Half a billion people face water scarcity all the year round. UNDP, through its water, climate, biodiversity and other programmes, works with stakeholders at all levels, from government to the private sector to local communities, to address the water crisis. ©UNDP

 

Opening

Students, Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen, Friends,

It is my great pleasure to join you today at the 43rd Annual UNIS-UN Conference.

This conference was started in 1976 by Ms. Sylvia Gordon, a humanities teacher at UNIS with about 30 students. The event has been a great success, growing over the years to include about 600 students from UNIS and other schools around the world. The conference is now hosted in this historic location, the hall of the UN General Assembly.

The conference, which has addressed a variety of important themes, has become part of the UNIS curriculum. It builds on the values and skills the students develop over their years at school and represents an important part of the strong relationship between UNIS and the UN.

Background on UN, UNDP

I know that all of you have a keen interest in the United Nations which was founded in 1945 after the devastating Second World War which cost millions of lives and devastated large parts of Europe and Asia. There were 51 original Member States which came together and committed to maintain international peace and security, develop friendly relations among nations. They also dedicated efforts to further social progress, better living standards and human rights.

Today, the UN has grown to 193 members which is one indicator of its success. It has four main purposes: to keep peace throughout the world; to develop friendly relations among nations; to help nations work together to improve the lives of poor people, to conquer hunger, disease and illiteracy, and to encourage respect for each other’s rights and freedoms. The UN also serves as a centre to harmonize the actions of nations to achieve these goals.

Although best known for peacekeeping, peacebuilding, conflict prevention and humanitarian assistance, there are many other ways the UN and its System (specialized agencies, funds and programmes) affect our lives and make the world a better place.

I head the United Nations Development Programme, or UNDP, which was established as we now know it, in 1965, by the General Assembly. UNDP, which has its headquarters here in New York, is the UN's global development network, advocating for change and connecting countries to knowledge, experience and resources to help people build a better life.

UNDP is on the ground in some 170 countries and territories, supporting their own solutions to development challenges and developing national and local capacities that will help them achieve human development and the Sustainable Development Goals. Our work is concentrated on three main focus areas: sustainable development, democratic governance and peacebuilding, climate and disaster resilience. UNDP also helps countries attract and use aid effectively. In all our activities, UNDP promotes gender equality and the protection of human rights.

The Water Crisis

This year’s theme, Ripple Effect: The Water Crisis, is timely in many respects we see so many people struggle to get access to something that many of us take for granted – a simple glass of water.  The UN keenly recognizes this major challenge.

Here in this very hall in 2015, where you are sitting today, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which set the global development agenda up to 2030. The adoption of the goals was rightly met by the audience with a standing ovation given their ambition.

Recognizing that water is fundamental to the survival of all life on earth and is a key driver for human development, the SDGs included a standalone goal for water - SDG number 6 which the whole UN System must strive for:

 “Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”

SDG 6 is ambitious to say the least – it calls for everyone to be able to access to safe water and sanitation, to significantly reduce pollution, to dramatically increase water use efficiency, to protect water ecosystems and to improve transboundary cooperation, among others.

SDG 6 is so important that many experts believe that if we cannot make progress on safe water and sanitation, the other SDGs cannot be achieved given its cross-cutting nature e.g. health, gender equality, education. SDG 6 is also very much interrelated with the other SDGs.

What I hope to underscore to you today is that the global water crisis, while indeed a crisis that includes issues of water scarcity, is more fundamentally a crisis of governance. For this reason, governance is the primary focus of UNDP’s work on water.  By governance, I mean the range of political, social, economic and administrative systems for developing and managing water resources and the delivery of related services.

Closely linked to SDG 6 – and all the SDGs – is SDG number 16 which calls for the promotion of just, peaceful and inclusive societies - which captures the core element of a “social compact” between state and society. Such an agreement needs to speak to people’s needs, rights and expectations of what the state and other actors will deliver – including services like water, sanitation and waste management.

