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Water crisis – clear and present danger

We live in urgent times. The sum of the concurrent crises that have been engulfing everything from climate to energy, to the economy, is creating a spiral of need for change. But the water crisis sticks out of this list in terms of being an explicitly clear and present danger with deadly implications.

The mounting water crisis and its geography make it clear that without resolute counteraction, it will overstretch many societies’ adaptive capacities within the coming decades. This could result in massive migration, severe socio-economic stress, destabilization and violence, jeopardizing national and international security to a new degree.

By 2025, a predicted 1.8 billion people will live in regions suffering from absolute water scarcity. Two-thirds of the world population could be under hydric stress conditions. Demand for water will rise: water withdrawals in developing countries will increase by 50%, and 18% in developed countries by 2025.

Despite these demands, what state is the world’s water in? Despite the fact that we use slightly more than half the world’s (54%) accessible water, more than 50% of the 3.5 billion people living in urban circumstances around the world already do not have access to adequate water and sanitation.

But the really bad news is that the water use is growing even faster than the population: the 20th century water consumption grew twice as fast as the world population. As a result, a third of the world’s population lives in water-stressed countries now. By 2025, this is expected to rise to two-thirds.

In addition to unsustainable water use we are polluting our lakes, rivers and streams to death. Most wastewater (about 80%) from residential and industrial sources enters the environment untreated.

The growing human need for water, to sustain life and wellbeing, plus the pressures on the resource itself, from mismanagement, pollution and a general lack of foresight, make for the most telling case for improved global water conservation and consumption.

But too little is being done on these fronts. We have been waiting since 1997 for just 35 countries to sign the UN Watercourses Convention, to promote the management and sharing of the world’s 276 cross-border rivers and connected underground water sources, and we are still a handful short.

The lack of a global framework to manage water sources that cross national borders endangers the world in many ways, not least of all in terms of the risk of conflict between countries over who controls the same river that runs through their respective frontiers.

Then there is the Right to Water and Sanitation, which Green Cross was a loud advocate of before it finally came into being in 2010. While this recognition itself, that access to safe drinking water and sanitation are basic human rights, is a success, what must be happening at breakneck speed now is the realization of this right. This means creation of national legislation enshrining the right (alongside education, health and others) and investing in the infrastructure needed to make safe water and sanitation services available to all.  
Despite UN adoption of this vital principle, the deficit of fresh water is becoming increasingly severe and large-scale – whereas, unlike other resources, there is no substitute for water.

While the Millennium Development Goal for access to drinking water and sanitation was announced met in 2012, almost 800 million people still have no access to safe water today, and three times that number lack adequate sanitation. Thousands of children die daily in the developing world due to related waterborne diseases.

The scale and global nature of the water and sanitation crisis demand stronger statesmanship, vision and international action. To master the crisis, we must address its effects and causes. The economic, social, water and environmental aspects must be properly coordinated in any response.

A comprehensive “water goal” must be injected into the post-2015 development agenda, linking development and environment in analyses and in governance policies. Such a goal would address the three interdependent dimensions of water: water, sanitation and hygiene; water management; and wastewater management and water quality.

This goal must be based on principles of equity, solidarity, recognition of limits of planet and rights approach, coupled with effective means to check and demand the accountability of all stakeholders.
We live in volatile and transformative times, faced with the awe-inspiring global challenge of climate change, the devastation of civil wars, and the hope-crushing scourge of extreme poverty. But one thing is constant: our need for water.  Whole regions are languishing in poverty and conflict, effectively held hostage by their hydrology: we must break this cycle and give people a chance for their future.  Benjamin Franklin said that “when the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.” The alarm clock has been ringing on deaf ears for far too long, it is time to wake-up before it is too late, before the wells of the world have run dry.

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