 March 2015 – The international community must gear up for a new era of “hydro-diplomacy” as the threat of water scarcity risks plunging the world into a period of geopolitical tension and stunted development, United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson told delegates gathered at the General Assembly today.

“Water is one of the highest priorities for development and lives in dignity, as well as a serious factor in maintaining peace and security,” the Deputy Secretary-General said in remarks to open the High-Level Interactive Dialogue on the International Decade for Action ‘Water for Life,’ 2005-2015.

“The lack of water causes individual tragedies,” he continued. “And it also, growingly, constitutes a threat to international peace and security. There is a need for ‘hydro-diplomacy’ – making scarce water a reason for cooperation, rather than a reason for conflict.”

Mr. Eliasson warned that in a period of “intensifying disasters, both man-made and natural,” social and economic stresses related to water supply would increasingly flare up, spawning tensions between communities and nations.

The dire straits facing the world’s water situation was recently amplified in the UN’s 2015 World Water Development report, released by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and in time for last week’s World Water Day.

According to the report, the planet will face a 40 per cent shortfall in water supply in 2030 unless the international community “dramatically” improves water supply management. Demand for water is slated to skyrocket 55 per cent by 2050 while 20 per cent of global groundwater is already overexploited.

As such, the Deputy Secretary-General called for greater international cooperation based on the growing communal urgency and need for water around the world.

“Shared water sources have historically brought countries closer together. Instead of seeing water-sharing as a problem, we have to treat it as a potential solution, with the help of innovative and dynamic hydro-diplomacy,” he added.

Mr. Eliasson’s remarks come as Member States prepare to roll out a post-2015 development agenda that will focus on sustainability and which may also touch upon issues of issues of water governance and quality to wastewater management and the prevention of natural disasters.

Water consumption, the UN has noted, also directly affects quality of life for millions of people around the world in developing and least developed countries.

On average, nearly 1,000 children die every day from diarrhoeal disease linked to unsafe drinking water, poor sanitation, or poor hygiene. In three countries in particular – the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mozambique and Papua New Guinea – more than half the population does not have improved drinking water.

“The impact of water on human health as well as economic well-being is better understood than a decade ago, including water’s critical importance for households, industries, agriculture, cities, energy production and transportation,” President of the General Assembly, Sam Kutesa, stated in a message to the meeting delivered by the Permanent Representative of Iceland to the United Nations, Einar Gunnarsson.

He observed that despite the considerable accomplishments made under the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), some 800 million people continue to live without access to an improved water source while many more remain without a safe and sustainable water supply.

Nevertheless, as the international community hurtles through a year of critical international meetings culminating in the post-2015 development agenda negotiations in New York in September and the climate change summit in Paris in December, the chance to reverse course and build a better future remains within reach.

“This year represents a pivotal opportunity for the international community,” he concluded. “We are in the midst of an historic opportunity to change our world by improving livelihoods everywhere and protecting our planet.”

At the same time, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to water and sanitation, Léo Heller, sought to frame the issue of water within a human rights viewpoint, emphasizing that everyone is “equally entitled to have access to safe, affordable and accessible water and sanitation.”

“What is needed is a better application of resources – by identifying and targeting those who still do not have access; by practicing effective mechanisms for affordability; by integrating the principle of equality and non-discrimination in policies and programmes and by putting in place the necessary physical and regulatory frameworks to monitor who are benefitting from interventions and who are being left behind,” he affirmed.

“No one should be left without access to water and sanitation under the new post-2015 development framework.”


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