Strengthening UN Initiatives on Water Resources Management

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Section eight of nine of SGI President Daisaku Ikeda’s 2019 peace proposal, “Toward a New Era of Peace and Disarmament: A People-Centered Approach.”

An African woman with a baby on her back fixes a jerrycan of water to her bicycle beside a water pump in an arid area Around 2.1 billion people lack access to clean and safe water [Photo by Olivier Girard/CIFOR/CC BY-NC-ND]

Next, as my fourth proposal, I would like to offer some thoughts and perspectives regarding the UN’s water-related SDGs. More specifically, I would like to make a number of proposals on the management of water resources.

The SDGs call for achieving “universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all.” It is estimated that around 2.1 billion people lack access to clean and safe water and that roughly 40 percent of people worldwide are affected by water scarcity. Even as demand for water continues to increase due to factors such as population growth, economic development and changing consumption patterns, water quality is deteriorating as a result of the introduction of untreated wastewater in rivers in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Also, the water cycle is being disrupted by climate change, with dry regions becoming even drier and wet regions experiencing even more rain.

In response to this crisis, the UN General Assembly launched the Water Action Decade (the International Decade for Action, “Water for Sustainable Development” 2018–2028) last March. At the launch at UN Headquarters, General Assembly Vice President Mahmoud Saikal noted the unequal impacts of water scarcity:

“No one, working in this building, will go thirsty. None of us will wonder whether our next sip of water will make us ill. None of us will risk our dignity, or our safety, to meet our basic human needs. This, simply, is our reality. But, for too many people around the world, it is a different story.”

More than 600 million people worldwide are said to be taking water from unprotected wells and from untreated surface water such as lakes, ponds, rivers and streams because they do not have access to safe sources of water in their immediate environment. Large numbers of women and children are compelled to travel long distances to collect water, often having to endure long hours carrying heavy loads. Many people develop diseases as a result of consuming unhygienic water, leading to the deaths of great numbers of children each year. In this regard, providing access to safe water goes beyond issues such as poverty and income disparity. Ensuring that all people can live in dignity—no longer having to fear for their health or worry about the unnecessary burden of fetching their own water—is a core concern in the pursuit of basic human rights. It is often the case that people living in developed countries only come to realize how much they take adequate supplies of clean and safe drinking water for granted in times of natural disaster.

The right of access to clean and safe water has been stipulated in international treaties such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989). Then, in 2010, the UN General Assembly recognized the “right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights,” and this right has also been affirmed by resolutions adopted by the UN Human Rights Council.

In view of the above, I would like to suggest the creation of the post of special representative for water resources within the UN to coordinate global efforts to ensure access to safe water—a key goal of the SDGs and the basis for protecting the life, livelihood and dignity of all.

Although there is no existing UN entity dedicated exclusively to water issues, there are currently more than thirty international organizations involved in water and sanitation programs under the coordination of UN-Water. A special representative for water resources appointed by the Secretary-General would work together with the agencies coordinated by UN-Water to encourage member states to build partnerships for technology transfer through, for example, the sharing of best practices.

related article Universities: Central Hubs for Promoting the SDGs Universities: Central Hubs for Promoting the SDGs Daisaku Ikeda proposes making the world’s universities hubs for the realization of the SDGs and expanding the United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) initiative. One approach would be for the special representative for water resources to bring together regular UN meetings on the Water Action Decade. The High-Level Panel on Water convened by the UN and the World Bank Group comprising eleven heads of state and government likewise recommended that this kind of conference be held either annually or biannually. I believe it is essential that an approach grounded in the kind of people-centered multilateralism I discussed earlier be applied to water-related issues through, for example, the holding of such regular meetings.

