Mr. Liu Zhenmin Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs

Keynote Speech
International Symposium on Water and Culture – Learning from Water Heritage to Innovate Regional Development

Your Majesty Emperor Naruhito,
Your Majesty Empress Masako,
Your Excellencies
Distinguished Participants,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is my great honour to join you at the International Symposium on Water and Culture – Learning from Water Heritage to Innovate Regional Development.

I take this opportunity to commend the organizers for convening this important event. I especially thank the Government of Japan for their leadership in water-related issues.

Water and culture are inseparable elements of human life. The way water is used and valued constitutes an integral part of a society’s cultural identity. It encompasses lifestyles, value systems, traditions and beliefs.

Water has a presence in our daily lives. We drink it, bathe in it, and cook with it. Our food consists largely of water and even we are largely composed of water. Given its vital role, water has always had cultural significance.

Almost all cultures developed around water. Tribes settled at the shores or on the banks of water bodies. Cities originated at the confluences of rivers. The first complex societies were irrigation-based cultures—societies as diverse as ancient Rome, China, India, Mesopotamia, pre-Columbian Mexico and Peru.

The Grand Canal of China, for example, listed under UNESCO’s World Heritage List, runs from Beijing in the north to Zhejiang province in the south. Constructed from the 5th century BC onwards, it formed the backbone of the Empire, transporting grain and strategic raw materials, and supplying rice to feed the population.

By the 13th century, it consisted of more than 2,000 km of artificial waterways, linking five of China’s main river basins. It has played an important role in ensuring the country’s economic prosperity and stability.

Indeed, water is at the core of sustainable development. It provides services that underpin poverty reduction, economic growth and a healthy ecosystem. However, in the world today, our communities are confronted with mounting water-related challenges.

Climate change, pollution and the growing demand for water are an even greater challenge to sustainable development. Over 90 per cent of disasters in the world are water-related in terms of the number of affected people.

The economic loss associated with water-related disasters, such as floods and droughts, is increasing in all regions. But most harshly in developing countries, which are often the most vulnerable. As the impact of climate change grows, so will the prospects of even further stress on water.

Over the years, Japan has repeatedly experienced water-related disasters, such as the Typhoon Hagibis, which recently caused widespread damage and the lives of too many people. These experiences, as tragic as they are, have made Japan one of the leading countries in the world when it comes to preparedness and response to water related disasters – thereby minimizing, significantly, the damages caused and lives lost.

We can all learn from Japan. We are very thankful for their global leadership in sharing experiences, building knowledge, and providing support to countries to mitigate and adapt to these impacts, which are increasing around the world.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Water and development are two sides of the same coin. Yet, we have only recently considered the intimate ways in which water affects some aspects of our development – such as food security, industrialization, international relations and the growth of cities.

The Sustainable Development Goals recognize that water is critical for sustainable development and the eradication of poverty and hunger. In particular, Goal 6 is to “Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”.

Today, progress is being made in many places, but, overall, action to meet the Goals is not yet advancing at the speed or scale required. UN Member States continue to express deep concern over the lack of access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene, and over water-related disasters, scarcity and pollution.

If we continue on this path, the world may face a 40 per cent shortfall in water availability by 2030. This would mean 1.8 billion people living with absolute water scarcity already by 2025. That is why we have embarked on a Decade of Action to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

To this end, the UN Secretary-General has called on all sectors of society to mobilize on three levels:

1. We need global action – to secure greater leadership, more resources and smarter solutions for the Sustainable Development Goals;

2. We need local action – to drive needed transitions in the policies, budgets, institutions and regulatory frameworks of governments, cities and local authorities; and

3. We need people action – to generate a movement for the required transformations – by youth, civil society, the media, the private sector, unions, academia and other stakeholders,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Achieving SDG 6 would not only strengthen the core of sustainable development efforts, but also provide the necessary conditions to achieve most, if not all, of the other SDGs. The priority now is turning this vision into reality, through national leadership and global partnership.

Fully inclusive collaboration is required to create a more workable balance between the health and well-being of local communities and ecosystems. Cultural diversity, stakeholder involvement and intercultural dialogue should therefore be the guiding principle to find solutions for water-related problems.

Recognizing the importance of advancing the global water agenda, the United Nations decided to convene the first UN Conference on Water since 1977. The conference will take place in New York, from 22 to 24 March 2023. The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) has been tasked to carry out the mandates. This will be an important opportunity to boost our collective efforts to achieve the water-related goals by 2030.

Excellencies,

Going forward, actions taken must recognize and respect the role that water plays as:

  • the lifeblood of the planet,
  • the universality of culture in human life, and
  • the contribution that cultural diversity plays in the adaptive potential of human beings.

Meeting the challenges of population growth and resource use in an increasingly stressed global environment, requires truly holistic strategies.
Local communities are invaluable partners in this regard. They represent adaptive knowledge and practices that have not only sustained engagements with water for millennia – but also offer great potential for innovation.

Indeed, meeting current and future human and environmental challenges depends on the active involvement of all water users.

Let us bind together, all people from different walks of life, over a common sense of urgency and action. Let us treasure water, protect it, and conserve it.

UN DESA is committed to supporting countries in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Sustainable Development Goals. And we stand ready to continue to work together with the Government and people of Japan.

Thank you.

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