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United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Statements

Deputy Secretary-General: Statements

London, 6 November 2014 - Deputy Secretary-General's remarks on "Tackling the Global Water Challenges - What Next?" at The Economist's World Water Summit [as prepared for delivery]

Thank you for inviting me to join you at this World Water Summit.  I thank the Economist for being the driving force behind this event. I also thank you for providing an important journalistic presence in our working lives.  Many of us at the United Nations appreciate the coverage you give to world affairs. This goes especially for issues and places that tend to be forgotten.  Today’s theme – Water with the Call for Action – is indeed a good example.

This is a timely gathering.  The world today is rife with crises.  In the Middle East, in Europe and in Africa, we see conflicts which are destroying lives and displacing millions of people.  We face serious development challenges, from the persistence of poverty to rising inequalities and alarming levels of youth unemployment.  The outbreak of Ebola in West Africa is a health emergency. But it has also taken on serious humanitarian, social and economic dimensions.

Water is a central element in this new global landscape -- running through many peace and security situations and permeating the development agenda. 

The world today is experiencing a surge of water-related crises. The eastern basin of the Aral Sea dried up completely in August, for the first time in 600 years. California is experiencing an unprecedented three-year drought.  Climate change is manifested through more frequent and intense storms, more destructive floods and more devastating droughts.

Demographic changes and unsustainable economic practices are affecting the quantity and quality of the water at our disposal in the years to come. Rapid urbanization is creating huge pressure on water use and infrastructure, with lasting consequences on human health and urban environments.  These changes make water an increasingly scarce and expensive resource — especially for the poor, the marginalized and the vulnerable. 

Let me share with you some numbers.  Demand for water is projected to grow by over 40 per cent by 2050.  An estimated 1.8 billion people will soon live in countries or regions with water scarcity.  Two-thirds of the world’s population could be living in water-stressed conditions by 2025. 

I do not want to paint an entirely dark picture.  Thanks to the global mobilization behind the Millennium Development Goals of the year 2000, two billion people have benefitted from access to improved water sources.  This is real progress. It shows what can be done with smart investments and policies, reflecting growing political will. Still, let us remember that 750 million people today do not have access to safe drinking water.

Let me make a special observation on the challenge of sanitation, which is closely linked to equitable and quality access to water.

Roughly 80 per cent of global water is discharged in untreated ways into oceans, rivers and lakes. Nearly 2 million children under the age of five die every year for want of clean water and decent sanitation.  One billion people in 22 countries still defecate in the open. Two and a half billion people do not have proper sanitation. 

That is why I launched a Call to Action on sanitation last year on behalf of the UN Secretary-General. We want to break the silence and taboo surrounding toilets and open defecation.  These words must be natural elements of the diplomatic discourse on development.  On 19 November we will celebrate the first official World Toilet Day at the UN to draw attention to the global sanitation crisis.

Too often, policy-makers have viewed sanitation as an outcome, an arrival point, in development efforts.  Sanitation was nowhere to be found in the initial Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).  Since 2002 it is one of the key goals of the MDGs. It is also one of the proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the period 2015-2030.   Experience has shown that sanitation and sound hygiene practices are critical drivers of development –securing health, saving lives and enabling people to realise their potential. 

Here, I would like to make a special appeal to the private sector to engage actively with the UN Global Compact -- the UN’s main corporate sustainability initiative.  The Compact's CEO Water Mandate now includes more than 125 companies committed to advance corporate water stewardship and better sanitation practices. 

These companies, from all sectors, recognize that water stress and water scarcity, along with sanitation needs, pose a range of business and ethical challenges as well as risks.  They have launched the Water Action Hub, the world’s first digital platform to match companies and stakeholders.  The projects are innovative and inspiring. Let me cite three examples:

• An international pharmaceutical company, together with UN-Habitat and other partners, has launched the “Support My School” initiative, providing clean water and sanitation to schools across India.

• A major beverage and food company has become a significant donor in the Inter-American Development Bank’s AquaFund, providing water and sanitation access in the Latin America and the Caribbean regions.

• A global consumer products corporation has launched a number of advocacy-research initiatives, including “We Can’t Wait”, which focuses on the plight of women in the sanitation crisis.

Corporate engagement on sanitation ensures healthy work-forces and societies.  Sanitation is also a business opportunity, as there are millions and millions of people in need.   We at the United Nations look forward to the contributions of the private sector to efficient water use, water treatment and desalination.

We should draw strength from this potential.  United Nations Member States have embarked on an ambitious and transformative endeavour. They are to elaborate a post-2015 development agenda that places all nations and economies firmly on the path of sustainable development.

This past July, Member States put forward 17 proposed sustainable development goals.  One of them is the goal of ensuring the “availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”.

This goal addresses water challenges in a more integrated manner.   It involves all three dimensions of sustainable development: (1) the economic (by stressing affordability); (2) the social (through a focus on equitable access); and (3) the environmental (by aiming to reduce pollution and protect ecosystems).  Water also figures prominently in some of the other proposed goals, reflecting its cross-cutting nature. The final negotiations on the goals will take place next year and are to be finalized by the end of September.

By December next year in Paris we also hope to conclude an ambitious new agreement on climate change. This could have important consequences for water conservation and management.

