As part of our cycle of interviews to celebrate the World Water Day, we interview Dr. Stefan Uhlenbrook, Coordinator of the UNESCO World Water Assessment Programme (WWAP), to get an in depth understanding of the United Nations’ observance day and the actions carried out by this intergovernmental organization to advocate for the Sustainable Development Goal 6: water for all by 2030.
Question: Firstly, we would like to know briefly your career path and your current role in UN Water?
Answer: My name is Stefan Uhlenbrook and I am the Coordinator of the UNESCO World Water Assessment Programme (WWAP) and the Director of the UNESCO Programme Office on Global Water Assessment in Perugia, Italy. I previously worked at the UNESCO Institute for Water Education (now IHE-Delft) as Professor of Hydrology, Vice-Rector and later as the acting Rector. I studied at the University of Freiburg, Germany (1990-1999) and I am a professor for experimental hydrology at the Delft University of Technology and IHE-Delft, The Netherlands.
My main areas of expertise are water assessments, sustainability, hydrological process research and water resources management, with a focus on developing solutions for pressing water challenges. My research and development projects have sought to demonstrate the impact of global changes on water cycle dynamics in different hydro-climatic regions worldwide. I am an advocate for translating science-based knowledge to effective policies and strategies that contribute to environmental, economic and social sustainability.
UN-Water is the coordinating mechanism of UN entities and international organizations working on water and sanitation issues. On behalf of UN-Water, UNESCO WWAP is responsible for coordinating and producing the United Nations World Water Development Report (WWDR) jointly with the 31 UN-Water Members and 39 Partners. This annual report aims to inform policy and decision makers on key water challenges and solutions. I was also responsible for coordinating the production of the UN-Water SDG 6 Synthesis Report on Water and Sanitation 2018, which summarised the state of affairs of achieving SDG 6, the key interlinkages of SDG 6 with the other goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and related policy recommendations.
UN-Water plays a vital role in promoting World Water Day (WWD) by creating international awareness on key water and sanitation issues and by inspiring action
Q: What is UN Water’s role in promoting World Water Day?
A: UN-Water plays a vital role in promoting World Water Day (WWD) by creating international awareness on key water and sanitation issues and by inspiring action. It has developed a variety of platforms for people to engage with World Water Day, including a user-friendly website (www.worldwaterday.org), numerous events taking place throughout the world, educational initiatives to inspire the younger generations, a plethora of social media platforms and excellent multi-media campaigns. World Water Day is an opportunity for the UN System to share its robust knowledge and expertise with all members of society and to encourage everyone to learn and act on water and sanitation challenges.
Q: Why has UN Water chosen ‘Leaving no one behind’ as this year’s theme?
A: Access to water and sanitation are fundamental human rights, yet one third of the global population still lacks access to safe drinking water and 60% to safely managed sanitation. It is imperative that any water and sanitation related decisions and legislations consider the needs of all members of society, particularly of those who tend to be vulnerable and marginalised on the premises of their gender, age, ethnicity, culture and/or socioeconomic status, migration status, amongst other factors, and who are often overlooked. Therefore, the theme is very important to draw attention to, share facts (including solutions) and help to create political will to ensure that no one is left behind.
Q: Which criteria does UN Water use to choose each year’s theme?
It is imperative that any water and sanitation related decisions and legislations consider the needs of all members of society, particularly of those who tend to be vulnerable and marginalised
A: The Senior Programme Managers of UN-Water define the topic of the day through a consultative process with all Members and Partners. All themes link to the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and are pertinent to contemporary global water challenges. We change our area of focus every year in order to make sure that WWD is as dynamic and interdisciplinary as possible. Since the 2018 theme was Nature-based solutions, a rather ‘green topic,’ for the 2019 theme we have veered towards a ‘social justice’ lens on water and sanitation. Every year however, our chosen theme brings in the three dimensions of Sustainable Development: the social, the economic and the environmental. When addressing water and sanitation challenges, it is crucial that we address these three dimensions as inter-related and inter-dependant, and not as separate.
Q: Why do you think it necessary to highlight the marginalized groups’ difficulty in accessing safe water?
