UN-Water Defines Water Security, Highlights Threats & Mitigation Steps


Andrew Burger

Equitable, broad-based public access to sustainable, sanitary supplies of water is increasingly being seen as a security issue. A growing world population, global warming, growing fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions and ongoing, growing disparities in the distribution of wealth and income and business-as-usual political economy – all threaten national, regional and international efforts to assure all members of society fair access to sustainable water resources.

Three high-profile international organizations called on the UN Security Council last September “to recognize water as one of the top security concerns facing the global community.” Support is also growing to include water issues on the UN’s mid-term strategic agenda as one of its Sustainable Development Goals, a strategic framework that is to succeed the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

But just what is “water security?” A lot hinges on the definition in terms of policy formulation and project implementation at the local, national, regional and international scales. Aiming to provide clarity and direction, a team of UN and international water experts will mark World Water Day at UN headquarters in New York City March 22 by proposing a common working definition.

Water: a fundamental human right, and a security threat

UN-Water is the United Nations’ “inter-agency coordination mechanism for all water-related issues. According to the group, water security should be defined as:

“The capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of and acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being, and socio-economic development, for ensuring protection against water-borne pollution and water-related disasters, and for preserving ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability.”

“Access to safe water and sanitation is now a fundamental human right. But water management also requires realistic ways of recovering delivery costs,” Zafar Adeel, co-chair of the UN-Water Task Force on Water Security and director of United Nations University’s Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-IWEH). An agreed definition of water security is vitally important in that context…A shared and working definition is needed to get everyone on the same page. Only then can we collectively start to write a coherent response to the challenges.”

The UN-Water Task Force on Water Security

Supporting its efforts to define the issue of water security and facilitate and spearhead global initiatives to address it, UN-Water also released an analytical brief produced by the UN-Water Task Force.

“In the past few decades, definitions of security have moved beyond a limited focus on military risks and conflicts,” Michel Jarraud, chair of UN-Water and Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), was quoted in a press release.

“Security has now come to mean human security and its achievement through development. Water fits within this broader definition of security — embracing political, health, economic, personal, food, energy, environmental and other concerns — and acts as a central link between them.”

The ripple effect of a working definition of water security

The ripple effect of issuing a working definition of water security for policymakers will extend far and wide.

“Most immediately, it will be considered by a group of 30 member states, headed by Hungary and Kenya, tasked with drafting the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals,” UN-Water noted. “That report, anticipated around mid-year, is then expected to be taken up at the annual UN General Assembly next September.

It’s estimated that 1/6 of the world’s population–more than 1 billion people–lack access to clean, safe drinking water. The problem is likely to get worse, and faster than most expect in coming years, according to water experts.

The health issues alone are disturbing. “Today, a child dies on average every 20 seconds from a water-related disease,” UNU-INWEH’s Adeel was quoted. “That’s a largely invisible average toll of 4,500 children dying every single day.”

One member of the highly regarded group aiming to elevate the issue of water security to higher UN, public and governmental prominence is the InterAction Council (IAC)– a group of 40 former government leaders and heads of state that since 1983 has been voluntarily working on addressing major issues of concern to all human societies. Joining them are UNU-INWEH and Canada’s Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation.

“The future political impact of water scarcity may be devastating,” former Canadian Prime Minister and IAC co-chair Jean Chrétien elaborated in a press release. “Using water the way we have in the past simply will not sustain humanity in future. The IAC is calling on the United Nations Security Council to recognize water as one of the top security concerns facing the global community.”

Coincident with their September call on the UN Security Council’s 15 members, the group released a UNU-INWEH book, “The Global Water Crisis: Addressing an Urgent Security Issue.” In it, “23 eminent international water experts” examine the issue of water resource use and management at both global and local scales. The identify “a host of serious security, development and social risks associated with the water crisis, including food, health, energy and equity issues.”

Water conflicts and disasters

In its analytical brief, the UN-Water Task Force on Water Security notes examples of the impact of disasters and conflicts on water resources and related ecosystems.

“In 2011, for example, driven largely by water and food shortages linked to drought in the Horn of Africa, almost 185,000 Somalis fled to neighbouring countries. In Sudan, violence broke out in March 2012 in the Jamam refugee camp where large numbers of people faced serious water scarcity. And in South Sudan, entire communities were forced to leave due to scarce water resources as a result of conflict in 2012.”

Also at risk is critical physical infrastructure, such as water distribution systems, water treatment plants, drainage systems, dams and irrigation channels, the report authors continue.

“Water insecurity, therefore, leads to cascading political, social, economic and environmental consequences.”

A more through treatment of water-related conflicts has been documented by The Pacific Institute and is available for download.

Enhancing water security

On a positive note, UN-Water has also issued a summary of core elements needed to achieve and maintain water security, synthesized from a broad range of sources:

  • Access to safe and sufficient drinking water at an affordable cost in order to meet basic needs, including sanitation and hygiene, and safeguard health and levels of well-being;
  • Protection of livelihoods, human rights, and cultural and recreational values;
  • Preservation and protection of ecosystems in water allocation and management systems in order to maintain their ability to deliver and sustain functioning of essential ecosystem services;
  • Water supplies for socio-economic development and activities (such as energy, transport, industry, tourism);
  • Collection and treatment of used water to protect human life and the environment from pollution;
  • Collaborative approaches to transboundary water resources management within and between countries to promote freshwater sustainability and cooperation;
  • The ability to cope with uncertainties and risks of water-related hazards, such as floods, droughts and pollution, among others; and,
  • Good governance and accountability, and the due consideration of the interests of all stakeholders through: appropriate and effective legal regimes; transparent, participatory and accountable institutions; properly planned, operated and maintained infrastructure; and capacity development.