Amina J. Mohammed, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, at the Opening Plenary.
Photo: © Thomas Henriksson/SIWI

World Water Week – A call for nature-based solutions

Stressed ecosystems and high pressure on limited water resources are threatening livelihoods, while water scarcity is strongly related to violence and conflicts. Especially women and girls are suffering from water shortage, as they are responsible for households water demands. At World Water Week 2018, experts discussed what is needed to prevent a global water crisis and called for more nature-based solutions.

More than 3,300 water experts, development professionals and business representatives from all over the world met at the World Water Week in Stockholm, Sweden, in late August 2018 to discuss the topic of “Water, ecosystems and human development”. Following the argumentation of this year’s United Nations World Water Development Report, the meeting concluded that more nature-based solutions were urgently needed to avoid a global water crisis.
Nature‐based solutions use natural processes to contribute to the improved management of water. These solutions include changing farming practices that allow soils to retain moisture and nutrients, harvesting rainwater, re‐charging aquifers, conserving wetlands that capture runoff and filter water, restoring floodplains and turning rooftops into gardens.
“With the rapidly growing demand for water, it is becoming increasingly clear that water is everybody’s issue. Scarcity of water has become the new normal in so many parts of the world,” said Torgny Holmgren, Executive Director of the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), which organises World Water Week, in his welcome address at the opening ceremony. To counter water scarcity, he called for a shift towards more green infrastructure solutions. So‐called ‘green’ infrastructure, as opposed to traditional ‘grey’ infrastructure, focuses on preserving the functions of ecosystems, both natural and built. It has multiple applications in agriculture, by far the greatest consumer of water.
At the opening ceremony, Amina J. Mohammed, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, talked about the strong link between environmental degradation, poverty and violent conflicts. This is not least visible in her home country of Nigeria, which in recent years has suffered from terrorism. Mohammed pointed out that while technology and political policies might be necessary to achieve water security, it was now time to take action. She urged to focus the discussions at World Water Week primarily on how to turn theory into practice.

Women and girls hardest hit by water scarcity

Asa Regner, Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director and Director for the Intergovernmental Support and Strategic Partnerships Bureau, at UN Women, stressed just how closely the topics of water and gender were interlinked at the opening event.
According to Regner, women and girls are playing an important role in the sustainable management of water resources. They are responsible for supplying households with water, have to walk several miles a day to fetch water or have to queue for hours to cover the family’s daily water needs. If family members get ill because no clean water is available, the women are the ones who have to look after them.
Thus women and girls spend a considerable amount of time organising water – time that is lacking elsewhere: in coping with day-to-day life in general, and especially in school education. “Alone in Sub-Saharan Africa, women and girls spend 40 billion hours a year collecting water, equivalent to a year’s worth of labour by the entire workforce in France,” Åsa Regnér said. “That „limits their freedom to live their own life.” She criticised that “women are doing the works of pipes, their bodies are part of infrastructure”. 

Preventing water crisis means preventing conflicts

“If we continue along our current path the world will face a 40 per cent shortfall in water availability in 2030,” warned Amina J. Mohammed. This scenario would result in widespread instability, because water scarcity was strongly related to violence and conflicts. However, co-operation can prevail over conflict as history shows. Just what such co-operation could look like and what the limiting factors were, was discussed by participants of the High-Level Panel on Water Diplomacy Water Diplomacy.
Danilo Türk, Chairman on the Global High-Level Panel on Water and Peace, pointed out that it was forty years since the first and only United Nations conference had taken place and asked “whether the time has come for another major policy meeting at the highest level to make sure that models of co-operation and water diplomacy are going to respond to the needs of our time”.
Wetlands are playing an important role in maintaining peace and security by supplying water and food and sustaining human health and livelihoods, the not-for-profit network organisation Wetlands International, which organised the side-event “Connecting water, peace, and security through ecosystems”, pointed out. According to them, degradation of wetlands was contributing directly and indirectly to water scarcity.
As of 2009, the world had lost 33 per cent of its wetland in area. Around the world, the loss and degradation of wetlands had led to reduced livelihood options, social tensions and human displacement. Therefore, the organisation calls for the mapping of wetlands ecosystems that act as regional ‘peacekeepers’.
Wetlands International takes the example of the region around Lake Chad, where the Boko Haram insurgency has displaced more than 2.3 million people since mid-2013, including 1.3 million children. The Lake Chad Basin has lost 95 per cent of its surface area owing to water abstraction for irrigation projects, and youths from this region are joining armed groups becuse of a lack of opportunities.
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