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Amid conflicts and climate change, U.N. puts focus on ‘deep trouble’ in water worldwide


For the first time in 46 years, the United Nations convened a world conference on water, giving new impetus to broad efforts to manage water more sustainably, adapt to worsening droughts and floods with climate change, and accelerate solutions for the approximately 2 billion people around the world who live without access to clean drinking water.

This week’s conference in New York brought together some 10,000 participants, including national leaders and scientists, with the goal of tackling the world’s many water issues and moving toward the goal of guarantee drinking water and sanitation for everybody.

“Water is the soul of humanity,” said UN Secretary General António Guterres. “But the water is in serious trouble. We are draining humanity’s lifeblood through vampiric overconsumption and unsustainable use, and evaporating it through global warming. We have broken the water cycle, destroyed ecosystems and contaminated groundwater.”

Governments, non-profit groups, companies and others made hundreds of commitments in what the UN called a Water Action Agendawith commitments as diverse as addressing scarcity in water-scarce regions and cleanup of lead-contaminated drinking water. Countries from the United States to Japan have pledged to spend billions of dollars to help improve water infrastructure.

He conference Discussions on nature-based solutions, such as restoring river floodplains and coastal wetlands, and dismantling concrete flood control channels to allow stormwater to recharge aquifers, were also highlighted.

Leaders discussed strategies for adapting water management to become more resilient as climate change melts glaciers, rises sea levels and intensifies droughts and floods. Since most natural disasters are related to water, UN officials said reducing risks should be an urgent priority.

As water scarcity has worsened in arid regions, violence over water has been on the rise.

Peter Gleick, climatologist and co-founder of the Pacific Institute, research presented showing that over the past two decades, water-related conflicts have become increasingly frequent, with more violence erupting over access to water in India, Iran, and other countries in the Middle East and Africa.

“No region of the world has been immune from the risk of violence associated with water resources,” Gleick said.

“There is increasing competition for water. Populations are increasing. Economies are expanding. The demands for the fixed amount of water on the planet (are) expanding,” Gleick said. “There are inequities, great inequities throughout the world, in who has access to and control of water resources. That adds to the tensions.”

Gleick and other researchers have for years tracked data on water-related conflicts, including incidents where water is a trigger for violence or is used as a “weapon”, or where water systems are affected by violence. They have also investigated Strategies to Reduce Conflict.

Conflicts over water have broken out between farmers and urban dwellers in India, and between farmers and herders in Kenya. Recent incidents they have included killings of farmers in water disputes in Pakistan and a protest in Iran that ended in violence when farmers demonstrated in a dry riverbed to demand that the government address shortages.

In regions already plagued by poverty and violence, water crises, be they floods, droughts or shortages, have growing number of displaced people who have left and migrated to other places.

About 40% of the world’s population is affected by water scarcity, according to the United Nations, and the demand for water continues to grow.

The effects of climate change add to the pressures, Gleick said, and “many of the places where conflicts over water occur are places with weak governance.”

Scientific research has shown that with increasing levels of greenhouse gases, climate change is intensifying the water cycle and causing more extreme droughts and floods.

In the western United States, researchers found that rising temperatures worsened more than two decades of drought and contributed to a 20 percent decline in Colorado River flow since 2000.

Using satellite measurements, scientists have found that groundwater is running out fast in many food-producing regions around the world, from India to the western United Statesand that many dry regions have grown drier.

“The pace and scale at which things are happening is unprecedented,” said Jay Famiglietti, a water scientist and professor at Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability. In regions around the world where groundwater is being pumped and largely depleted, Famiglietti said, improving management will be crucial to continuing food production and preserving aquifers for the future.

Famiglietti said he believes the world should move towards a global framework for water similar to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and its targets to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels.

“We need to have a general guideline,” Famiglietti said, “that countries need to start committing to reducing their groundwater use or becoming more efficient, and thinking about their groundwater supplies in the long term and how they will be maintained.”

Because businesses, and particularly the food industry, account for a large part of water use, Famiglietti said, they also have a key role to play. He said the discussions at the UN conference showed that “corporate water stewardship has become a key priority at C-suite and board levels.”

The conference opened on World Water Day on Wednesday and ended on Friday. The first United Nations Conference on Water was held in 1977 in Argentina. Since then, the Earth’s population has more than doubled and water consumption has increased dramatically, putting pressure on resources that are projected to continue to grow.

“We really have to revalue water and start managing, organizing and governing it in a totally different way,” said Henk Ovink, co-chair of the conference and the Netherlands’ special envoy for international water issues.

Ovink said that “institutionalizing water security is going to be of vital importance to the world,” and that commitments from countries, companies, and organizations will drive action toward a “safe water future.”

Ambika Vishwanath, a water expert and director of the Kubernein Initiative in Mumbai, said water management needs to change in India and other countries to prevent overuse and prioritize resource protection.

“We have to think about where it comes from. Is that water resource also protected for the future?” Viswanath said. He said protecting source watersheds, including rivers and groundwater, is vital because “that access is going to disappear one day if we haven’t thought about the other side of that pipeline.”

Many at the conference spoke of the need to work with nature to manage water, including by restoring healthy ecosystems in floodplains, wetlands, and forests.

“Nature-based solutions are a great option, because they are a gentler, less intrusive option,” said Leslie Duncan, Senior Aboriginal Consultant at Alluvium Consulting and CEO of Economic Participation of Indigenous Communities in Australia. “The hard solutions of steel, cement and dams are not necessarily the right solutions. So we need to focus on thinking about Mother Nature and how we can consider those nature-based solutions that can deliver.”

Participants also discussed the role of indigenous peoples in govern shared water resources.

Duncan, of the Kamilaroi Aboriginal people, said inclusive governance is vital in deciding how water is allocated and that indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge of agriculture and other issues can provide critical guidance for sustainable water practices.

“In Australia, indigenous peoples have coexisted on the driest inhabited continent on the planet in a symbiotic way,” Duncan said.

“Much of the knowledge about water is with our indigenous women globally. And the term that we have introduced here, from Australia, is the rematriation of that knowledge,” Duncan said.

“The issue of climate change is here. It is every day. So we need to look at the type of technology and the water infrastructure that is going to be delivered, that can withstand the pressures,” Duncan said. “We will be judged by our next generation on the state of the environment and the type of society they will become.”

The UN secretary-general said the commitments made at the conference “will propel humanity into the future of safe water that every person on the planet needs.”

He said key priorities include reducing pressures on water resources and developing alternative farming systems to address unsustainable overuse of water in food production. The leaders also agreed, among other things, to create a new global water information system by 2030.

Felicia Marcus, a water researcher at Stanford University, said she hopes the conference will lead to a burst of action to move toward the UN. Sustainable Development Goal 6 — ensure access to clean water and sanitation for all, which the world body has enshrined as a fundamental requirement human right.

“Hopefully it’s been more than a water talk fest and something comes out of it,” Marcus said.

“The first thing on the list is to really accelerate work on the human right to water and bring clean water and sanitation to everyone in the world,” he said. “That is not impossible to do. But it requires a concentrated effort.”

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