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Water stress: why integrated management matters

  • Water stress: why integrated management matters
    About 4 billion people, representing nearly two-thirds of the world population, experience severe water scarcity during at least one month of the year. Photo by Aidan Dockery

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The leading global environmental authority that sets the global environmental agenda, promotes the coherent implementation of the environmental dimension of sustainable development within the United Nations system.

The last two years have been difficult for residents of India’s eastern city of Chennai in Tamil Nadu State. Monsoon rains have failed for two years and the city has braved a heat wave compounded by water scarcity.

On 19 June 2019, the state government announced that Day Zero—or the day when the city reservoirs were empty—had been reached. Local officials then announced that they would transport 10 million litres of water daily by train from 200 kilometres away to provide enough water, especially for the poor, to survive.

Chennai’s water stress is not unique to the city. From Cape Town, South Africa to Iran’s port city of Khorramshahr, individuals and communities in numerous countries worldwide have in recent years been suffering from water shortages.

Recent data unveiled by the Water Resources Institute in August 2019 shows that Qatar, Israel and Lebanon are experiencing an “extremely high” level of water stress with irrigated agriculture, industries and municipalities consuming, on average, more than 80 per cent of their available supply annually. India was placed thirteenth among the world's 17 most “extremely water-stressed” countries.

About 10,000 years ago when homo sapiens embraced sedentary agriculture, they also established permanent settlements which evolved into villages, cities and states. They required safe water supply to build cities and nations.

“Today, water remains the lifeblood of ecosystems, vital to human health and well-being and a precondition for economic prosperity. It’s really at the core of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” says Joakim Harlin, Chief of the UN Environment Programme’s Freshwater Unit.

Sustainable Development Goal 6 seeks to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”. UN Environment is the global custodian of the goal’s indicator 6.5.1 which tracks the degree of implementation of integrated water resources management. The indicator also considers the various users and uses of water, and strives to reach positive social, economic and environmental impacts at all levels, including across borders.

In 2018, the UN Environment-DHI Partnership, a UN Environment centre of expertise dedicated to improving the management, development and use of freshwater resources, launched the report Progress On Integrated Water Resources Management, published under the UN-Water Integrated Monitoring Initiative for SDG 6.

While the vast majority of countries, 80 per cent, have laid the foundations for integrated water resources management, the focus must now shift to implementation, says the report. “Progress has been made, but more needs to be done,” it notes.

“Water stress has various dimensions and even within countries or regions there are disparities in spatial distribution of the resource. Prolonged droughts, due to climate variability and change, can also exacerbate the situation. To cope, there is often a need to develop water storage and water transfer infrastructure, prevent pollution of water sources, control demand and increase efficiency in water use,” says Harlin.

In rural Ethiopia many women and children walk more than three hours to collect water, often from shallow wells or unprotected ponds they share with animals. Photo by Aidan Dockery.

Included among the ways that communities can alleviate water stress is improving efficiency in agriculture and food production, which consumes the largest proportion of water used worldwide. In addition, cities can reduce pipe leaks and enhance restrictions on watering of lawns or swimming pools to reduce evaporation losses. Individuals can conserve water by taking short showers instead of baths, avoiding letting taps run when washing hands and brushing teeth, installing more water-efficient taps and toilets, only running the dishwasher and washing machines when full, etc. Another important way to reduce water consumption is to cut down on products and services that require lots of water such as red meats, almonds, electricity and transport.

The UN Environment-DHI Partnership conducts extensive work on integrated water resources management worldwide, including the management of a data portal, which offers a comprehensive collection of national implementation progress data drawn from global country progress surveys.

The data on integrated water resources management is collected through an official Sustainable Development Goal questionnaire whose responses are consolidated through consultations with stakeholders such as national and subnational line ministries, institutions involved in water resources management, non-governmental organizations, academia and business.

Such data could be crucial for better management and use of water and to reduce the scarcity experienced in countries around the world.

With droughts exacerbating water shortages in some regions and negatively impacting people’s health and productivity, ensuring that everyone has access to sustainable water and sanitation services, and that water for productive uses is allocated equitable and sustainably, also requires a critical climate change adaptation and mitigation strategy for the years ahead.

Learn more about UN Environment’s work on water.

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