Referring to his experience as prime minister of Portugal when it reached an agreement with Spain on a water resources convention and other examples of water cooperation like those between India and Pakistan and Bolivia and Peru, Secretary-General Guterres has stated that “water has historically proven to be a catalyst for cooperation not for conflict.” It is estimated that 286 transboundary river and lake basins and 592 transboundary aquifers exist today, and approximately one-third of the former are covered by cooperative management frameworks between or among the concerned states. Similar international water agreements could be negotiated in the remaining areas with the support of a special representative for water resources and the agencies coordinated by UN-Water to ensure sustainable water supply and improvement in water quality in transboundary river and lake basins.

In view of rising concerns about the future adequacy of fresh water supplies around the world, I urge Japan and other nations with abundant know-how and advanced technologies regarding water reuse and desalination to proactively contribute solutions. Japan has supported international efforts to tackle water and sanitation-related problems, in terms of both physical and intellectual infrastructure, by building facilities and training technicians, and has established itself as a key partner to many countries.

In addition, Japan has for many years been engaging in exchanging technology and information on water resources with South Korea and China, holding meetings with Korea since 1978 and with China since 1985. Last year, the three countries held the Third Ministerial Meeting on Water Resources, in which they each shared best practices and reaffirmed their commitment to promoting further exchange and cooperation toward achieving the water-related SDGs. I would like to see Japan apply its experience to the resolution of water-related problems in Northeast Asia and to regional confidence building. Also, I hope that China, Japan and Korea will work together to offer support to countries in the Middle East and Africa where there is growing demand for water reuse and desalination.

The Seventh Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD VII) is slated to take place in Yokohama this August. At TICAD V in 2013, the Japanese government announced that it would continue to provide support for ensuring safe drinking water for approximately 10 million people as well as training 1,750 engineers. At this year’s conference, I hope Japan will follow up and strengthen its commitment on these initiatives and also draw up an overarching plan for water reuse and desalination projects in countries in Africa.

Although Japan is a country blessed with plentiful water resources, it is also highly exposed to a variety of natural disasters, ranking fifth among the most exposed countries worldwide, according to the WorldRiskReport 2018. The need for safe water is felt most intensely in the wake of natural disasters and this alone should motivate Japan to exercise people-centered multilateral leadership in helping nations currently struggling to improve their citizens’ access to safe water.

As a member of civil society, the SGI will support the Water Action Decade by holding an exhibition focusing on the everyday life and struggles of women impacted by water-related issues. It is estimated that women and girls in low-income countries spend approximately 40 billion hours collecting water every year. These women and children are often exposed to violence along the arduous daily journey to collect water, and their health is harmed by the strain of the heavy load. When provided with access to safe water, more women can devote their time to other forms of work and more girls can attend school—leading to their overall empowerment. Through this exhibition, the SGI will look to cast light on the conditions of such women and girls and their efforts to overcome various water-related issues.

UN Women, an organization dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women, has profiled such experiences. One is that of a woman living in Tajikistan and her struggles to bring clean water to her village. After being widowed, she was left to raise her five children on her own, each day having to walk for many hours to collect water from the river. Long deprived of clean water, her fellow villagers had very little hope that things would ever change, but she and other women formed a group to take matters into their own hands. With the support of several NGOs and with the help of their fellow villagers, they were able to assemble 14 kilometers of water pipes and successfully bring clean water to the village, providing more than 3,000 people with safe drinking water. Speaking about their achievements, she says: “This was a small victory for us. We want to do more to improve our lives. We have plans to create a mini-farm and build small greenhouses. We are confident that we will succeed.”

Nothing embodies progress toward achievement of the SDGs more powerfully than the smiles of hope and joy on the faces of these women.

At the launch of the Water Action Decade at UN Headquarters, thirteen-year-old Autumn Peltier spoke as a representative of civil society. “We all have a right to this water as we need it—not just rich people, all people,” the indigenous water activist from Canada told leaders. “No child should grow up not knowing what clean water is or never know what running water is.” In closing, she issued this call: “Now is the time to warrior up and empower each other to stand for our planet.”

Through this exhibition, the SGI will seek to inspire greater action within civil society on the issue of access to safe water in order to protect humankind and the planet.

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