A special UN conference to address the looming 'freshwater crisis'

According to the UN, two billion people still do not have access to safe drinking water. AP - Odelyn Joseph

Text by: Carrie Nooten Follow

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As a special conference on water opens in New York on Wednesday 22 March, the UN warns that we must prepare for a "freshwater" crisis due to climate change and pollution. The United Nations estimates that 2.3 billion people live in water-stressed countries and this will inexorably create tensions.


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From our correspondent in New York,

This is the first meeting of its kind in 46 years! Yet the stakes are high. The UN already set the tone on Tuesday by warning that the world must prepare for a "freshwater crisis" because of global warming and pollution. The United Nations estimates that 2.3 billion people live in water-stressed countries and two billion lack access to safe drinking water. These shortages will invariably create tensions. Not to mention that it is clear that countries will not succeed in validating the 2030 Agenda, which was supposed to guarantee access to water and sanitation for all.

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More than 6,500 participants are expected for more than 500 events on Wednesday and Thursday, March 22 and 23 in New York. And concrete commitments can be expected. Because even if no general political agreement is planned, the UN will ask countries to commit during these two days on several fronts: sanitation, resilience to floods and droughts, sustainable development. Also commit to research budgets about water.

It is also an opportunity for environmental NGOs to put pressure on countries: the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) will ask them for more investment in freshwater ecosystems, for example. The World Resources Institute advocates for new water management, adapted to climate change and claims that securing water for our societies by 2030 would cost just over 1% of global GDP, with a huge return on investment: more growth, increased agricultural production, and improved lives of poor communities.

In Africa, 90% of water resources are transboundary

To limit tensions related to water shortages, one of the areas on which the UN is working is to push for greater transboundary cooperation in water-sharing. To do this, it relies on a tool: the 1992 Water Convention. Basically, it was a convention between European countries to advocate the obligations of countries that share water resources – share a river, a river or depend on the same aquifer basin. But since 2016, all countries in the world can now sign it, it has become like a framework convention, which allows neighboring countries to establish principles for pooling resources or infrastructure such as dams. Some 153 States around the world share the same aquifer basins, so the needs are immense.

There is a strong interest from African countries in this convention: Nigeria is due to announce this Wednesday that it is joining. It will be the seventh African signatory state. And it will be quickly followed by Gambia, Ivory Coast and Namibia in the coming months. DRC, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Uganda are also interested.

Because between global warming and demographic pressure, there is a real need to regulate these shared waters, especially since 90% of water resources in Africa are transboundary. How to manage, for example, that Nigeria increases from 200 to 400 million inhabitants by 2050, while more than 60% of the population lives in the Niger aquifer basin, which is shared by nine countries? The country will be able to open the reflection with its neighbors. Moreover, African countries are used to cooperation in this area: they have been pioneers in this area, having put in place since the 1970s mechanisms for the management of shared rivers, such as that of the Senegal River, between Senegal, Mauritania, Guinea and Mali. There, with this treaty, it is not only surface water that is regulated, but also groundwater that until now, was absolutely unregulated.

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The countries of the South have known these tensions for decades, especially on the African continent. But they will be exacerbated by global warming, warns Jean Lapègue, Action Against Hunger at the microphone of Lucile Gimberg. He also represents a coalition of French NGOs: "There are already tensions inherent in the management, for example, transboundary of river water, I am thinking of the Nile. And these tensions will be exacerbated in a world where water resources will be more expensive, will be less abundant.


No more droughts or more floods, climate change will also intensify health issues around access to drinking water. With children on the front line: "Today, for example, a child under 5 is 20 times more likely to die from diarrhoea related to a drinking water problem than from a bombing. Waterborne diseases are the leading cause of death among children under 5 years of age."

The objective of this United Nations conference is to improve global water governance to prepare for the future. NGOs are calling for a UN special envoy to deal with these issues and additional financial efforts.

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  • Water
  • Environment
  • UN
  • Africa
  • Pollution
  • Climate change

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