Around today’s world, we see how the lack of access to water can fuel conflict and even threaten peace and stability. That is why I would also like to use our time together today to highlight the importance of what I would call hydro diplomacy, or water diplomacy.

Degraded access to water as a result of climate change, or population pressures, risks creating social tensions, political instability and intensified refugee flows.  Even more disturbing is when we see this resource used as a weapon of war.

I witnessed this first-hand during the Darfur conflict in Sudan.  On one trip in 2007, to the North of Darfur as we arrived in a village, we were met by a group of women chanting, “Water, water, water.”  The enemy militia had poisoned their well, they said. Now they had to move to the over-crowded camps for internally displaced people.

In Iraq, ISIL, “Daesh”, has exploited access to water to expand its control over territory and to subjugate the population. This extremist group has cut off water to villages resisting its advance.  It has deliberately flooded substantial areas of land, displacing thousands of civilians.  In recent months, it has directed its operations to Iraqi hydroelectric dams – in particular, the Mosul dam.  All of Mosul and 500,000 people in Baghdad would be in grave peril if the dam were to burst -- a chilling prospect.


We have also seen upstream/downstream tensions related to large hydroelectric projects, including the Rogun Dam in Tajikistan and the Grand Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia.  As we know, neighboring countries have expressed deep concerns.  Energy and agricultural interests are clashing.

Tensions over water will clearly be exacerbated by climate change.  Such tensions are also more likely to translate into conflict if there are fragile governance structures, social instability or growing political strains between affected states.

Still, it would be a mistake to get caught up in “water-war” rhetoric.  Certainly, as fresh water shortages become increasingly acute, the threat of violence over water is a real one.  But we must not lose sight of the opportunities that water offers as a source of cooperation.  Tensions over water resources have historically led to more collaboration than conflict. 

Shared water in the past brought states together. The 1960 Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan survived three wars and remains in force today.  The Indus Treaty has been instrumental in preventing water from becoming a weapon in those conflicts.  Lake Titicaca has long been an arena of cooperation between Bolivia and Peru. 

Despite discriminatory practices of water distribution and allocation, water-use has been one area where limited cooperation has been possible between Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians. Still, a more equitable distribution of water between Palestinians and Israelis on the West Bank could be an important confidence-building measure in the troubled situation today.

In other words, water can and should drive cooperation and conflict resolution.  Over 90 per cent of the world's population lives in countries that share river and lake basins.  The 148 countries which share at least one transboundary river basin have had to share their joint water resources for a long time. Almost 450 agreements on international waters were signed between 1820 and 2007.  The Water Convention forged under the auspices of the UN Economic Commission for Europe is one such notable agreement.

Moreover, shared water access can create space for inter-state dialogue on points of contention, which, if left unattended, may threaten regional or international peace and security.

One recent example of such cooperation is among countries of the Lake Chad Basin. Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria established the Basin Commission in 1964 to manage the declining waters of Lake Chad equitably. They were later joined by other concerned States, including Libya and the Central African Republic.  This year, the mandate of the Commission was expanded to cover regional security challenges such as terrorism, the arms trade and cross-border insurgencies.

The United Nations stands ready to support such efforts.  The United Nations Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia has been working closely with the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea, a regional organization supported by all five Central Asian Governments.

All this to say that “hydro-diplomacy” is a reality.  The potential for shared management of water as a means to achieve regional cooperation and conflict prevention is vital.  We need to focus our efforts in diplomacy, economic life and science on water as a source of cooperation, rather than as a source of conflict.  This is a challenge that the World Water Summit, in my view, could accept and respond to positively, I suggest.

The UN has recognized water as a human right, and that access to water is essential for the realization of all human rights.  Our work on water must proceed from the understanding that water is a limited resource and a public good, fundamental for life and health.  This should impel us all – and States in particular – to ensure the full realization of these human rights.  Water and sanitation are to be available, accessible, safe and affordable for all, without discrimination.

Let us also remember that water scarcity by no means is restricted to developing economies.  Key river systems such as the Murray-Darling in Australia and the Rio Grande along the border between Mexico and the United States show signs of serious scarcity-related environmental stress.

Looking ahead, we need smarter, integrated water management approaches that span the major areas of water use -- agriculture and power-generation.  We need to break down policy silos, and put new incentives and fiscal instruments in place. 

We need better waste management to protect rivers and lakes from contamination. We need closer attention to water conservation and the creation of protected areas and watersheds. 

We need to be more creative and use technology to explore the frontiers of desalination of “blue water” as well as the use of “brown water”.

We need global partnerships.  No single government can implement the water agenda alone.

We need mobilization of action by the Member States through the United Nations.  Our efforts are wide-ranging.  They include norm-setting by UN bodies such as the Human Rights Council, and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.  We also have various mechanisms, established by treaties and other agreements, as well as cases handled by the International Court of Justice. 

Many UN agencies, like UNDP, supported by the umbrella entity UN-Water, provide direct support on the ground, in the form of policy guidance, training and technical assistance.  

We need increased national and international cooperation with the participation of all stake-holders.  In this area, it is easy to conclude the good international solutions are in the national interest. 

Finally, and in closing, we need leadership in the spirit of engaged and compassionate national and global citizenship.  Let there be no more deferring of difficult decisions.  We must not saddle future generations with problems we can solve today.  The water and sanitation challenges belong to this category.

Thank you for your attention.