Speakers at Conference’s Second Interactive Dialogue Point to Impact of Worldwide, Growing Water Stress on Sustainable Economic, Urban Development, Food Security
Ensuring sustainable economic and urban development in times of worldwide and increasing water stress — as a result of climate change, pollution and unsustainable water management — is one of the most pressing issues facing the world, speakers underscored as the 2023 Water Conference held its second interactive dialogue.
Opening the meeting, Co-Chair Dubravka Šuica, European Commission Vice-President for Democracy and Demography of the European Union, said that water connects all Sustainable Development Goals — from agriculture to technology to general production and consumption system. Unsustainable water management, combined with the impacts of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution, are at the core of mounting pressure on both quality and quantity of water globally. A demographic change is also a crucial factor, she noted, pointing to extended periods of drought that affect productivity in agriculture. Deforestation disrupts water cycles while water pollution from industry and households makes freshwater resources more costly to use. Against this backdrop, she detailed the European Union’s biodiversity strategy that aims to restore rivers, as well as the zero pollution action plan, which sets out the vision of pollution being reduced to levels considered no longer harmful for health and natural ecosystems.
Co-Chair Li Guoying, Minister for Water Resources of China, described water as a strategic economic resource, a determinant ecological element and an important safeguard for human survival. With over 2 billion people globally still living in countries under severe water stress, climate change coupled with intensified human activities have highlighted the importance of addressing challenges in water security. At the same time, “we are living in an era full of hope”, he said, calling for stronger bilateral and multilateral exchanges on water along an intensive development path. China practices the water governance concept, namely prioritizing water conservation by taking systematic approaches, he said.
A panel discussion was then held, moderated by Myrna Cunningham Kain of the Indigenous Peoples Major Group on Sustainable Development in Latin America and the Caribbean, and featuring A. K. Abdul Momen, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh; Nizar Baraka, Minister for Equipment and Water of Morocco; Maimunah Mohd Sharif, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat); and Tālis Juhna, Vice-Rector for Research and Professor, Riga Technical University.
Mr. Momen noted that 1.6 billion people worldwide, especially in least developed countries are likely to remain without access to safe drinking water and that 2.8 billion people would still not have access to safely managed sanitation services by 2030. More than 733 million people — one tenth of the global population — live in areas with high and critical levels of water stress. The Global Water Action Agenda must spotlight financing, technology and innovation that can help address water scarcity and crisis. Turning to the situation in Bangladesh, detailed his Government’s exercise on “valuing water” with a view to introducing shadow prices for water-intensive sectors like agriculture, industry and ecosystem conservation. The work on “valuing water” is expected to accelerate the country’s related national development strategies concerning renewable energy, coastal embankments widening and mangrove forestation. In this context, the United Nations Water Conference represents a renewed opportunity for the international community to revisit the potential role of water in addressing the ongoing food, fuel and financial crises, he emphasized.
Mr. Juhna emphasized the need for stronger collaboration between academia and Government agencies to enhance innovation for creating new technology in the water-energy-food-ecosystem nexus. He also highlighted the role of research in fostering the development of new technology, making the nexus a common practice in water business, adding that it is crucial to facilitate the inclusion of private sector in supporting the water-energy-food-ecosystem nexus technology for the market. Despite being relatively new at the political level, scientifically, the nexus has been researched for many years. A nexus approach shows a great potential to address complex challenges related to water, energy, food and ecosystems, and requires a political will to be effective. In a well-designed nexus system, different stakeholders will be interlinked, he said, stressing the need for new technology, such as nature-based solution and use of algae for food. Moreover, the interlink of different sectors for innovation will be able to promote these technologies closer to the market. In this context, he drew attention to issues such as antibiotic-resistant bacteria that should be addressed to push the concept forward.
Mr. Baraka said that his country has developed an extensive programme, with agencies focused on integrated management water systems, including, among others, the monitoring of underground and superficial water. Other initiatives include a focus on using renewable energy, “and only renewable energy”, he said, adding that those efforts work, with very low costs to run. He also spotlighted his country’s strategies on developing food security that reduce the use of conventional water and water supply of drinking water, thus leaving enough water for the agricultural sector. Morocco’s fruits and vegetables are now 100 per cent produced in the country. It is also the fourth-largest exporter in the world for tomatoes and citrus, he reported. With a strong reserve of fertilizer, plants are being developed for fertilizer by reusing water. In that regard, by 2027, there will be no use of conventional water sources, thus only producing “green” fertilizer. Further, he noted that, in efforts towards food security in Africa, his Government has introduced an adaptation initiative of the continent’s agriculture, organizing supply chain of agricultural products and guaranteeing better revenues for smallhold farmers.
Ms. Sharif said that effective urban and territorial planning is instrumental in ensuring the integration of the water sector with other urban sectors — such as land use, housing, industry, energy and transportation — and in organizing a more sustainable use of natural resources, including water. Detailing concrete actions that UN-Habitat is undertaking to limit the footprint that cities have on water quality and quantity, she pointed to the “Go Blue Project: Connecting People, Cities and the Ocean” — a partnership between the Government of Kenya and the European Union. Applying nature-based solutions in urban planning interventions can significantly reduce water stress in urban areas. Moreover, urban rivers have the potential to contribute immensely to the ecological, social and economic well-being of cities, she said, adding that the planning of rivers can be leveraged as an opportunity to promote all-round revitalization of cities and climate resilience.
