UN warns of ‘draining humanity’s lifeblood’ amid worsening water scarcity

<span>Photograph: Hollandse Hoogte/REX/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Hollandse Hoogte/REX/Shutterstock

The United Nations opened its first water conference in almost half a century in New York on Wednesday, with a plea for countries to work together to tackle overconsumption, water guzzling industries and the climate crisis – or else face more hunger, conflicts and forced migration due to worsening water scarcity.

A quarter of the world’s population still does not have access to safe drinking water while half lacks basic sanitation, and despite some progress in recent years, the climate crisis is making the situation worse.

“We are draining humanity’s lifeblood through vampiric overconsumption and unsustainable use, and evaporating it through global heating,” said UN secretary general António Guterres. “Governments must develop and implement plans that ensure equitable water access for all people while conserving this precious resource.”

Universal access to clean drinking water and sanitation is one of 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) created through the UN process in 2015, alongside ending hunger and poverty, achieving gender equality, and taking action on climate change.

At the current pace of investment and political will, access to water and sanitation (SDG6) will not be achieved for decades after the 2030 target. At this rate, only 37% of people in sub-Saharan Africa will have safely managed water by 2030. Access within the richest countries is also uneven, with Native American households 19 times more likely to live without basic plumbing than white Americans.

According to an analysis by WaterAid, investment needs to more than triple to at least $200bn a year to close the current financial gap and get everyone on the planet access to safe water and sanitation by 2030.

The Covid pandemic and the climate breakdown – which has exacerbated water scarcity (drought) in many countries and damaged critical infrastructure damage (extreme storms and flooding) – have underscored that access to water and sanitation are deeply connected to health, economic activity, food insecurity and education. Girls and women cannot go to school or engage in paid employment if they need to spend hours collecting water every day. Neither malnutrition in children nor obesity in adults can be tackled without access to safe, clean and affordable water.

People wait for their turn to collect drinking water from a mobile water tanker on World Water Day in a residential area in New Delhi, India, on Wednesday.
People wait for their turn to collect drinking water from a mobile water tanker on World Water Day in a residential area in New Delhi, India, on Wednesday. Photograph: Altaf Qadri/AP

Yet so far, governments and other agencies have done a poor job at connecting the dots, said Michael Dunford, director of the World Food Programme’s east Africa region where 82 million are facing acute hunger and famine due to drought – up from 60 million this time last year. “Eradicating hunger is unattainable without water security.”

“We have to break down silos if we’re going to solve this problem. This conference needs to be a galvanising moment globally and across sectors, and kickstart work towards something binding,” said Elizabeth Marcey, WaterAid’s US director of policy and advocacy. “For too long Wash [water, sanitation and hygiene] efforts have been focused on plumbing not people. The access gap has significantly closed but solutions need to be locally sustainable and culturally appropriate.”

The conference is taking place at a time of unprecedented water related crises: global heating is causing increasingly intense drought and floods; industrial agriculture, mining, fossil fuels, cement and other industries are using and polluting increasingly scarce water resources; and 10% of the rise in global forced migration is linked to water shortages.

Drought in the American west and Europe has demonstrated how the climate crisis is threatening access to water in countries and communities that had until recently taken water for granted.

Despite what’s at stake, the conference lacks the drama of the annual climate talks. Only a handful of world leaders are expected, and so far there have been few concrete financial pledges. Instead, the conference is expected to culminate in the Water Action Agenda – a non-binding collection of commitments from the public, nonprofit and private sectors that the UN hopes will scale-up actions needed for global water security.

In a statement, the White House said the US would “unveil a series of commitments of up to $49bn” towards the Water Action Agenda, but there were few details apart from $700m (from a previously announced aid package) to help 22 priority countries.

On the question of financing, delegates from climate vulnerable nations outlined the loss and damage to livelihoods, land, cultures and life already being suffered due to rising sea level, groundwater salination, drought, storm surges and irregular rainfall patterns, as part of a side event on the nexus between water and forced migration. In Bangladesh, the government is building new townships to move coastal communities. The Tuvalu official said that some areas are already uninhabitable forcing residents to relocate. “We don’t want to move out of or country, so we need the support of the international community on loss and damage.”

Dried Canelon Grande reservoir just north of Canelones, in southern Uruguay, as the country goes through a severe drought.
Dried Canelon Grande reservoir just north of Canelones, in southern Uruguay, amid a severe drought. Photograph: Pablo Porciuncula/AFP/Getty Images

Cop27 in Egypt last year ended with a groundbreaking agreement to create a fund through which rich polluting countries mostly responsible for global heating will partially compensate poor vulnerable countries for irreversible loss and damage from the climate crisis.

The three-day water conference includes almost a hundred side events with at least 8,000 delegates expected to attend in person. But access to the UN conference – like access to safe, clean affordable water (and the climate talks) – is unequal. Water justice advocates warned about the corporate capture of the UN water agenda with Bayer, Unilever, Cargill and Coca Cola among the polluting multinationals holding events. Meanwhile representatives from frontline communities have been denied access due to visa, accreditation and funding issues.

“You can’t plan or make decisions for people without their presence, we represent our communities so without us, our voices are lost, our people and communities are not heard,” said Nigerian youth activist Lovelyn Andrawus from Rise Up Nigeria and Fridays For Future who could not get a visa. “Water or climate issues are global crises with local solutions so we need to be represented.”

The tension between private sector priorities and public access bubbled over at an event on water as the lynchpin for global resilience organised by the US delegation. Detlef Stammer from the World Meteorological Organisation blasted the speaker from Diageo, the global drinks company that sells Johnny Walker whiskey and Guinness, after she made the business case for investing in Wash and water conservation. Forty of Diageo’s 200 global sites are operating in water stressed places.

“You pump so much groundwater out of the ground to put things into plastic bottles, there is not enough for agriculture,” said Stammer. “We have to distribute what we have in a way that’s most useful. That’s the whole story.”

The privatisation of water and sanitation services is taking place across the world, and is being pushed by many governments and development banks. Osward Chanda, director for water development and sanitation at the African Development Bank, said: “The private sector is not a wholesale solution, or a panacea to all our problems but they do have resources and expertise that can make a difference.”

But at a simultaneous event organised by the People’s Water Forum, Meera Karunananthan, from the Blue Planet Project in Canada, said the emphasis on getting the private sector involved in the delivery of clean water and sanitation was “alarming” and ignored years of research about the harmful consequences of privatisation from around the world.

On Tuesday, Pedro Arrojo, the UN special rapporteur on the human right to water, helped launch the water justice manifesto which argues that access to water and sanitation is a fundamental human right, and that personal and domestic needs must take priority over industrial use and profits.