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UN: Water security towards 2030 not fully secure yet

There is work to be done on the SDG goal of water security. To achieve the 2030 goals, the UN states that the process needs to move four times faster than the current pace. And that’s even though water is an essential connector between several Sustainable Development Goals.

Ahead of the UN 2023 Water Conference in New York in March, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP, short for United Nations Environment Programme) published a paper to open a dialogue on the importance of water security. The first sentence of the paper makes cuts right to the case: “The world is not on track to achieve SDG 6 – water and sanitation for all and related goals and targets for 2030.”  At the current pace towards 2030, according to the UN, in due course 1.6 billion people will be without safely managed drinking water, 2.8 billion people without safely managed sanitation, and 1.9 billion people without basic hand hygiene facilities. On top of that, water ecosystems are degrading at an alarming rate, and for 3 billion people, water quality is unknown due to lack of monitoring. In short: time is running out.

Across all the SDG’s

“The status of water security is worrying,” emphasizes Stuart Crane, Programme Management Officer at UNEP. And that while the topic of water security actually relates to many more Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) towards 2030. Crane: “Water ecosystems are fundamental to social prosperity, economic growth and moreover to biodiversity. I use the word ‘fundamental’ intentionally, because ecosystems are precisely what provide the world with water as a great good for all that we depend on.” Thus, there is a direct link between water security (SDG 6) and other sustainable goals such as food security (SDG 2) and energy security (SDG 7), among others. “So, it’s not even so much about the ecosystems themselves,” Crane outlines, “but rather about the fact that if you protect, restore and manage freshwater ecosystems, you can achieve social and economic goals – right across all the SDGs. At the moment, however, that is incredibly undervalued and therefore poorly managed.”

An example of poor management and conservation is how over the past three hundred years more than 85% of the world’s wetlands have been lost. While wetlands like marshes and bogs actually hold twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests combined. Since 2015, water security measurements have been taking place that chart such insights. “It is important to recognize that the concept of water security began with the first measurements in 2015. Actually understanding the state of affairs took quite some time,” explains Crane. “In this regard, UNEP acts as a ‘guardian of the environment’; a global environmental agency, so to speak.” The UN Environment Program supports countries based on science and evidence to arrive at effective policies.

The status of water security is worrisome

The ‘SDG Wedding Cake’

The idea of water as a connecting factor builds on the ‘wedding cake’ chart presented at Stockholm EAT Food Forum in 2016 by Professor Johan Rockström and Pavan Sukhdev. The economic, social and ecological “layers” all fit into the same wedding cake and are approached precisely not segmented. This also actually brings pillars such as nature, climate and resilience closer together, where each aspect reinforces each other and seeps into sectors such as food, agriculture, energy and economy. “It is very helpful to see water as the medium through which climate change happens,” Crane says. “Water at the base rather than the variables how climate change is normally interpreted: through rising temperatures and changes in precipitation.” 

Currently, Crane says, the world sees climate finance as a priority above all else. There, he believes, lies an opportunity: if the connection between water and climate is made stronger and better emphasized, then freshwater ecosystems, good water management and remedying water pollution can all benefit from that same funding. Crane: “With more freshwater ecosystems, you reduce the pressure on climate issues. Socially and economically, too. Wetlands can act as buffers; ecosystems provide filtration mechanisms for clean water – and so on. If you take away ecosystems in a world where we already face major climate risks, you only increase those risks. Turn that scenario around, and you actually avoid the risks.”

Decade of action

The U.N. paper to encourage countries to engage in dialogue on water security centers on the international Decade of Action. With that, since the UN initiative was launched in 2018, there is still a lot to do until 2028. With the UN 2023 Water Conference from March 22 to 24 in New York, UNEP is taking a proactive position to that end. 

The objective is clear as day: “We want water to be seen as a connector between different sectors. This requires better mechanisms within governments where water data is used to arrive at policy and planning processes. That too is about different sectors. Currently, about 50% of countries have such a mechanism, but that is only half of the world. If, as a government, you have so much insightful data, but you are not utilizing it due to lack of mechanisms or lack of decisive governance, you are simply missing opportunities.”

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