“Water Security”: Experts Propose a UN Definition on Which Much Depends

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WaterSan Perspective
March 22, 2013

Amid changing weather and water patterns worldwide and forecasts of more severe transformations to come, calls have been growing for the UN Security Council to include water issues on its agenda.

And there’s rising international support for adopting “universal water security” as one of the Sustainable Development Goals — a set of mid-term global objectives to succeed the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, agreed by world leaders in 2000 for achievement by 2015.

MDGs
MDGs

But what does “water security” mean? The absence of a definition undermines progress in international forums. Marking World Water Day today at UN Headquarters in New York, a common working definition was published, forged by UN and international experts from around the world.

UN-Water, the United Nations’ inter-agency coordination mechanism for all water-related issues, says water security should be defined as:

“The capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of and acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being, and socio-economic development, for ensuring protection against water-borne pollution and water-related disasters, and for preserving ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability.”

Released within an analytical brief by a special UN-Water Task Force on Water Security, (available from March 22 at http://bit.ly/ZXWmF5), this working definition will facilitate critical work, its authors say.

Most immediately, it will be considered by a group of 30 member states, headed by Hungary and Kenya, tasked with drafting the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals. That report, anticipated around mid-year, is then expected to be taken up at the annual UN General Assembly next September.

“In the past few decades, definitions of security have moved beyond a limited focus on military risks and conflicts,” says Michel Jarraud, Chair of UN-Water and Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

“Security has now come to mean human security and its achievement through development. Water fits within this broader definition of security — embracing political, health, economic, personal, food, energy, environmental and other concerns — and acts as a central link between them.”

“Common understanding has central importance in international discussions and water security can’t continue to have a variety of meanings,” says Zafar Adeel, co-chair of the UN-Water Task Force on Water Security and Director of the United Nations University’s Canadian-based Institute for Water, Environment and Health.

“A shared and working definition is needed to get everyone on the same page. Only then can we collectively start to write a coherent response to the challenges.”

“Access to safe water and sanitation is now a fundamental human right. But water management also requires realistic ways of recovering delivery costs. An agreed definition of water security is vitally important in that context.”

Many observers have identified water as an “urgent security issue,” a group that last year included both former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the InterAction Council, an association of 37 former heads of state and government co-chaired by the Rt. Hon. Jean Chrétien, former Prime Minister of Canada, and H.E. Dr. Franz Vranitzky, former Chancellor of Austria.

According to Mr. Chrétien: “Nothing is more fundamental to life than water. Few issues, therefore, have the potential to create friction more than the management of water shared across international borders, especially now with serious scarcity problems in prospect.”

In its analytical brief, UN-Water echoed its support for including water security on the UN Security Council agenda.

The brief also calls for:

* Recognition of the need to include water security in the formulation of the Sustainable Development Goals;

* A supportive policy environment including innovative financial mechanisms to achieve water security;

* Increases in capacity development on a wide range of needs, from human to financial, institutional, technological and service provisioning.

In 2011, the UN Security Council recognized the serious implications of climate change, with water being the medium through which climate change will have the most effects.

By formally including water security on its agenda, the Council would recognize the direct impact of water on human security issues: either as a trigger, a potential target, or a contributing factor.

Such recognition would acknowledge that water insecurity poses serious risk and that water security could contribute to achieving increased regional peace and security in the long term.

The analytical brief notes examples of the impact of disasters and conflicts on water resources and related ecosystems.

In 2011, for example, driven largely by water and food shortages linked to drought in the Horn of Africa, almost 185,000 Somalis fled to neighbouring countries.

Most African countries struggle to provide access to water and sanitation to their people
Most African countries struggle to provide access to water and sanitation to their people

In Sudan, violence broke out in March 2012 in the Jamam refugee camp where large numbers of people faced serious water scarcity. And in South Sudan, entire communities were forced to leave due to scarce water resources as a result of conflict in 2012.

Disasters and conflicts can also affect the physical infrastructure needed to access water, sanitation and hygiene services (water services infrastructure, treatment plants, drainage systems, dams, irrigation channels, etc.), reducing levels of water security.

Water insecurity, therefore, leads to cascading political, social, economic and environmental consequences, the brief says.

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