A: We cannot talk about social development without addressing the human rights to water and sanitation and the challenges that prevent many in society from fulfilling such rights. Human rights define individuals as rights-holders and states as duty-bearers, responsible for respecting, protecting and fulfilling these rights. The provision of water and sanitation should therefore reach all members of society under a human rights based approach. In reality however, many are not able to realise these rights due to a multiplicity of complex and often overlapping factors including a lack of capacity (individual and organisational), weak institutions, environmental adversities, social prejudices, political instability, and the list just goes on... Furthermore, the already complex nature of water and sanitation provision is becoming more challenging with global pressures such as population growth, rapid urbanisation and environmental degradation. This results in hundreds of millions of people around the world unable to fulfil their rights to either water or sanitation. Those who are being “left behind” are generally the most vulnerable and marginalised in society and the least able to make their voices heard, due to factors including a lack of assets, their gender and/or socio-political and economic status, their ethnicity, amongst others. Policy interventions must take into account anyone who is being “left behind” and carefully design context-specific policies and legislation that contribute to the realisation of the rights to water and sanitation by all.
Q: What events and projects are being carried out this year by UN Water to celebrate World Water Day?
A: There are numerous events taking place all over the world to mark World Water Day. These have been organised in collaboration with different partnerships and extend beyond the year’s theme to also include localised water and sanitation challenges. Events can be found on the WWD website (www.worldwaterday.org) and can be filtered according to location and themes. They include educational activities for Schools and Universities, calls for Young Water Fellowships, Photography Expositions, Comedy and Music Performances, Conferences, Filming Sessions and many more. They are often organised by UN entities or other international organisations in collaboration with national, regional and local stakeholders.
Every year about 30+ events will also be organised worldwide to launch the WWDR. WWAP is facilitating this with making the report available in English, French and Spanish; other language editions including Arabic and Chinese are expected to come out later. The Executive Summary (in 10 languages), a Facts & Figures publication (in 6 languages) and several communication documents are also shared. The latter include a PPT show with script, short videos, main messages, posters, banners, a press release etc. All can be found at www.unesco.org/water/wwap
You might be interested to organise your own WWDR event and use some of this material!
The already complex nature of water and sanitation provision is becoming more challenging with global pressures such as population growth, rapid urbanisation and environmental degradation
Q: What organizations have joined this year’s World Water Day?
This is a list of entities who have joined next week's World Water Day:
- UN Water
- United Nations Human Rights
- The Global Compact
- UN Habitat
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
- UN Women
- United Nations University
- World Health Organization
- Sanitation and Water For All
- United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization - World Water Assessment Programme
- United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization - International Hydrological Programme
Q: What do you think the media can do to spread the message of World Water Day to the maximum number of people?
A: In this day and age the role of the media, and in particular digital media, is central to any social campaign. The interconnected digital world we live in makes it easier to reach more members of society and spread knowledge and ideas. The media also plays a key role in disseminating the main messages of World Water Day, including but not limited to, the main findings of the UN WWDR, which is also released on WWD.
The websites of WWD and WWDR (see links above) offers a range of digital resources that can be used to spread knowledge through social media campaigns and digital action. These resources come in different languages and include a social media kit, informative videos, posters, factsheets, tweeting material, educational resources, and many more. I think it is particularly important to encourage younger generations to use their social media presence to share and spread knowledge regarding key issues on water, sanitation and leaving no one behind.
Q: And lastly, what do you think citizens can do to make the SDG 6 goal possible?
A: Water is everyone’s business: it is a finite resource that moves through all aspects of our daily lives. Humans have altered, reshaped and adapted the hydrological cycle in all its occurrences across scale (global, river basin, local, city ….), to what some would now call the ‘hydro-social cycle’. The unsustainability of current water management practices warrants a collective change. It is therefore everyone’s responsibility to play their role in creating a fairer and more sustainable water management system. Citizens should get informed, share knowledge, sensitise others including the younger generations, and make sure their water footprint is as sustainable as possible.
I think it is important for citizens to question unsustainable water usage patterns that have been normalised in many parts of the world and be actively involved in changing water and sanitation practices which are not sustainable and which leave many behind. Everyone can do their part, whether it is sharing relevant posts on social media, minimizing direct water use, minimizing the water footprint, reusing water at home, sensitising children on water and sanitation related topics or making a business’ Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) more water-sensitive. We must remember that without safe and sustainable access to water and sanitation by all, we are undermining all other SDGs.
*The water footprint shows the extent of water use in relation to consumption by people. The water footprint of an individual, community or business is defined as the total volume of fresh water used to produce the goods and services consumed by the individual or community or produced by the business.