Water Logged:  Maintaining Water Threats on the UN’s Collective Radar, Dr. Robert Zuber

26 Mar

Empty Chamber

Iron rusts from disuse; water loses its purity from stagnation… even so does inaction sap the vigor of the mind.  Leonardo da Vinci

Time is short and the water is rising.  Raymond Carver

Earlier this week, I agreed to contribute to an informal project the theme of which has long informed our larger work but not dominated our attention for some time:  the “state of play” in NGO relations with one another and especially with the issues and resources of the UN system.

Key to this effort, of course, will be the willingness of other NGOs to join us in what we trust will be an honest process of assessment.   The assumption of this community often is that our deficits – where they exist at all — are about our resources, not our energy or discernment.  We have attempted to bureaucratize this work but not taken account of the emotional toll it takes on all of us, inside the UN but in especially in diverse communities; not only because of the injustices and abuses we constantly engage, but also because of glacial pace at which meaningful change occurs. We do this work because we can and because we must; but we also want to be able to look our children and grandchildren in the eye and tell them that we did all we could to reverse levels of global threat.

Time indeed is short; and more than the waters are rising.

As with the UN itself, we in the NGO world spend much time branding the things we’ve done while ignoring those many things left undone, the questions we’ve misplaced, the policy connections we’ve refused to draw, the voices we have all-too-intentionally muted, the doors of innovation and reform we have simply refused to walk through.

The photo at the top of this post, taken by one of our longtime mentors in this work, could well be the starting point for an honest assessmen of our practices and priorities.  The photo was taken in the Trusteeship Council chamber in which the president of the General Assembly was hosting a system-wide dialogue on water-related goals and targets within the Sustainable Development Goals.

The photo shows the top (NGO) section completely empty.  There were a few water activists (bless them) in our row of seats below that section, but the blue seats were, for most of the day, completely and utterly vacant.

Granted it was an unusually busy week at the UN, with the Commission on the Status of Women and its focus on economic empowerment; two other important General Assembly dialogues on oceans (SDG 14) and climate (SDG 13); Security Council ministerial events on conflict in South Sudan and the protection of Cultural Heritage from terrorist trafficking; a special event to recall the moral darkness of the trans-Atlantic slave trade; and preparations for Monday’s opening of a conference to negotiate a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons.   While we were directly engaged with these and other events this week, we do understand that there are times at the UN when our metaphorical logs simply get saturated, when the volume of issues, options and injustices simply overwhelms our responsibility to be in all the rooms where our skills and attentiveness are needed.

But this particular GA session was about access to water, our most indispensable and (now) threatened resource, an issue that is as cross-cutting as the gender discussions that were happening in rooms below us, as grave an impediment to peace and security as the machinations of ISIL, as potentially existential a threat to our common survival as our most powerful weapons and damaged climate.  As our largest sources of planetary fresh water melt into the sea; as what remains of our domestic water supplies become ever-more subject to corporate hijacking and cross-border struggle; as water inequalities become even more pronounced than those involving personal incomes; as scarce coastal fresh water is contaminated, more and more, by climate-induced rising sea levels; the threats to agriculture, to public health, to security, to life itself continue to grow.

You might think that a conversation on such matters would have warranted a bit more attention, certainly from the communities that have formed around the UN to promote gender justice, sustainable development or international peace and security.   The photo leading this post tells a somewhat different tale.

Fortunately, the diplomats seemed to have a handle on at least some of the urgencies at hand.  For his part, PGA Thomson emphasized the implications of our current water crisis for all three core UN policy pillars.  The UN Secretary-General’s water Envoy made his own strong case for why water deficits must be understood as primary peace and security concerns.  The event’s co-chair, Ambassador Bogyay of Hungary reminded delegates that “acting now on water is a matter of human dignity, justice and survival.”  Both Brazil and the European Union specifically highlighted the gendered dimensions of our water policy, citing the degree to which water access burdens excessively impact the health, nutrition and safety of women most often responsible for water gathering tasks.  And the Holy See, ever blunt, made clear that “unresolved water issues are a likely cause of future war.”

Other experts and delegations highlighted the dramatic impacts of water in our evolving, climate-damaged reality: severe drought in some areas such as Somalia; severe flooding in others such as in Peru; both posing grave challenges to the health and food security of families and communities.  In response, Slovenia called on more effective “early warning” to help us anticipate water-related disasters.  Vietnam, Kazakhstan and other states urged greater regional and international cooperation and, in some instances, more robust forms of water governance to help states head off what Guatemala called “tragedies from water misuse.”   For his part, PGA Thomson linked all measures for such water governance to ongoing reviews of the overall effectiveness of the UN Development system.

To our mind, the event left dangling some important considerations related to the funding of capacity support as well as the most cost-effective structures to keep states fully focused on their collaborative water challenges.  Moreover, we agree with Cuba that protection of water resources would more effectively be grasped as an integral part of a more generalized responsibility to “protect the full richness of nature,” including our forests, oceans and wildlife.

But the urgency of our expanding water crisis – including its gendered, peace and security dimensions – thankfully very much survived the morning.   As Ambassador Bogyay reminded the gathering, “there is no life without water.”  Thus, failure to cooperate on water “is simply not an option.”  Hopefully such cooperation will not struggle to fruition in conference rooms with vast empty seats symptomatic of the insufficient attention of the UN’s NGO community.

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One Response to “Water Logged:  Maintaining Water Threats on the UN’s Collective Radar, Dr. Robert Zuber”

  1. marta benavides March 26, 2017 at 3:14 pm #

    gracias Bob.. the more I see the UN space, the more I see that it is urgent and important, for the sake of quality of life now and for future.. to pay attention, and intentionally and in full commiment reverse all the interelated human made crisis we have created so far.. I know not everyone, thanks God will be able to move to Mars.. I for one, would not go there, and escape to be with those sectors of society who probably were at the heart of having to leave.. It would be great that people who think they need to go to Mars, had to apply for a visa– otherwise all the harm done in all ways, done, and still being inflicted to first nations in this continent, –now called the Americas–, since the arrival of western civilization peoples to this continent which we know as Pachamama, will be sadly repeeated again.. and then one day — good bye natural sources of life.. again!.. salud, marta – el salvador

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