Towards a World Water Agenda
Under no circumstances could World Water Day be allowed to pass without taking stock of the state of the world’s water. Without wishing to be defeatist, UNESCO and UN-Water are warning of an imminent global freshwater crisis. Indeed, between two and three billion people are experiencing water shortages, which will tend to worsen over the coming decades, particularly in cities.
In 2015, all members of the United Nations adopted the 2030 Agenda, in which 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were set. Goal 6 (SDG 6 ) is directly related to water and aims to ensure access to water and sanitation for all, as well as to ensure sustainable management of water resources. But it is clear that SDG 6 has a large impact on the achievement of the rest of the SDGs, such as SDG 2 (Zero Hunger), SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-being), SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities), SDG 13 (Action on Climate Change), SDG 14 (Aquatic Life), SDG 16 (Peace, Justice and Effective Institutions)
The 2023 UN Water Conference is the first event of its kind in almost 50 years. Indeed, the resolution of 20 December 2018 on the “midterm comprehensive review of the implementation of the International Decade for Action, ‘Water for Sustainable Development'”, which foresees the Conference on 22-24 March 2023 to result in an action programme on water.
Water demand :
What about the quantities of water consumed, available, renewable and accessible?
The 3 main sectors of water use are cities, industry and agriculture.
For the first, the increase in demand is mainly due to the expansion of water supply services. In the latter, water is used in three ways: as a thermal fluid, as a cleaning fluid or as a solvent or raw material in the manufacturing process. Demand comes from water-efficient processes, energy production. But demand may decrease as industries become more water efficient, or make the wise choice to recycle or reuse their water. For agriculture, irrigation accounts for most of the water demand, although the need depends on determining factors such as rainfall intensity, type of planting and soil type.
In analysing the global water situation, it is important to distinguish between two main concepts, namely water stress and economic water scarcity.
The former depends on a combination of factors, including surface and/or groundwater availability (which can be strongly influenced by changing climatic conditions), ecological demands and withdrawals by human activities. The second is related to institutional and economic capacity constraints rather than hydrological constraints. Twenty years ago, figures indicated that 1.6 billion people were living in economic water scarcity , but it is currently difficult to determine whether this figure has increased or decreased.
Over the past 40 years, the use of the world’s freshwater resources has increased by almost 1% per year, mainly due to population growth, socio-economic development and changing consumption patterns. Groundwater provides half of the world’s domestic water withdrawals and about 25% of all water withdrawn for irrigation4.
Water shortages tend to become more widespread due to the local effects of water stress and the increasing and spreading pollution of freshwater resources5.
What about water quality?
The report is clear: the quality of water is appalling. The United Nations report lists the main causes: insufficient wastewater treatment, polluted agricultural runoff that picks up soil contaminants such as pesticides and fertilisers, industrial discharges of dangerous chemicals and in particular emerging pollutants (EPs) such as microplastics and pharmaceuticals.
Here are some key figures that will make your blood run cold, more than 80% of the world’s wastewater is discharged into untreated water bodies. At least 2 billion people use a fecally contaminated drinking water source, putting them at risk of cholera, dysentery, typhoid and polio.
Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) services are crucial to human health and well-being. However, global evidence shows that the pace of current efforts needs to increase by an average of four times if universal provision of safely managed WASH services is to be achieved by 20306.
Correlation of sanitation services and climate change
The water and sanitation sector offers remarkable emission reduction opportunities, ranging from biogas recovery in wastewater treatment systems to geothermal energy production. In addition, wastewater treatment and discharge are directly responsible for 11.8 and 4.2 of global CH4 and N2O emissions respectively.
Key actions for tangible change
If nothing is done to tip the balance of effective change in water resource management, the economic and social consequences of the water crisis will be severe and perhaps even irreversible: some regions will see their GDP collapse by 6% by 2050, major migration flows will emerge, and even conflicts.
A wide range of technologies are involved in the water sector, from measuring water flows and reserves in the natural environment to drinking water and wastewater treatment, desalination and grey water recycling. States in general, and policy makers in particular, need to take advantage of the knowledge and experience of the various operators in order to make the progress necessary to achieve the above-mentioned targets of MDG6.
International issues such as this one, which have reached such a degree of seriousness, cannot be dealt with by individual states but rather need to be addressed through joint action. International cooperation in this area is not being strengthened, UNESCO and UN-Water warn in the latest edition of the UN World Water Development Report. It should be recalled that UNESCO has a specific mandate for the promotion of water sciences, and thanks to its International Hydrological Programme (IHP), several Member States are supported in their conservation, protection and management policies.
With a view to better water management, integrated water resources management (IWRM) remains the best approach for efficient, equitable and sustainable development and management of the world’s limited water resources in the face of growing demands.
1 A global campaign encouraging people to take action on a daily basis to change the way they use, consume and manage water.
2 Introduction to SDG 6
• Access to safe drinking water: universal, equitable and affordable access.
• Access to sanitation and hygiene: ending open defecation and other problems.
• Water quality: improve water quality by reducing pollution, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and increasing recycling globally.
• Sustainable water resources management: increase the rational use of water resources.
• Integrated resource management: develop transboundary cooperation.
• Ecosystem protection and restoration: protect water-related ecosystems, including mountains, forests, wetlands, rivers etc.
• Cooperation and capacity building: develop international cooperation and capacity building support for developing countries.
• Collective water management: strengthening the participation of local people in improving water management.
3 A Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture, 2007
4 ONU, 2022
5 FAO, 2022
6 OMS/UNICEF, 2020 ; 2021b ; OMS/UNICEF/Banque Mondiale, 2022
7 The IPCC has just published a new part of its sixth report. This time it focuses on reporting on the “impacts, adaptation and vulnerability” of climate change.
– United Nations World Water Development Report 2023
– The new IPCC report published on 20 March 2023