Leaders and authorities recently gathered in New York for the first UN water conference in years. It was expected that there would be some significant progress in ensuring that everyone had access to safe drinking water and sanitation.
The UN Secretary General, António Guterres, called on member states to “bring the water action program to life” by developing resilient infrastructure, water pipelines and wastewater treatment plans and by implementing early warning systems against natural disasters.
But if such commitments are not supported by guaranteed funds as well as legally binding legislation – and they are not – there is a risk of undermining the energy and enthusiasm needed to achieve the UN’s own sustainable development goal , making access to clean water a human right.
Climate change and droughts, hurricanes, floods and other extreme events are making it harder to find water for human consumption. In some parts of the world like the Horn of Africa, the wells are dry and there is not enough rain anymore. The region is experiencing its worst drought in 40 years.
In places where floods are more at risk than droughts, such as the US state of Mississippi or parts of Kenya, floods have polluted fresh water supplies filled with agricultural pollutants and industrial chemicals.
Water insecurity – including everything from a lack of drinking water to the threat of homes being swept away – can have serious implications for human well-being. Flood victims in Pakistan suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, for example. All this means that clean water has become a source of widespread climate injustice, especially in the most vulnerable countries.
It is alarming that there are now more people without access to clean water than three decades ago. In 2022 in the State of the World report on Drinking Water made by the WHO, UNICEF and the World Bank, it was noted that a quarter of the world’s population is left without access to safe drinking water. People in sub-Saharan Africa have not benefited from investment and have the lowest levels of access.
In many poorer countries, access to drinking water is not recognized as a basic human right. Research I published with colleagues on water access in two of those countries, Malawi and Zambia, found that water was neither privatized nor a state provision.
Instead people in these countries depended on development aid and donor funding to dig boreholes or provide water pumps in rural areas, and if there was no help they had to organize clean water themselves on a community basis small. Many pumps and wells do not work, or are vandalized, resulting in many drinking unclean water.
In such countries there are many conflicts between politicians, traditional leaders and communities over who owns or should control water points. Many different actors are involved, including public and private organizations, non-governmental organizations, faith-based organizations and donors. All this makes the provision of water less straightforward, and coordinating these different actors is essential.
Due to this lack of coordination, along with over-reliance on donors and lack of local input in decision-making, I wonder at what point access to water will become a national priority in water-insecure countries.
Governments must take a leading role by facilitating long-term investment in the sector and promoting initiatives that incorporate the right to access water. Solutions to access to water should be part of a wider socio-economic development model that fosters awareness of rights and responsibilities.
Ultimately it is governments who manage water resources, who retain the sovereign duty to ensure the human right to safe drinking water. The water crisis is a climate justice crisis. What is needed is a commitment in terms of real funding, not just promises, to ensure the implementation of those basic human rights with the support of the United Nations.
Some good news emerged from the conference in New York, including calls for the UN to appoint a special water envoy, and a Water Action Program containing 700 commitments. Member States, development banks, large companies and non-governmental organizations have all channeled millions of pounds into the water sector.
But just as a village in Malawi might suffer from a lack of coordination between different actors trying to develop a local well, there is a risk that the same problem will occur on a global scale. What is really needed is strong leadership so that all sectors work together to ensure that everyone in the world has access to clean water.
This article from The Conversation is republished under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Tahseen Jafry receives funding from various research and development agencies