The building of responsive, accountable and transparent institutions is critical and is something that the United Nations and UNDP in particular helps to support on a daily basis across the globe through is assistance.  

Water Scarcity

Most of you have heard some of the daunting figures and news stories regarding water scarcity.  Some four billion people – more than half the Earth’s population – face some form of water scarcity for at least one month every single year.  Half a billion people face water scarcity all the year round.  People running out of water is not a scene from a disaster movie – this is happening every day around the world.

The world watched last year as Cape Town in South Africa faced the unprecedented situation as it was literally running out of water. The government announced “Day Zero” – a moment when dam levels would be so low that they would turn off the taps in the city and send people to communal water collection points. This shock announcement made people think twice about their water use. Residents of the city started showering standing over buckets to catch and re-use water. People also limited flushing toilets to once a day while other recycled water from their washing machines. Thanks to actions such as these, the dreaded “Day Zero” was narrowly averted.

The situation in Cape Town highlights how we all need to think about how we use and indeed, waste water.

Increasing water efficiency Integrated Water Resources Management

SDG target 6.4 addresses water scarcity, aiming to ensure that there is sufficient water for the population, the economy and the environment by increasing water-use efficiency across all sectors of society.

Fundamental to achieving this target is the concept and practice known as Integrated Water Resources Management (or IWRM).

IWRM is often characterized by the “three E’s”: Economic Efficiency, Equity, and Environmental Sustainability. Achieving these targets is done by working towards finding a balance in the use of water for both human sustenance and productive uses such as agriculture.

UN-Water, in its 2012 global review of progress on IWRM, showed progress by many countries. However, it also found that much remained to be done including integrating IWRM into broader development planning and financing.

UNDP supports many developing countries to advance their progress on IWRM through a range of capacity-building activities such as UNDP’s Cap-Net programme which trained 2,000 water professionals in 2018 alone in sustainable water management.

Need for increased transboundary cooperation

A key element of IWRM is transboundary cooperation.

Some 40 percent of the earth’s land surface area consists of shared river basins in which about half of the world resides. Of the world’s 286 transboundary river systems, only around 60 per cent have any kind of cooperative management arrangements. The story is even worse for transboundary groundwater or aquifer systems: only seven of the known 400 or so systems have any kind of agreement in place.

A recent analysis by the think tank, the Strategic Foresight Group, noted that no two countries with water agreements in place have ever gone to war, for any reason.

There is an obvious need for the international community to do more to facilitate cooperation on water management. There can be enormous benefits including enhanced regional economic and transport integration.

UNDP, through its GEF-financed International Waters portfolio, is supporting joint integrated management of 19 shared river, lake and aquifer systems representing over 70 countries, with a particular focus on Africa’s river systems.

Water pollution

Our planet’s surface and sub-surface waters – and the coastal areas that receive effluent from rivers and groundwater – are also facing severe challenges from pollution.

Nearly half a million people die every year due to waterborne diseases, which is the dominant cause of water-related fatalities and not, as many may believe, the absolute lack of any water to drink.

While the Millennium Development Goal (or MDG) for water was achieved, with 91% having an ‘improved water source’ as of 2015, SDG 6.1 set a much more ambitious agenda calling for ‘safe and affordable drinking water’. However, at present, some 2.1 billion people still do not have access to safe drinking water.  

The Human Right to Water and Sanitation was recognized by the United Nations General Assembly in 2010. It placed major responsibilities upon governments to ensure that people can enjoy sufficient, safe, accessible and affordable water, without discrimination.

Since the industrial revolution, nitrogen pollution inputs from rivers to the ocean, largely from agricultural and municipal wastewater sources, have roughly tripled, driving the creation of now some 500 hypoxic or low-oxygen zones in the world’s coastal areas.

SDG 6.3 calls for halving the proportion of untreated wastewater by 2030 yet some 80 per cent of the world’s wastewater is still released into waterways untreated. We have seen stark examples of how damaging this can be.

