Water crisis threatens world peace, says UNESCO

2.2 billion live without access to safe drinking water


March 23, 2024

/ By / Paris

Water crisis threatens world peace, says UNESCO

3.5 billion lack access to sanitation despite the UN’s goal for universal access by 2030

Conflicts around the world are becoming more intense due to tensions over water, says a report by UNESCO.

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The 2024 United Nations World Water Development Report, published by UNESCO on behalf of UN-Water, highlights that tensions over water are exacerbating conflicts worldwide.

In a press statement, UNESCO says that report reveals that 2.2 billion people lack access to safely managed drinking water, while 3.5 billion lack access to sanitation. Despite the UN’s goal for universal access by 2030, these disparities persist, with droughts affecting over 1.4 billion people from 2002 to 2021.

The statement adds in 2022, half of the global population faced severe water scarcity at some point during the year, with a quarter experiencing ‘extremely high’ levels of water stress, utilising over 80 pc of their yearly renewable freshwater supply. It warns that climate change is poised to amplify the frequency and intensity of these challenges, posing acute threats to social stability.

The report says that the initial impact manifests in deteriorating living conditions, heightening food insecurity, and escalating health risks. Moreover, it emphasises the adverse effects of water scarcity on social development, particularly for girls and women, who often bear the primary responsibility for water collection in rural areas, spending several hours daily on this arduous task. The compounded burden of reduced access to water supply further undermines women’s education, economic participation, and safety.

Audrey Azoulay

Audrey Azoulay

“As water stress increases, so do the risks of local or regional conflict. UNESCO’s message is clear: if we want to preserve peace, we must act swiftly not only to safeguard water resources but also to enhance regional and global cooperation in this area,” says Audrey Azoulay  Director-General of UNESCO.

“Water, when managed sustainably and equitably, can be a source of peace and prosperity. It is also the literal lifeblood of agriculture, the major socio-economic driver for billions of people,” says Alvaro Lario, President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and Chair of UN-Water.

Girls and women most impacted

Alvaro Lario

Alvaro Lario

The report says the first impact is the deterioration of living conditions, leading to heightened food insecurity and health risks. Water scarcity also has consequences on social development, particularly for girls and women. In many rural areas, they are the primary water collectors, spending up to several hours a day on this task. Reduced access to water supply exacerbates this burden, which undermines women’s education, economic participation and safety. This may also contribute to the higher secondary school dropout rate among girls compared to boys, it says.

The lack of water security has also been identified as one of the drivers of migration. This displacement can, in turn, contribute to water insecurity by placing added strain on water systems and resources in settlement locations, thereby fuelling social tensions. A study conducted in Somalia indicates a 200 pc increase in gender-based violence against a group of displaced people.

Urgent need for transboundary agreements

This water scarcity can increase the risk of conflict. In the Sahel region, wetland degradation, often due to ill-advised water development projects, has exacerbated local disputes over access to water and productive land, causing tensions.

The report says that while approximately 40 pc of the world’s population lives in transboundary river and lake basins, only a fifth of countries have cross border agreements to jointly manage these shared resources equitably. Many transboundary basins are already located in areas marked by current or past interstate tensions. In the Arab region, seven countries were in conflict in 2021, some dating back many years, which has had wide-ranging implications for water supply, infrastructure, and potential cooperation on water-related issues.

According to UN-Water, Africa remains especially vulnerable to interstate tensions relating to water and 19 out of 22 States studied suffer from water scarcity, and two-thirds of the continent’s freshwater resources are transboundary. Of the 106 transboundary aquifers mapped in Africa, interstate cooperation has only been formalised in seven.

Concrete progress in cooperation in several regions

However, it is not all bad news, according to the report. It says that cooperation on transboundary water management appears to be a powerful lever for maintaining peace. By creating conditions for regular dialogue between all parties and instituting the necessary legal frameworks, this cooperation has the potential to resolve most disputes relating to water, and therefore prevent the emergence or exacerbation of wider-ranging conflicts.

The Framework Agreement on the Sava River Basin (FASRB), signed in 2002 by Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia, was the first multilateral, development-oriented agreement in South-East Europe. It has successfully laid the groundwork for sustainable water management. Two decades after its adoption, it has become a key driver of stability in the region, and now serves as an example of best practice for other regions of the world.

The decline in volume of Lake Chad, which has decreased in size by 90 pc over 60 years, has led to a broad range of economic and security challenges in the region. Yet in recent years, Cameroon, Chad, the Central Africa Republic, Libya, Niger and Nigeria have given a new impetus to the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC). LCBC’s mandate has expanded to ensure the most efficient use of the basin’s waters, coordinate local development, and prevent the emergence of disputes that might arise among these countries and local communities. LCBC is today the most appropriate institution for addressing the specific needs of the basin, including socio-economic development and security issues, says UN-Water.

These two examples highlight the fact that, even in complex situations, States have the means to enact policies around access to water and shared resource management that are both fair and equitable thanks to international cooperation and the support of the United Nations system, says the report.



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