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Water at the heart of global geopolitical issues

Securing water resources: a global necessity

Éric Servat, Director of UNESCO International Centre for Water
On March 12th, 2024 |
4 min reading time
Eric Selva
Éric Servat
Director of UNESCO International Centre for Water
Key takeaways
  • In 2022, 2.2 billion people will still not have access to infrastructure providing drinking water.
  • Although this resource is necessary for a great number of reasons, water suffers from a lack of political consideration and investment.
  • Water resources are under triple pressure: rising population, climate change and increasing urbanisation.
  • To restore the value of water to Western societies, progressive or “eco-solidarity” pricing could be an effective lever.
  • Governance needs to keep pace with these new challenges and think about regulations at both local and global levels.

In 2022, 2.2 bil­lion peo­ple will still not have access to infra­struc­ture pro­vid­ing drink­ing water. Yet the UN’s Sus­tain­able Devel­op­ment Goal 6 (SDG 6) aims to ensure uni­ver­sal and equi­table access to afford­able drink­ing water by 2030.

Why are we so far from this goal today?

It is essen­tial to under­stand the com­plex­i­ty of the sub­ject of access to water, due to its com­plete trans­ver­sal­i­ty. We are now aware of the need for inte­grat­ed, con­cert­ed water man­age­ment. This resource is need­ed for many pur­pos­es, almost all of which are in com­pe­ti­tion with each oth­er: ener­gy pro­duc­tion, agri­cul­ture, indus­try, bio­di­ver­si­ty, recre­ation, and vital needs. Even if we put all the nec­es­sary tech­no­log­i­cal, social and reg­u­la­to­ry advances on the table, it will be impos­si­ble to pro­vide uni­ver­sal access to water with­out adap­ta­tion because of the changes we are going through.

What are these changes?

Water resources are under a triple pres­sure: ris­ing pop­u­la­tion growth, cli­mate change and increas­ing urban­i­sa­tion. Today, we need to sup­ply water to 8 bil­lion peo­ple – 10 bil­lion by 2050 – for drink­ing, wash­ing, eat­ing, health­care, cloth­ing, hous­ing, etc. Water con­sump­tion auto­mat­i­cal­ly increas­es with the emer­gence of mid­dle class­es around the world. As for urban­i­sa­tion, it is a ver­i­ta­ble time bomb if left unchecked. In the coun­tries of the south­ern hemi­sphere, urban growth rates are stag­ger­ing and infra­struc­ture is inad­e­quate. Faced with such an increase, any coun­try would find it extreme­ly dif­fi­cult to pro­vide func­tion­al water and san­i­ta­tion systems.

How can we secure water resources in the face of these pressures?

Action is need­ed at var­i­ous lev­els. We need to work on the social aspect. It can, for exam­ple, help to over­come reluc­tance to imple­ment cer­tain tech­ni­cal solu­tions, such as the reuse of waste­water. In the west­ern world, water has become a com­mon­place com­mod­i­ty. This is not the case in the coun­tries of the Sahel, for exam­ple, where the val­ue of water is often cen­tral to the con­struc­tion of these soci­eties. West­ern soci­eties need to redis­cov­er this val­ue. Final­ly, I think that pro­gres­sive water pric­ing (known as “eco-sol­i­dar­i­ty”) is an impor­tant lever: in Dunkirk, it has reduced house­hold con­sump­tion by 8 to 10%1.

Do we have sufficient scientific and technical knowledge to ensure that everyone has access to water?

We have made enor­mous progress in this area. By using dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy to opti­mise irri­ga­tion (using drones, sen­sors and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions), we are able to reuse treat­ed waste­water, arti­fi­cial­ly recharge ground­wa­ter, slow down run-off, encour­age infil­tra­tion, and so on. Sci­ence can pro­vide solu­tions for every sit­u­a­tion, but all too often it is ignored.

What is the role of political decisions in addressing this issue?

Gov­er­nance is one of the essen­tial levers for secur­ing resources. All over the world, we need to imple­ment solu­tions that take account of local con­straints: the geo­log­i­cal con­text, the nature of activ­i­ties, demo­graph­ics, and so on. For exam­ple, in the fast-grow­ing cities of the South, the lack of infra­struc­ture is lead­ing to pol­lu­tion of water resources. More strin­gent reg­u­la­tions on indus­tri­al waste would undoubt­ed­ly make it pos­si­ble to lim­it these effects. To achieve this, how­ev­er, we need clear polit­i­cal will.

