A Plea for Planet Water

Water is the driving force of all nature.” Leonardo da Vinci

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Since the beginning of times, water is synonymous with life. Water is the soul of the Earth. The American author Lucy Larcom once wrote: “A drop of water, if it could write out its own history, would explain the universe to us”. Water covers 75% of the world’s surface and, as Sir David Attenborough narrates in The Blue Planet BBC nature documentary: “Our planet is a blue planet. The Pacific Ocean alone covers half of the globe”. But freshwater on Earth is only 2.5% and, similar to James Bond code number “007”, potable water is just 0.007%. America has the largest share of the world’s total freshwater resources – 45%, followed by Asia – 28%, Europe – 15.5% and Africa – 9%. The driest continent is Australia, with very limited freshwater sources. More than 75% of the total reserves of freshwater can be found in only ten countries: Canada – 20%, Brazil – 17%, Russia – 9.5%, United States – 6.5%, China – 6%, Colombia – 4.5%, Indonesia – 4.5%, Peru – 4% and India – 4%.

Worldwide, 2 billion people still lack access to safe drinking water, by the end of this decade the demand for water is expected to exceed supply by 40%, and experts predict that in the near future two-thirds of the world’s population will suffer from fresh water shortage. Africa – the cradle of mankind – has big rivers (Congo, Nile, Zambezi, Niger) and large lakes (Tanganyika, Victoria), but 1 in 3 African citizens are impacted by water scarcity and 400 million people in sub-Saharan Africa lack access to basic drinking water. I noticed myself this reality in the Lake Chad basin, which has shrunk by 90% due to climate change and the increasing human demand for freshwater. Europe – with 144 transboundary river and lake basins – is on the verge of water catastrophe, as 20% of all surface water is affected by pollution, 60% of cities overexploit their groundwater resources, over 16 million people still lack access to basic drinking water and 31 million people are in need of basic sanitation. At the same time, major European rivers (Danube, Rhine, Loire and Po) are at risk of drying up because of draught and global warming. Among the countries in the Danube basin, Romania is expected to be the most affected by climate change as a whole.

Three quarters of all recent disasters are water related, having caused economic damage of 700 billion USD in the past 20 years. Whereas water quality degrades and water demand is rising, competition among water users intensifies. The solution lies in cooperation. As the UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed – a leader in sustainable development – noted at the 2018 High Level Panel on Water Diplomacy: “When we examine history, we see that cooperation over water can prevail over conflict over water. Through water diplomacy neighboring states can be reminded of the benefits of cooperating around water resources. In today’s interconnected world, water availability is directly related to peace and security”. In a meeting of the Group of Friends of Water, on 9 February 2023, Amina Mohammed warned that: “A water crisis is poised to become our next major threat. We need a new tide of action to protect our water resources.” In 1983, the Food-Energy Program of the United Nations University first mentioned the “food-water-energy nexus”. In 2011, a World Economic Forum study on water security referred to “water-food-energy-climate nexus”. Now, this multiple connection has been expanded to include peace and security.

The history of international water treaties dates back to 2500 BC when two Sumerian city-states, Lagash and Uma, crafted an agreement ending a water dispute along the Tigris River. Closer to our days, a landmark legal instrument is the Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (Water Convention), adopted in 1992 under the aegis of the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). Originally a regional framework for the pan-European region, the Convention was opened in 2016 to all UN Member States and by now Chad, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Senegal, Togo and Cameroon have also joined it. In 1999, UNECE and the World Health Organization-Europe adopted a protocol to the Water Convention – the Protocol on Water and Health – the first and only international treaty spelling out countries’ obligations arising from the human right to water and sanitation. The UNECE-WHO Protocol is currently the main instrument in Romania to implement SDG6 – Clean Water and Sanitation.

In an article published in The Huffington Post on 26 April 2017 (S.O.S. The World of Blue), I recalled that human-induced problems have human-induced solutions. A recent confirmation of this truth are the conclusions of the Global Workshop on Source to Sea Management, organized by UNECE in December 2022 with the aim to strengthen cooperation, identify synergies and share good practices on fighting marine pollution. Considering that 90% of the plastic waste which reaches the oceans goes there through transboundary rivers, the workshop underlined that land, freshwater and ocean ecosystems are closely interlinked and the role of the Water Convention is critical to manage water holistically, “from source to sea”.

In December 2016, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) proclaimed the period 2018-2028 as the International Decade for Action “Water for Sustainable Development” (A/RES/71/222). In order to assess the progress in the implementation of the objectives of the Decade, in December 2020 UNGA decided that a Midterm Comprehensive Review of the International Decade for Action “Water for Sustainable Development” 2018-2028 will take place in New York, on 22-24 March 2023 (A/RES/75/212). The UN 2023 Water Conference, whose kick off symbolically coincides with the World Water Day, will focus on 5 themes: Water for Health; Water for Sustainable Development; Water for Climate; Water for Cooperation; and Water Action Decade.

Through its interlinkages with climate, biodiversity, energy, food and health, water supports the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and therefore the Water Conference is expected to move away from single, targeted and reactive short-term actions towards more holistic, integrated and future-oriented projects. As the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres remarked in his message to the 2022 World Water Day: “Pressure on water is increasing do to overuse, pollution and climate change. Groundwater is out of sight, but we cannot afford for it to be out of mind. Stored in rocks and soil, groundwater is our biggest source of freshwater. The UN Water Conference provides a decisive opportunity to galvanize action on water for sustainable development”. 

Finally, water is a matter of life and death. The water cycle and the life cycle are one, our bodies are 60% water, we all depend on water and water connects us all. The theme of the 2023 World Economic Forum was “Cooperation in a Fragmented World”. The 2023 Water Conference – the first of its kind since 1977 – will be an opportunity to turn words into facts, to unite the world for water and cooperate to reverse the water crisis. Quoting again the UN Secretary-General: “We must start moving from ideas to action – from abstract to concrete. Clean water is not for the few, the elite, the privileged or the affluent. It’s for everyone.”

NOTE: The opinions expressed in this article do not bind the official position of the author

H.E. Dr. Ion I. Jinga
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H.E. Dr. Ion I. Jinga, Romania’s Ambassador  to Council of Europe

Permanent Representative of Romania to the United Nations and was Chair of the 54th session of the Commission for Social Development
Dr. Ion Jinga has been Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Permanent Representative of Romania to the United Nations in New York since 2015. He was Chair of the 54th session of the Commission for Social Development. Ambassador Jinga joined the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1992. He was Director General for the European Union in the Ministry and a member of the Romanian Delegation to the Convention on the Future of Europe. He was Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Romania to the Kingdom of Belgium and to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Ion Jinga has degrees in Physics and Law from the University of Bucharest and is also a graduate of the National School for Political and Administrative Studies (SNSPA). He has an MA in European Administration from the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium, and a PhD in Law for his thesis entitled “Institutional Reform of the European Union in the Context of the Intergovernmental Conference to Review the Maastricht Treaty”.

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