28 March 2017
World Water Day Highlights Wastewater, Security and Risk
UN Photo/Evan Schneider
story highlights

UN agencies and partners called for urgent attention to water security threats and highlighted the need to treat wastewater as a valuable resource, as they marked World Water Day on the theme of 'Wastewater'.

UN-Water launched its annual World Water Development Report, titled ‘Wastewater: The Untapped Resource’.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) issued a report, titled ‘Diffuse Pollution, Degraded Water'.

The UN High-Level Panel on Water (HLPW) unveiled its ‘Access to water and sanitation for 10 billion people’ initiative.

The World Bank launched a joint ‘Water Data Challenge’ on the Day.

The UN General Assembly held a Special Event on ‘Priority Actions for Water and Disasters in the Next Decade’.

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) released a report, titled ‘Thirsting for a Future: Water and Children in a Changing Climate'.

22 March 2017: UN agencies and partners around the world called for urgent attention to water security threats and highlighted the need to treat wastewater as a valuable resource, as they marked World Water Day on the theme of ‘Wastewater’. They highlighted the increased risk of water-related disasters, such as floods and drought, noting that water scarcity and other risks could promote large-scale migration and pose threats to national and regional stability. The UN High-Level Panel on Water (HLPW) anticipates a 40% shortfall in water availability by 2030, affecting 1.8 billion people.

UN-Water, the UN inter-agency coordination mechanism for freshwater-related issues, launched its annual World Water Development Report at a three-day water summit and expo in Durban, South Africa from 22-24 March, jointly hosted with the Government of South Africa. The report, titled ‘Wastewater: The Untapped Resource,’ recommends treating and using wastewater as the raw material for meeting a range of human needs, including energy generation and irrigation. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 6.3 calls for halving the proportion of global untreated wastewater.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) simultaneously issued its own wastewater report titled ‘Diffuse Pollution, Degraded Water,’ which highlights the difficulties involved in engaging with farmers and other land users who contribute to the degradation of water sources, in contrast with the relative ease of regulating industrial point sources of pollution. The report recommends a range of policy instruments, based on empirical studies of diffuse pollution. The authors propose: pollution prevention; treatment at source; ‘polluter pays’ and ‘beneficiary pays’ approaches; and maintaining equity and policy coherence.

The UN High-Level Panel on Water (HLPW) unveiled its ‘Access to water and sanitation for 10 billion people’ initiative at the Durban water summit and expo. The initiative seeks to accelerate implementation of the SDGs, especially Goal 6 on clean water and sanitation. In its statement, the HLPW welcomed the UN General Assembly’s adoption of a resolution calling for a new International Decade for Action on Water for Sustainable Development from 2018-2028 (A/RES/71/222).

The Durban event also marked the Government of South Africa’s adoption of a political declaration on water, while Global Citizen, a New York-based NGO, launched a petition to HLPW members calling for access to sanitation for all. Jacob Zuma, President of South Africa, currently chairs the HLPW Heads of State Committee. Reporting on the event, the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) noted that over a quarter of people in Africa spend more than half an hour on each round trip to collect water. Prior to World Water Day, WSSCC launched its own strategic plan that aims to “look beyond sectors and silos” to highlight actions needed to achieve not only SDG 6, but also to contribute to SDG 1 (no poverty), SDG 3 (good health and well-being), SDG 4 (quality education), SDG 5 (gender equality), SDG 10 (reduced inequalities), SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities), and SDG 13 (climate action).

The World Bank estimates that financing the SDG 6 water and sanitation targets alone (targets 6.1 and 6.2) will cost approximately US$114 billion every year until 2030, and recalled the statement issued by the Budapest Water Summit in November 2016, which recommended using public resources to attract private financing for water. A blog post by Guangzhe Chen of the Bank’s Global Practice Team drew attention to its Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene Poverty Diagnostic Initiative (WASH PD), which is producing data on the linkages between WASH, health and other sectors. This study has shown already that the constraints to appropriate interventions on WASH are not only technical, but also administrative and political.

In partnership with the Government of Australia, the World Bank launched a joint ‘Water Data Challenge’ on World Water Day. The initiative is supported by Australian Aid to improve access to information about water quantity and quality, and to place this information into the hands of farmers. The work is expected to enable better management of water use in the agricultural sector, by far the greatest user of water worldwide.

