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Storm Front:  The UN Stakes a Claim on Fresh Water Access, Dr. Robert Zuber 

25 Mar


Image By Daan Roosegaarde

The mind is like an iceberg, it floats with one-seventh of its bulk above water. Sigmund Freud

The tree that is beside the running water is fresher and gives more fruit. Saint Teresa of Avila

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

All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Toni Morrison

There were several events of considerable potential consequence for the well-being of the world at the UN over this past week.

The General Assembly continued its own process of revitalization with suggestions for eliminating lengthy statements and redundant resolutions as well as doing more to ensure that resolutions once passed actually alter circumstances on the ground consistent with the promises embedded in our resolution language.

In another room, delegations prepared for the upcoming review conference on the UN mechanism (UNPoA) intended to help states and other stakeholders halt the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons. The sessions featured some spirited reflections on the importance of cooperative activities to control the diversion of and illegal access to weapons (and the ammunition which renders them lethal) by unauthorized actors.

And in the Security Council, the current president (Netherlands) convened a series of important briefings on violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, on the still-dire humanitarian challenges in the Lake Chad Basin of Africa, and on the many linkages between food insecurity and conflict, including the millions forced to flee the “fire” of violence into the “frying pan” of deprivation and anxiety.

But for us the week’s highlight was back in the General Assembly, the launch by the presidents of the GA and Tajikistan of the International Decade for Action on Water for Sustainable Development, complemented by a World Water Day demonstration of the extraordinary Waterlicht by Daan Roosegaarde. This hopeful sequence of policy and artistic events nevertheless called out a series of difficult realities:  the huge number of children and others for whom sipping water is an invitation to immobilizing disease; the vast quantities of water that are utilized by industries whose products we also take for granted, such as meat and automobile production; the high percentage of rainwater that flows into gutters or remains untreated for other productive or even essential uses; the growing number of natural disasters, including sea rise, that are related to water melted and then churned up by an angry climate.

None of this is news to people who are paying attention.  We have been warned about drought and sea level rise, but sometimes simply forget how little safe drinking water remains and how much of what does remain is located in rapidly-melting polar regions.   We have collectively “soiled our own waterbeds,” polluting essential waterways through sub-standard sanitation or in the name of “progress” and then ignoring the petitions of those left to cope with the significant health and well-being consequences of our collective neglect.  And we in the policy community sometimes bury awareness of our own blessing, in this case (as noted by the GA president) the blessing of working in a building with abundant drinking fountains and even toilets using water of higher quality than much of the “developed” world, let alone the billions who take their lives in their hands to fetch water for families or quench an intolerable thirst at the nearest open pipe.

In thinking about this post for much of the week, I recalled some of the petty inconveniences of my life that have been associated with water – the times on a sports field when I claimed to be “dying of thirst;” the times when my “precious” schedule was thwarted by late-winter snow and ice; the times when fishing expeditions or other leisure were postponed by churnings seas; the times when my “need” for bottled water on long overseas trips resulted in spare suitcases full of plastic to recycle back home.

But beyond my pettiness are echoes of the profound:  the access needs of so many, of course, but also the degree to which water dominates our conscious metaphors and unconscious longings, in part because our water connectivity resonates so deeply.  Our art, our poetry, our religion all invoke images of water that can bring us together as a people, help us to explore our human condition and its limitations, certainly to cleanse our bodies and even purify our souls.   It is remarkable to consider how our common human journey has been impacted, inspired, humbled and challenged by what water is and represents. As India noted during the launch of the decade, water access has often been more important than armaments “in the rise and fall of kingdoms.”

And yet in this and so many other areas of life, we have learned not to ask too many questions; we aren’t curious enough about the impacts and consequences of our water and other resource choices, in part because curiosity so often beats a path to responsibility.  When we refuse to inquire, we might have fewer worries at least in the short term; we might not feel so compelled to divert our course, to veer around the barely visible iceberg.  Moreover, the incurious often (quite curiously) claim to have more answers than they have any right to profess, a claim secured in large measure through their stoic determination to deny the relevant questions.

But if water is to become that place, as delegates from Vietnam, Ghana and elsewhere suggested this week, where competition must come to yield to cooperation; then hard questions and relevant actions must stay fixed in our minds and prominent in our monthly planners.  For as our damaged climate is shifting locations of water scarcity and relative abundance; as the toxicity of our waterways sickens children and shortens the lifespans of the rural poor; as this archetypal resource become more scarce with greater numbers of hands and mouths reaching out to secure some portion, then impediments to water-related cooperation may well become fierce.  We are in for a potentially rough ride and, as with so many other current challenges, a ride of our own choosing.

Many years ago I wrote a poem called The Skater, about a man who glided blithely across the frozen water without a care about the dangers to his own well-being that lurked just below the surface, ice that seemed firm but was actually punctuated by thin spots to which he was resolutely inattentive and that threated to engulf his arrogance.

After all these years, we continue to skate on thin ice.  But we don’t need to fall through.

As this water decade unfolds, and as some of the initial enthusiasm from the launch threatens to dissipate, we must resolve to keep our focus on saving and enhancing the fresh water that is left: planting more trees along waterways, finding new uses for recycled water, constructing catchments that can prevent urban rainfall from being washed away to sea, using fewer of the industrial and agricultural products that over-utilize and/or pollute so much of our dwindling fresh water supplies.  As more than one activist noted during this week’s sessions, water health and access are compelling tasks for now, not yet another responsibility to be passed along to the young.

All available evidence here at the UN suggests that our human journey is now impeded by unprecedented levels of aquatic peril. If we fail to heed this call, if we refuse to share our best cooperative energies and ask the hard questions, if we don’t do more to help our precious water “get back to where it was,” the last memory of our collective sojourn on this planet might well be a deep and agonizing thirst.