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Water scarcity: taking action in transboundary basins and addressing health impacts

Water scarcity and droughts are occurring more and more frequently and with increased magnitude, even in previously water-rich countries. Major causes include population growth and increasing water extraction, with climate change further exacerbating the situation. OECD and the Global Water Partnership estimated in 2015 that water insecurity costs the global economy $500 billion annually – today, this figure could be higher still.

This has far-reaching impacts on health. Water scarcity can negatively affect water supply and sanitation services. Inadequate supplies of safe drinking water can compromise hygiene behaviours and increase the risk of diarrhoeal and other diseases.

Water scarcity may also limit economic growth due to a decline in agricultural production, affect the environment and biodiversity by reducing environmental flow needed to sustain ecosystems, lead to conflicts within and across countries and act as a migration push factor. According to existing climate change scenarios, water scarcity in some arid and semi-arid places may displace between 24 and 700 million people by 2030.

Exchanging experiences, sharing solutions

In response to these pressing challenges, UNECE and a range of international partners organized a workshop on 11 and 12 December 2017 in Geneva on “Water scarcity: taking action in transboundary basins and addressing health impacts”. The theme drew together expertise and experience under the UNECE Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (Water Convention) and its Protocol on Water and Health, serviced by UNECE and the WHO Regional Office for Europe.

The workshop aimed to accelerate actions to address water scarcity and thereby reduce the related health, social, economic and environmental risks by sharing practical solutions, tools and approaches, in particular from the perspective of transboundary water cooperation and health impacts. It brought together more than 140 participants from all over the world.

As explained by international water lawyer Owen McIntyre at the workshop, most transboundary cooperation agreements so far do not address water scarcity directly owing to the need to strike a balance between flexibility and stability. However, some river basin organizations do consider this emerging topic. For example, following several years of severe drought, the Senegal River Basin Development Authority was created in 1972, bringing together Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, and Senegal to support the equitable sharing and sustainable management of the basin’s water resources. European river basin organizations are also starting to address low flow and water scarcity, such as the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine, which created a special expert group to deal with this topic.

Representatives of Mexico and the United States of America together highlighted how their countries have adapted their transboundary water cooperation in the Colorado basin to increasing scarcity by including a flexibility provision in the agreement and by starting the development of a joint water scarcity contingency plan. Bringing another perspective, a representative of Afghanistan reported on difficulties with water allocation in the transboundary Helmand basin and options to address them in the face of increasing scarcity.

Water reuse is more and more frequently proposed as a measure to address water scarcity, but it needs to be accompanied by an adequate regulatory framework, such as sanitation safety plans. In Jordan, for example, extensive laws and regulations govern the use of wastewater in agriculture.

At the workshop participants also explored how to create an enabling environment to address water scarcity. A representative of El Salvador provided insight into intersectoral committees created at the national level on the topic of water scarcity and other water-related issues.

Health issues are also included in several transboundary water cooperation agreements in Central America, in contrast to most European agreements. A representative of the Orange-Senqu River Basin Commission (ORASECOM) noted that three of the Orange basin countries are establishing a groundwater commission for the Stampriet aquifer.

The workshop concluded with a call for more frequent cooperation across sectors and countries, including between the Convention and Protocol communities.

The workshop was organized by UNECE, the World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe, the European Investment Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the World Meteorological Organization, the Global Water Partnership, the International Network of Basin Organizations and the Global Environment Facility’s IW:LEARN project under the leadership of the Netherlands, Italy and Switzerland.

The workshop was followed by the Water Convention’s ninth meeting of the Task Force on Water and Climate, held on 13 December, where participants discussed the development of a “Words into Action” guide on water and transboundary cooperation with the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction, inputs to global processes including under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the future work on water and climate under the Water Convention.

More information on the workshop and presentations are available at: 

https://www.unece.org/index.php?id=43633