Polit­i­cal deci­sion-mak­ing must take place with­in struc­tures where local play­ers can con­sult each oth­er, make trade-offs, decide on invest­ments, etc. Con­sul­ta­tion is absolute­ly essen­tial, par­tic­u­lar­ly in a con­text where resources are becom­ing increas­ing­ly scarce. Trade-offs have to be made between the dif­fer­ent water uses. The Unit­ed Nations has iden­ti­fied 300 places in the world where shared resources could be a major source of con­flict. This dia­logue must take place at both local and region­al lev­el. The Nile, the Euphrates and the Tigris, for exam­ple, are major sources of ten­sion in the regions they cross.

Are there regions where these structures exist and are bearing fruit?

Yes, this is the case with the Niger basin. This riv­er is an essen­tial resource for Benin, Burk­i­na Faso, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Mali, Niger, Nige­ria and Chad. All these coun­tries are involved in dis­cus­sions with­in an inter­gov­ern­men­tal organ­i­sa­tion, the Niger Basin Author­i­ty. Set up in the 1960s, it has helped to avoid all water-relat­ed con­flicts. Sim­i­lar struc­tures exist around the Sene­gal Riv­er, Lake Chad and the Vol­ta Basin. With­in these region­al gov­er­nance struc­tures, deci­sions are tak­en on the basis of sci­en­tif­ic and tech­ni­cal data, with the aim of dis­trib­ut­ing water equi­tably across bor­ders. The con­ti­nu­ity of hydro­log­i­cal mea­sure­ments across bor­ders must be ensured, and this is an essen­tial prerequisite.

Inte­grat­ed water man­age­ment is also being imple­ment­ed in France. Although the sys­tem is com­plex – the Court of Audi­tors has high­light­ed the prob­lems asso­ci­at­ed with the count­less con­sul­ta­tion struc­tures – it is cur­rent­ly work­ing rather well.

And what is the role of governance on an international scale?

It’s also essen­tial: it’s the last lev­el on which we need to work. Water affects the whole of human­i­ty, and it is essen­tial that the Unit­ed Nations – which is a form of glob­al gov­er­nance – takes up this issue. In March 2023, the Unit­ed Nations Con­fer­ence on Water not­ed the dif­fi­cul­ty of meet­ing the tar­get of Sus­tain­able Devel­op­ment Goal 6. This under­scores the urgency of the sit­u­a­tion, and sets things in motion, such as the forth­com­ing, and long-await­ed, appoint­ment of a Spe­cial Envoy for Water.

What explains the delay in implementing global governance for water?

The Unit­ed Nations Con­fer­ence on Water in 2023 was the first since… 1977! It’s quite incred­i­ble, but the exam­ples of the COPs (cli­mate, bio­di­ver­si­ty) show that it is pos­si­ble to set up such struc­tures. But even these organ­i­sa­tions can­not deal with the issue of water: the role of this resource (which has been par­tic­u­lar­ly hard hit by cli­mate change) is ridiculous.

Water suf­fers from a lack of polit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tion and invest­ment. One of the main prob­lems with access to water is the lack of infra­struc­ture. We see this even in France: 20% of drink­ing water is lost through leaks in the French drink­ing water sup­ply net­work. On the African con­ti­nent, the sit­u­a­tion is even worse. And the same applies to data: data acqui­si­tion net­works have col­lapsed. Pro­found changes in polit­i­cal will and invest­ment are essential.

Interview by Anaïs Marechal
1Web­site con­sult­ed on 02/01/24: https://​www​.lemonde​.fr/​p​l​a​n​e​t​e​/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​/​2​0​2​3​/​0​4​/​0​5​/​c​o​m​m​e​n​t​-​f​o​n​c​t​i​o​n​n​e​-​l​a​-​t​a​r​i​f​i​c​a​t​i​o​n​-​p​r​o​g​r​e​s​s​i​v​e​-​d​e​-​l​-​e​a​u​-​d​e​j​a​-​e​x​p​e​r​i​m​e​n​t​e​e​-​a​-​d​u​n​k​e​r​q​u​e​-​m​o​n​t​p​e​l​l​i​e​r​-​e​t​-​l​i​b​o​u​r​n​e​_​6​1​6​8​2​7​4​_​3​2​4​4​.html

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