The Black Sea experienced unprecedented degradation when runoff from the agricultural sector such as fertilizers and livestock waste as well as domestic and industrial waste polluted the sea, causing a large “dead zone”.  Over a 15-year period, UNDP worked closely with the 17 countries of the Danube/Black Sea basin, the Danube and Black Sea Commissions, the World Bank, the European Union and other partners to clean-up the sea. This partnership helped reduce nutrient loads from the Danube to the Black Sea to levels that helped to eliminate the “dead zone”.

Sanitation

One area that needs urgent attention is the continued slow progress in global access to safe sanitation.

The Millennium Development Goals unfortunately missed the sanitation target by nearly 700 million people, leaving 2.3 billion people without ‘basic sanitation’, and, under SDG 6.2, an estimated 4.5 billion lack access to “safely managed” sanitation. 

These sizeable gaps in access to water and sanitation have a myriad of consequences that you may not have thought about. It can keep girls out of school as they need to fetch water. This can lead to diminished opportunities to realize people’s capabilities and human potential, which in turn represents a drag on economic growth.

The 2006 UNDP Human Development Report “Beyond Scarcity: Power, poverty and the global water crisis”, still resonates with its basic premise - the water crisis is rooted in power structures, inequality, and lack of political will, not strict water availability.

UNDP’s work on water and sanitation, such as through its GoAL-WaSH programme, has helped post-conflict countries such as Tajikistan where we assisted with the mainstreaming of the human right to water into the Government’s water-related policy implementation.

Climate Change

It is impossible to talk about the water crisis without talking about climate change which is also one of UNDP’s key priorities for 2019.

The global greenhouse effect, by increasing the amount of energy in the land-ocean-atmosphere system, is accelerating the global hydrological (water) cycle, leading to increased frequency and intensity of climate extremes, from droughts to rainfall events to hurricanes.

These changes are already severely impacting the lives and livelihoods of millions of people around the world; the only way we can start to slow and mitigate the water-related impacts of climate change is to take urgent steps to meet our commitments under the UNFCCC’s Paris Agreement.

It is important to remember that UNDP has the largest climate portfolio, both mitigation and adaptation, in the entire UN system.  UNDP assists over 120 countries in a wide range of areas, from preparation of their Paris Agreement Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, to accessing funding sources for on-the-ground climate mitigation and adaptation actions.

Youth and water- what can you do? / “Call to Action”

It is not only the United Nations who addresses the water crisis. Youth can and must play active role in protecting the environment including water.

You can make small lifestyle changes to play your part that will make a difference. We need to look at how we waste water and how we treat our bodies of water. Look at the fact that one million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute, while up to 5 trillion single-use plastic bags are used worldwide every year. Much of this plastic ends up in our oceans or waterways. You can use a refillable water bottle instead of a single-use water or drinks bottle and refuse to use single-use plastics such as cutlery.

Perhaps more importantly – you have the ability to inspire young people. adults and especially the policymakers around you. You can encourage your schools, homes and youth organizations to be even more environmentally sound. You can push for initiatives that conserve the precious resource that is water.

Don’t be afraid to be active and get involved. I am so glad to see the enthusiasm for this important subject from all those here today.

Closing

In closing, let me once again thank UNIS for inviting me to address you today.  There is indeed a global water crisis and it is at its root a crisis of governance. The entire UN System is putting the water crisis high on the agenda.

Youth will play a crucial role in changing the way we think about water.

UNDP, through its water, climate, biodiversity and other programmes, works with stakeholders at all levels, from government to the private sector to local communities, to address the water crisis. It is key to address these governance issues so that water is managed better.

What is fair to say is that without progress on SD6, it will be much harder to achieve the other SDGs given that water and sanitation impacts upon so much of daily life including health, education and gender equality to name but a few.

We must work together with the ultimate goal in mind - to ensure that everyone on this planet has access to safe water and sanitation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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