Meanwhile, several other agencies used the occasion of World Water Day to call for prioritizing water security challenges, among them the World Water Council, the World Bank, and the Global Environment Facility (GEF). The Bank highlighted water insecurity as a “risk multiplier” compounding the fragility of states. In a blog post, Astrid Hillers of the GEF International Waters team notes that water crises have consistently been among the top five global risks identified in the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual risk reports, as drought, over-exploitation and desertification contribute to local conflicts and can cause large-scale displacement and regional instability. The GEF Transboundary Waters Assessment Programme (TWAP) has identified 286 transboundary basins around the world, but only a fraction of these, according to Hillers, have made transboundary water sharing agreements. The Stockholm Water Prize, awarded by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), this year went to Stephen McCaffrey, US, for his long-term contributions to the field of international water law, including work in the Mekong, Nile and Ganges basins.

At UN Headquarters in New York, US the UN General Assembly held a Special Event on ‘Priority Actions for Water and Disasters in the Next Decade.’ In his statement, Peter Thomson (Fiji), UN General Assembly President, called for “urgent and scaled-up climate action” to address climate-related disaster threats, including floods and drought, highlighting the severe impacts of past disasters on Pacific island nations. He encouraged all governments to take part in the UN Oceans Conference in New York, US from 5-9 June 2017, and to take bold, voluntary actions on these challenges.

At a concurrent event at UN Headquarters, Thomson addressed a one-day meeting on ‘Improving the integration and coordination of the work of the UN on the water-related goals and targets under its sustainable development pillar, with particular emphasis on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.’ The High-level Experts and Leaders Panel on Water and Disasters (HELP) organized the event as a series of panel discussions that were jointly moderated by representatives of Tajikistan and Hungary, with the HLPW’s special adviser, former Prime Minister of the Republic of Korea Han Seung-soo. Thomson drew attention to several ongoing UN processes to improve coordination of water-related efforts, including the 2018 High-Level Political Forum on sustainable development (HLPF), which will follow-up and review Member States’ efforts toward SDG 6 implementation.

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) released a report on ‘Thirsting for a Future: Water and Children in a Changing Climate,’ which calls for greater attention to the fate of children as more than one-quarter, around 600 million globally, will be living in areas of water scarcity by the year 2040.

On national actions, the HLPW highlighted a range of high-level initiatives being undertaken by its panel members. Among several mentioned, the Netherlands opened a national multi-stakeholder dialogue to define principles and approaches to valuing water. The dialogue will go online and be open for global input in April 2017, and regional multi-stakeholder dialogues are planned for May and June 2017. Bangladesh is hosting a meeting of South and East Asian leaders in Dhaka from 28-29 July 2017 to discuss strengthening cross-border collaboration and improving access to safe drinking water in Asia.

In support of local authorities, UN-Habitat highlighted its cooperation with the Government of Tanzania in the large slum settlement of Mwanza, to improve living conditions for residents, including access to safe drinking water and sanitation. The United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), a global network that promotes cooperation between local governments and the international community, issued a statement of priorities and needs. They include: applying principles of good governance at the local level; linking water supply with wastewater management; using tariffs to regulate water demand, consumption and conservation; making long-term investments in water infrastructure; taking into account multiple uses at the catchment level; and treating wastewater as a precious resource.

Léo Heller, UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to water and sanitation, issued a statement on World Water Day calling for development cooperation to focus on capacity building activities that support local authorities in their responsibility to provide water and sanitation services. He noted that wide disparities in water and sanitation access continue, with rural residents receiving far less than urban residents, and the greater share of public funding still going towards providing drinking water rather than sanitation services. Heller is working on a report on these issues, to be presented to the UN General Assembly in October 2017. [UN World Water Day Website] [UN Press Release on Wastewater] [World Water Development Report Web Page] [UN-Water Report: ‘Wastewater: The Untapped Resource’] [UNESCO Press Release on Wastewater Report] [UNESCO Web Page on World Water Development Reports] [World Water Day Summit & Expo] [Global Citizen Campaign] [WSSCC Press Release] [WSSCC Web Page on Strategic Plan] [WSSCC Strategic Plan 2017-2020] [OECD Report: ‘Diffuse Pollution, Degraded Waters: Emerging Policy Solutions’] [World Water Council Press Release] [World Bank Press Release] [World Bank Blog Post on WASH PD] [Water Data Challenge Press Release] [GEF Blog Post] [SIWI Press Release] [Peter Thomson Statement on Special Event Priority Actions for Water and Disasters in the Next Decade] [Peter Thomson Statement on Improving Integration and Coordination of the Work of the UN on the Water-related Goals and Targets] [Event Programme: Improving the Integration and Coordination of the Work of the UN on the Water-related Goals and Targets] [UNICEF Press Release] [UNICEF Report on ‘Thirsting for a Future: Water and Children in a Changing Climate’] [HLPW Joint Statement] [UN-Habitat Press Release] [UCLG Statement] [UN Press Release on Statement by UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation]

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