In a few days, global leaders will gather at UN headquarters in New York to make certain we recognize the value of water, appreciate its vitality to life and embrace a visionary Water Action Agenda. The United Nations Conference on the Midterm Comprehensive Review of the Implementation of the Objectives of the International Decade of Action, Water for Sustainable Development, will be held from 22-24 March, after a very long intermission since the last water conference in 1977 in Argentina. The Conference will assess the progress of the Water Action Decade since 2018 and commemorate World Water Day.
Right and access to clean water for people in the Asia-Pacific region
What does water mean in our lives? A clean, healthy and sustainable environment is fundamental for the enjoyment of human rights as enshrined in the General Assembly resolution A/RES/64/292, and this includes access to clean water.
However, the Asia-Pacific region is off-track to achieve any of the targets for Sustainable Development Goal 6 on clean water and sanitation and there is still much work to do to ensure equitable, sustainable and clean water for all. The climate crisis has caused unprecedented, record-breaking floods, sea level rise and storm surges. Nine out of 10 disasters triggered by natural hazards during the past decade were related to water. In fact, two-thirds (57 per cent) of the global deaths of water-related disasters occur in the region with 6.9 billion people affected and more than 2 million killed between 1970 and 2020.
Two-thirds of the world’s population live in Asia and the Pacific, yet only 36 per cent of the entire water resources are found here, making it the region with the lowest per capita water availability in the world. Some 1.9 billion people in Asia and the Pacific lack access to safely managed drinking water and sanitation services, and out of those, 1.3 billion cannot access basic handwashing facilities. A large majority (83 per cent) of school children have limited or no access to water, sanitation and hygiene services. The urban population in the region has more than doubled since 1950, placing pressures on municipalities to keep up with water supply and sufficient wastewater treatment systems. Even so, most of the people that are struggling with access to clean water without modern infrastructure and services are living in remote and rural areas.
Agriculture accounts for 70 per cent of the region’s freshwater withdrawal, making this sector the single largest user in most countries. Due to population growth, urbanization, and increased industrialization, water competition among sectors has become more severe in the region, which has been threatening agricultural production and food security, and affecting water quality. Groundwater sources are being diminished and contaminated, a particularly serious issue for people living inland far from clean surface water. It does not help that some 80 per cent of wastewater is released into open water bodies without modern treatment facilities, which significantly raises pollution in major rivers and leads to poor water quality.
Accelerating towards clean and equitable water resources
What are key policy directions to achieve sustainable water management? UN-Water, which is composed of over 30 UN organizations and partners, has put forward the SDG6 Acceleration Framework which outlines a set of guiding principles that promotes inclusivity, conflict sensitivity, resilience and scientific, evidence-based action. The five accelerators cover data and information, financing, governance, innovation and capacity development, which collaboratively are meant to contribute to the new Water Action Agenda, shape voluntary commitments and partnerships and deliver results for sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by 2030.
To successfully implement the Water Action Agenda, governments, communities, corporations, and individuals must take action in their respective spheres of influence. In an ancient story from the Quechua people in Peru, a hummingbird fetches drops of water to help put out a great forest fire. The moral of the story is clear: each of us must play a small part to achieve the greater good.