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13 June | 2024

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Two billion people lack safe water as UNESCO points out ‘imminent crisis’

Audrey Azoulay suggests strong global mechanism to prevent water crisis from spiraling out of control | Paris-based UN agency says urban water demand is predicted to increase by 80% by 2050

NEW YORK/PARIS: The number of people lacking access to safe drinking water in cities around the world will double by 2050, a new UN report found, amid warnings of an imminent water crisis that is likely to spiral out of control.

Nearly one billion people in cities around the world face water scarcity today and the number is likely to reach between 1.7 billion and 2.4 billion within the next three decades, according to the UN World Water Development Report, published by the UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The Paris-based UN agency said that the urban water demand was predicted to increase by 80% by 2050. Water shortages are also becoming a more frequent occurrence in rural areas, the report found. Currently, between two billion and three billion people experiencing water shortages for at least a year.

UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said that there was an urgent need to establish strong international mechanisms to prevent the global water crisis from spiraling out of control. “Water is our common future, and it is essential to act together to share it equitably and manage it sustainably.”

‘Globally, two billion people do not have safe drinking water and 3.6 billion lack access to safely managed sanitation’

Globally, two billion people do not have safe drinking water and 3.6 billion lack access to safely managed sanitation, the report found. The rising incidence of extreme and prolonged droughts is also stressing ecosystems, with dire consequences for both plant and animal species.

Report’s Editor-in-Chief Richard Connor told reporters at UN Headquarters in New York ahead of the launch that uncertainties were increasing. “If we don’t address it, there definitely will be a global crisis,” he said, pointing to rising scarcity that reflects reduced availability and increased demand, from urban and industrial growth to agriculture, which alone consumes 70 per cent of the world’s supply.

Explaining landscape of such shortages, he said economic water scarcity was a big problem, where governments fail to provide safe access, such as in the middle of Africa, where water flows. Also, physical scarcity is worst in desert areas, including northern India and through the Middle East.

About possible ‘water wars’ in the face of a global crisis, Richard Connor said the essential natural resource tends to lead to peace and cooperation rather than to conflict. Strengthening transboundary cooperation is the main tool to avoid conflict and escalating tensions, he said, noting that 153 countries share nearly 900 rivers, lakes and aquifer systems, and more than half having signed agreements.

‘153 countries share nearly 900 rivers, lakes and aquifer systems, and more than half having signed agreements’

Detailing experiences of partners’ efforts to collaborate, the report explains how accelerating progress on achieving related 2030 Agenda goals hinges on enhancing positive, meaningful cooperation among water, sanitation, and broader development communities. Innovations during the outset of the COVID 19 pandemic saw partnerships form among health and wastewater authorities, who were together able to track the disease and provide critical real-time data, he said.

From city dwellers to small holder farmers, partnerships have produced mutually beneficial results. By investing in agricultural communities upstream, farmers can benefit in ways that help the downstream cities they feed, he said. States and stakeholders can cooperate in such areas as flood and pollution control, data sharing, and co-financing.

From wastewater treatment systems to protecting wetlands, efforts contributing to reducing greenhouse gas emissions should open the door to further collaboration and increase access to water funds, he said. “However, the water community is not tapping into those resources,” he said, expressing hope that the report and the conference can trigger productive discussions and on-the-ground results.

Johannes Cullmann, special scientific advisor to the president of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), said it’s a question of investing wisely. While water resources and how they are managed impact almost all aspects of sustainable development, including the 17 SDGs, he said current investments must be quadrupled to meet the annual estimated $600 billion to $1 trillion required to realize SDG 6, on water and sanitation.

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