No Water, No Peace

24 Jun

Editor’s Note:  Sulekha Prasad comes to us from Rutgers University with extensive experience in gender and development issues.  She has been following post-2015 development priorities at the UN, notably the intersections of food, water and human security. 

At the recent UN event “Civil society perspectives on the Post-2015 agenda” organized by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), the European Union representative asserted that “[development] goals need to be universal and no longer the goals meant for the developing world.” While precise objectives and means of universal attainment regarding the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) remain elusive, accountability for those goals remains of paramount importance. How can UN member states ensure that the most effective, measured actions are taken to eliminate on a global scale inequality of access to poverty reduction measures and resources such as water while protecting the environment?

We learned from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that the need for holistic responses to cross cutting and inter-linked goals is imperative, but this insight has been unevenly applied with the SDGs. For example, proposed SDG Goal 6, “Secure water and sanitation for all for a sustainable world,” lacks a standard of measurement, which makes accountability for that standard challenging. Currently, the right to water gives a private ‘holder’ legal permission to use water for any number of purposes including, but not limited to, agriculture, storage, sale, hydroelectric power, or treatment plants. Holders currently reserve the right to retain and use water for private purposes as much as the law permits. In response to this seemingly unaccountable model that limits access, UN member states proposed SDG Goal 6.3, to improve water quality by significantly reducing pollution, eliminating dumping of toxic materials, and improving wastewater management as well as recycling and reuse. While this attempt at measurement is a sensible response to the urgent need for responsible usage of a precious resource, it does not provide accountable restrictions on current ‘holders’ mainly due to the frameworks heavy reliance on what some social scientists call “measuring the immeasurable.”

When the human rights community and member states discuss the right to water, the conversation shifts between a civilian’s right to water access and the rights of a “legal holder.” According to human rights advocates, there is a lack of accountability protecting citizen’s rights to water access over and against private rights to water control. There is also the challenge of trying to ‘measure’ a resource that is challenging to measure: assessing both water quantity and quality from ground water and other sources remains a formidable challenge to SDG 6 and other SDGs dependent on water security.

Available evidence substantiates the claim that water access is heavily politicized and yet tied invariably to economic, social and environmental well-being. Indeed, the discourse and trajectory of water rights carries with it the threat of further compromising local, state, and international security. In 2000, Hazarajat, Afghanistan experienced violent conflicts over drought-depleted local resources. In the same year locals of Cochabamba, Bolivia experienced extreme violence and conflict over the privatization of their water supply. In Chennai, Tamil Nadu, local farmers engage and experience conflict and violence over water access, while private ownership of the Cauvery (Kaveri) River between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu continues to result in daily clashes. Moreover, India’s 37.7 million annual deaths is in part a direct consequence of water borne diseases. On another continent, Darfur, Sudan experienced 400,000 deaths in part over diminishing water supplies and access to other resources.

Water-related resolutions that define and guide access may be one of the most strategic ways that the UN and member states can effectively prevent future conflict and even war that have water scarcity at their origins.  The possibility of fair and accountable sharing of water resources both locally and internationally could be used as a spring board for launching other ways of ensuring peace and security when scarcity threatens.

Solutions to developmental problems cannot always be measurable, but they can be made accountable. There is no denying that there are proven techniques that help state officials mange water supplies, but they do not adequately address rapid urbanization, the legal state of water rights, and difficult to measure ground water sources. In addition they do not adequately acknowledge threats to communities caused by over-reliance on measure such as the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and the thematic concerns of Human Development Measurement Index (HDMI). Excessive fidelity to such measures may have caused considerable damage to peace, security and governance, and thus it is imperative that we develop more fair, effective, and accountable means to ensure access to water and other key resources.

One possible solution may be to seek and install more accountable leadership; leaders who do more than keep an ear to the ground, but daily, practice self-awareness, self-regulation, self-motivation, and empathy for the needs of families and communities for social, economic and environmental progress. Another aspect to this solution would be to communicate individually with women in local communities to assess the extent to which a particular water-focused resolution would be effective in their respective areas. Lastly, an increase in women-led initiatives and women’s political participation with power to create and implement measures for effective water policies might go far to providing the water security we all seek.

In an era characterized by a lack of climate health and increased pollution of existing waterways, access to water is a growing global concern with grave implications for human security.   If we want to keep the peace for coming generations, access to fresh, clean water is indispensable.

Sulekha Prasad, GAPW

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