The interactive dialogue also included five lead discussants: Yong-deok Cho, Secretary-General, Asia Water Council; Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Director-General, World Trade Organization (WTO); Dinara Ziganshina, Director, Scientific Information Center of Interstate Commission for Water Coordination in Central Asia; and Abou Amani, Director for Water Sciences and Secretary of the Intergovernmental Hydrological Programme, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Mr. Cho said that, to guarantee effective management of the shared resource in the frame of the water-energy-food-ecosystem nexus, inclusive multi-stakeholder platforms are needed, where actors from different sectors can disseminate data, co-monitor supply and demand, and develop innovative solutions jointly to the issues of water scarcity. Turning to the Asia and the Pacific region, whose vast fraction is agriculture-intensive, he noted that rapid industrialization and population growth maximize the demands for water in more diverse sectors. By 2030, 55 per cent of the population in the region will be living in cities, which will increase water demand for urban water supply, energy and food production, while causing water quality and sanitation problems. Detailing ways for decreasing water intensity in sectors, he cited innovation as one of the essential aspects to achieve less water intensity. In this context, he stressed the need to build national and regional platforms, which can support the industry to apply innovation for sustainable water management.
Ms. Ziganshina elaborated on concrete benefits of transboundary cooperation, pointing to an extensive consultation process with key stakeholders from Central Asia. She emphasized that Central Asian countries need to see concrete benefits of cooperation and tools to foster it, as well as understand the “business case” for cooperation across water, energy, food, land, climate and ecosystems. She also stressed the need for practical instruments to support decision-makers and operationalize the nexus thinking in their day-to-day work and mandates, including development planning. Furthermore, States should design workable financing mechanisms to promote nexus investments and engage with the private sector. These measures must be combined with targeted capacity development, research, and political and technical dialogue to drive the progress. Learning from the best practices across the globe, it is essential to build on local knowledge and home-grown institutions, she said, adding: “We need to cultivate our own water-secured and peaceful future.”
Ms. Okonjo-Iweala argued for a new economic thinking that safeguards the water cycle. Water policy does not have to be a choice between efficiency and equity, she said, noting that careful water use creates opportunities to provide people with more water. She also stressed that the world must stop undervaluing and underpricing water. Trade and trade policy can be a part of the solution to pressing global water challenges, including water scarcity and pollution, she said, noting that the world already has solutions to inadequate water management — with trade being one of them.
Mr. Amani said that the international community will not be able to sustainably address such complex interconnected water challenges at local, regional and global levels if its decisions are not anchored in science. To this end, he called for comprehensive knowledge based on water to support policy and regulation for sustainable water management. A mechanism similar to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is essential to address the issue of water, he said, noting that UNESCO will continue supporting and developing the Megacities Alliance for water and global change. He also stressed the need for a paradigm shift where everyone is relatively knowledgeable about water issues, adding that water education should be widely considered at schools.
When the floor opened for interventions, speakers highlighted the interlinkage among water, energy and food and outlined solutions to the issue of water scarcity.
The representative of the Netherlands said that a systemic crisis of water that is both local and global pushed the global water cycle out of balance for the first time in human history. With agriculture as the largest user of freshwater, the water crisis is now fuelling chronic food and health insecurities in entire regions. Moreover, the global demand for food is expected to increase by over 50 per cent by 2050 and water will become increasingly scarce, which will further undermine the global food system. In this context, the international community must rethink its approach to water management, she said, underscoring that it is time to pivot the role of water in the food system.
The representative of Mexico underlined the importance of guaranteeing human rights related to water, especially to the most vulnerable population. The comprehensive management of water resources must preserve the integrity of the water cycle to guarantee availability to all. With regards to the governance of water, decision-making should be plural, participatory, transparent in order to combat corruption and reduce inequality gaps in all sectors. In this context, she reported that Mexico has developed an innovative mechanism which incorporates women in community decision-making by giving up to 10 per cent of additional financing to rural communities.
The representative of Australia drew attention to her Government’s Aboriginal water entitlement programme, as well as laws and processes introduced to make water available, recognizing First Nations entities for current and future economic development activities. National water-management policies have not done enough to acknowledge First Nations perspectives, she said, noting her country’s efforts to change that paradigm.
The representative of Ethiopia spotlighted his country’s energy policy, noting the use of renewable energy sources to support small farmers. Moreover, his Government encourages the involvement of the private sector. Drawing attention to the drought issue in Africa, he called for the integration of the nexus programme and added that Ethiopia is doing its part by opting for drought-tolerant crop.
In closing remarks, Ms. Šuica said that water pricing plays an important role in promoting an efficient use of water resources. Calling for a comprehensive and balanced policy package, she declared: “We need to get the economics of water right.” To this end, she stressed the need to promote best local practices, strengthen integrative water resources management and promote the coordinative management of water.
Also speaking were the representatives of Iraq, Hungary, Ukraine, Singapore, Egypt, Jamaica, Chile, Tajikistan, Panama, Slovakia, Armenia and Cuba.
Representatives of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), IBM, Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research and the International Science Council also spoke.