Celebrating World Water Day

collins DaudaThe global community on Sunday March 22nd celebrated World Water Day and the focus for this year’s event is “Water and Sustainable Development.” The celebration highlighted water as vital for every aspect of the human life, even though it may mean different things to each individual – without it children get sick and miss school, while women spend hours searching for water to the neglect of other more productive activities.

This year’s World Water Day also served as a reminder to people everywhere that the scarcity and misuse of fresh water pose a serious and growing threat to sustainable development and protection of the environment.

The UN System used this year’s celebration to draw attention to the fact that human health and welfare, food security, industrial development and the ecosystems on which they depend, are all at risk, unless water and land resources are managed more effectively in the present decade and beyond, than they have been in the past.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon noted that “water holds the key to sustainable development. We need it for health, food security and economic progress.” He is concerned that inspite of the importance of water to development, “…each year brings new pressures,” adding that “we must address unsustainable use…we must use what we have more equitably and wisely…guaranteeing a water secure world will require the full engagement of all actors…”

Mr. Ban’s sentiments were made at the opening session of the Budapest Water Summit two years ago and reflect current international thinking about the role of water in sustainable development.

According to the document, “Our Common Future” produced by the Brundtland Commission for the United Nations, sustainable development is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The Brundtland Commission focused on three pillars of human well being: economic, socio-political and ecological/environmental conditions.

Water is at the core of sustainable development and is critical for socio-economic development, healthy ecosystems and for human survival itself. It is critical for reducing the global burden of disease and improving the health, welfare and productivity of populations.

Water is central to the production and preservation of a host of benefits and services for people. Water is also at the heart of adaptation to climate change, serving as the crucial link between the climate system, human society and the environment.

But as a resource that is fundamental to human well-being, water is finite and irreplaceable and can pose a serious challenge to sustainable development. However, it is renewable if managed efficiently and equitably, and can play an enabling role in strengthening the resilience of socio-economic and environmental systems in the light of rapid and unpredictable changes.

Target 7C of the MDGs is dedicated to water and sanitation as part of the overall goal of realizing environmental sustainability (Goal 7 of the MDGs), thus defining the important role of water in human development and environmental sustainability. The target aimed to “halve, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation”.

According to the latest report of the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation (JMP), while remarkable achievements have been made in meeting this target, 748 million people, mostly in rural and poor areas, still lack access to an improved drinking water source. Almost a quarter of them rely on untreated surface water. And, 2.4 billion people are without access to an improved sanitation facility.

This is undermining the attainment of the MDGs for poverty eradication, education, gender equality, the reduction of child mortality, improved maternal health, the combat against major water -borne diseases and achieving environmental sustainability. These issues are inherently intertwined with water, as this crucial resource is a vehicle for diseases, and lack of access to it, brings additional burden on socio – economic inequalities.

In these uncertain times when effects of climate change on water resources are alarming, and the world is facing an exponential population growth, water challenges cannot be neglected. Human use and pollution of freshwater resources have reached a level where the sustainability of water resources is threatened and the resulting water scarcity and water quality degradation will potentially limit food production, reduce ecosystem functions, and hinder economic growth.

Pressures on water resources have increased dramatically over the past decades due to rapid demographic growth, urbanization, higher consumption levels and climate change. Water withdrawals have tripled over the last 50 years and the demand for water has increased in almost every country around the world.

Agriculture, industry and households are the main sectors which consume water, with agriculture being the biggest consumer with 70% of the total global freshwater withdrawal from rivers, lakes and aquifers. Increase in water demand is expected in all three sectors.

In 2030, half of the world population will be living in high water stressed areas. This increasing stress on water resources places millions of people under the risk of hunger, diseases, energy shortage and poverty.

Since water issues are intrinsically linked to other sustainable development issues, a global vision and worldwide commitment is consequently needed to tackle the world’s current and emerging water problems. In addition to fulfilling the human needs of clean water and sanitation, issues of over-exploitation of freshwater resources, the growing water pollution problems worldwide and water related risks should be taken into account in any new vision to reach global sustainable development.

To this end, UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme (IHP) has recommended that Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) should provide a framework to tackle water problems beyond the MDGs focus on access to water and sanitation. The proposal is to embrace other crucial water issues such as water use efficiency, water quality and wastewater management, water related disasters, as well as integrated water resources management based approach.

The UNESCO IHP’s proposal for a global goal on water in the SDGs framework in the post 2015 development agenda is “Ensure Water Security for Sustainable Development.”

This is a stand alone sustainable development goal dedicated to water. It recognizes the need for a population to safeguard access to adequate quantities of water, and acceptable quality for sustaining human and ecosystem health on a watershed basis. This idea is essentially, what World Water Day 2015 celebration tried to establish and in so doing steer all global and national development efforts towards it.

By Ama Kudom-Agyemang

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