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Water Security: A Lifeline for People and Planet

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Viewpoint by Inge Kaul*

BERLIN (IDN) – In the face of upsurge of the coronavirus, World Water Day 2020 may seem to have no relevance. But the fact is that water is vital for life on earth. It is inextricably linked to climate change, protecting health and saving lives. Water is essential for practicing hand hygiene and combating the spread of COVID-19 and many other infectious diseases.

Therefore, I am deeply concerned about the relatively low-level of attention and priority accorded to water at the practical-political level.

Inge KaulThough important progress has been achieved in increasing people’s access to safe drinking water and sanitation services, water scarcity for about one quarter of the world’s population is a stark reality.

Analysts warn that the spillovers from water scarcity can be serious and many. Agricultural and industrial production, mining and transport could, for example, be disrupted, economic growth falter, social tensions, conflict and, even, war be funnelled, leading, in turn, to swelling flows of internal displacement and international migration.

Importantly, while some spillovers may ‘just’ be of local, national or regional reach others will be worldwide. Just think of the high volume of so-called virtual water trade. About 40% of Europe’s water footprint is virtual water, i.e. water embedded in imported goods, including goods from water-stressed countries.

Water stress is evidently a global challenge. It concerns us all, current and future human generations, animals and plants – the entire planet.

Isn’t it odd, therefore, that policymakers tend to treat water as, what I call, a second-tier policy issue, i.e.: as a good (thing) that matters, because it is needed for the production of desired first-tier policy outcomes, such as wheat, maize, avocados, bananas, cotton (including cotton clothes), urban development and road construction, lithium mining, or swimming pools and other spa-facilities?

Water as an input is in high demand. Many need it; and forward-looking investors have already obtained water-use rights. Not only land-grabbing but water-grabbing, too, could soon intensify, as global warming proceeds. But global warming is only one driver of water scarcity besides population growth and increasingly water-intensive production and consumption patterns.

Water, too, is a most complex good and, importantly, one that is available only in limited supply, even if we manage its use carefully. All the more to govern it efficiently and equitable so that it can meet to basic conditions viz. (i) be there for all and (ii) be used sustainably.

However, who is in charge of water at the national and international levels? Where is the global intergovernmental water forum mandated to address water as a global policy issue in its own right and complexity – a first-tier issue? And who would be the national counterparts of this global intergovernmental water forum?

My impression is that we urgently need to build a global water architecture that deals with the various national and international, public and private facets of water in a comprehensive and integrated manner and is endowed with competencies and resources commensurate with water’s essential role for life on earth.

Therefore, on March 22, this year’s World Water Day, let’s not just pour out more nice words about water as a human right or that progress towards SDG 6 should be scaled-up and accelerated. We said it all before. Let’s shift policy gears and translate words into deeds!

This year’s Water Day is the 27th!  In three years, we will celebrate the 30th anniversary of this Day which was proclaimed in 1992 by the United Nations General Assembly and observed, for the first time, in 1993.

Therefore, I call on UN Member States, civil society and business to consider requesting the UN Secretary-General to establish a small special commission on water security.

It should be tasked with hold worldwide multi-actor and stakeholder consultations on national and international water governance, report on findings in the autumn of 2021 so that delegations have sufficient time in 2022 to prepare for a high-level debate and decision-making on a new global water governance architecture in 2023 – in honour of the 30th World Water Day.

* Inge Kaul is a Senior Fellow of the Hertie School of Governance, Berlin, Germany and Non-Resident Fellow of the Center for Global Development, Washington, DC. She is advisor to various governmental, multilateral and non-profit organizations on policy options to meet global challenges. She was the first director of UNDP’s Human Development Report Office, from 1989 to 1994. [IDN-InDepthNews – 20 March 2020]

Image credit: World Water Day

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