Africa: Thirsting for Water Security?

A child washes his hands.
20 March 2020

Berlin, Germany — Water is essential and indispensable for life on earth. We know that; and many of us have perhaps heard, written and uttered these words themselves a 'million' times.

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

Certainly, quite some attention has been paid to increasing people's access to safe drinking water and sanitation services; and important progress has been achieved in this respect.

However, what will happen to this achievement, in the case of water scarcity - when pipes run dry? For many people and countries, an estimated one quarter of the world's population, dried-up water pipes are not only a hypothetical risk but already 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 funneled, 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.

Clearly, water stress is a global challenge. It concerns us all, current and future human generations, animals and plants - the planet as a whole.

Given these facts and figures, isn't it odd 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 22 March, 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 (UN) General Assembly and observed, for the first time, in 1993.

Therefore, my recommendation to concerned UN Member States, civil society and business is: Please, do consider requesting the UN Secretary-General to establish a small special commission on water security to hold worldwide multi-actor and stakeholder consultations on national and international water governance, report on its findings in the autumn of 2021 so that delegations have time in 2022 to prepare for a high-level debate and decision-making on a new global water governance architecture in 2023 -in honor of the 30th World Water Day.

Aren't you, too, thirsting for water security, for doing first things first?

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