Water Makes Waves at UN Week

Prominent leaders spotlight climate change and grave risks to water

united nations general assembly debate water
Image © UN Photo/Jennifer S Altman
Opening of the United Nations 67th General Debate of General Assembly. Click image to enlarge slideshow.

By Allison Voglesong
Circle of Blue

The 67th session of the UN General Assembly, which ended on Monday, featured a number of globally prominent leaders worried about the planet’s water supply and quality.

That concern was most apparent on September 11, a week before the 67th session opened at UN headquarters in New York City, when the InterAction Council (IAC) — a public policy group made up of 40 former heads of state and government, including former U.S. President Bill Clinton and former South African President Nelson Mandela — made recommendations to the UN Security Council with regard to international water issues. Water issues, the IAC declared, have surged to global prominence along with the need for better management, new partnerships, and more investment to protect human health, prevent conflict, and ensure economic and environmental vitality.

The UN News Centre provided a sampling from speeches that highlighted water around the world:

Monday, October 1, 2012
Ecuador: Calling for Universal Declaration on the Rights of Nature

Marco Albuja, Ecuador’s vice minister of Foreign Affairs, spoke to the General Assembly about the need to protect and preserve rights for humans and the rights of nature. He said that governments need a stronger will to achieve sustainable development and to work together.

“By recognizing [nature's] rights, we close the integral cycle that these have with human rights.” –Marco Albuia, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ecuador

united nations general assembly debate water
Image © UN Photo/JC McIlwaine
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addresses the 67th General Assembly. Click image to enlarge slideshow.
Monday, October 1, 2012
World Habitat Day: Urban Sustainability A Priority

In observance of World Habitat Day, which comes every first Monday of October, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon encouraged good practices in sustainable urban management, including housing, sanitation, water, and health.

“We should create a new type of city — the city of the 21st century — a smart, people-centered city. One that is capable of integrating the tangible and more intangible aspects of prosperity; a city able to rid itself of the inefficient, unsustainable urban habits of the previous century.”
–Jan Clos, UN-Habitat Executive Director

Saturday, September 29, 2012
Tuvalu: Small Island Developing States (SIDS) Request Support

In his address to the General Assembly, Apisai Ielmania, Tuvalu’s minister of Foreign Affairs, requested that Small Island Developing States receive special recognition from the international community. Island nations like Tuvalu are vulnerable to rising sea levels, he said, which pose a risk to their economic development.

“We therefore support advances and urge perseverance with the UNFCCC (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) and the Kyoto Protocol as the primary international, intergovernmental forum for negotiating the global response to climate change in order to gain substance to international agreements.”
–Apisai Ielemia, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Tuvalu

Friday, September 28, 2012
Uzbekistan: Water Conservation and Central Asian Security Inseparable

Abdulaziz Kamilov, the foreign minister of Uzbekistan, urged regional peace and stability over limited water resources and emphasized his country’s commitment to the Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes. Kamilov raised concerns about hydropower dam projects along the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, and he encouraged other nations to evaluate them on the basis of the transboundary convention. He said that priorities for water use in Central Asia should be:

“…first, to meet potable and sanitary needs, and — only after that — to ensure food security, ecological needs, and the needs of industry.”
–Abdulaziz Kamilov, Foreign Minister of Uzbekistan

Friday, September 28, 2012
UN Deputy Secretary-General: Resilience and Security

Addressing a high-level side meeting, UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson stressed that water, food, and energy security all rest upon climate change mitigation. This, in turn, creates the conditions upon which all nations can build and improve economic and political stability, he said. Eliasson underlined the importance of implementing a legally binding climate change agreement by 2015, stemming from the Rio+20 sustainable development goals that were set this summer. (For a summary of Rio+20 sustainability goals, read Circle of Blue’s Rio Wrap-up article by former intern Lydia Belanger.)

“This is the route to addressing climate change and building resilience. Both are critical for sustainable development and sustainable development is critical for peace and stability.”
–Jan Eliasson, UN Deputy Secretary-General

Friday, September 28, 2012
UN Special Rapporteur Hails California’s “Right to Water” Law

On September 25, the same day that the UN General Assembly debate began, the U.S. state of California passed Assembly Bill 285, which granted all citizens the “right” to “affordable, accessible, acceptable” water for drinking and sanitation. (For reference, the UN General Assembly recognized the “right to water” when it adopted Resolution 64/292 more than two years ago, in July 2010.) Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, said that the ratification of the new California law is the first step for creating the policies to implement the law.

“After the adoption of a comprehensive law, the crucial next step is to come up with a plan, policy and strategy for the sector. As part of the duties of our office, I am at the disposal of the Government to give the necessary support.”
–Catarina de Albuquerque, UN Special Rapporteur

Friday, September 28, 2012
Caribbean and Pacific Island Nations: United Front Needed to Mitigate Climate Change

Several Caribbean and Pacific Island nations took to the General Assembly podium to urge international cooperation and a united response to combat climate change. Nations that spoke to the risks of climate change included Fiji, Grenadines, Monaco, Nevis, Saint Kitts, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent, Samoa, Tonga, and Vanuatu. Recognizing the imminent threat that climate change poses to their own nations, these officials urged immediate action on reducing emissions for the sake of the entire international community.

“In your hands lie hope and destination of the world’s nations. It is not only a responsibility that you have to assume for your own people but one for humanity as a whole.”
–Meltek Sato Kilman Livtuvanu, Prime Minister of Vanuatu

united nations general assembly debate water prime minister bangladesh sheik hasina

Image © UN Photo/Rick Bajornas
Sheik Hasina, the prime minister of Bangladesh, addresses the 67th General Debate of General Assembly. Click image to enlarge slideshow.
Friday, September 28, 2012
Bangladesh: Climate Change, Price Increases, and LDCs

Addressing the General Assembly, Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister of Bangladesh appealed for more international support for Least Developed Countries (LDCs) that suffer from increases in food and energy prices as a result of climate change. She linked climate change to an increase in poverty, property loss, human displacement, and terrorism in Bangladesh.

“A new legal regime ensuring social, cultural, and economic rehabilitation of climate migrants must be put in place.” –Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh

Thursday, September 27, 2012
Secretary-General and Hungary: WASH Leadership

In a series of high-level side meetings, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met with many leaders of states and organizations. Notably, in a meeting with Hungarian President János Áder, the two discussed sustainable development agenda priorities and Hungary’s leadership in global water and sanitation (WASH) initiatives.

Thursday, September 27, 2012
Turkmenistan: Energy Cooperation Framework Needed

Energy security is a basic condition for global development, Rashid Meredov, the deputy prime minister of Turkmenistan, told the General Assembly. He proposed an international legal framework for energy security and cooperation that would take into consideration the needs of hydrocarbon producers (including Turkmenistan) and recipient nations, as well as the transit between the two.

“We believe that today there is a need for the adoption of UN-level consensus decisions, which would serve as a basis for the creation of universal political and legal mechanisms governing global energy cooperation” –Rashid Meredov, Deputy Prime Minister of Turkmenistan

Thursday, September 27, 2012
Secretary-General: Climate Change Key to Food/Water Security

In a side event meeting, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that the path to food and water security will be through urgent reductions in emissions and support of an extension of the Kyoto Protocol through 2030. In addition to reducing emissions, he said, investment and implementation of water- and energy-efficient technology and practices will be key to attaining security in the face of climate change.

“But our efforts will come to naught if we don’t work together to slow down the carbon emissions that are warming the planet.” –UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

Thursday, September 27, 2012
Small Island Nations: Act Now to Stop Climate Change

In their address to the General Assembly, leaders from island nations — including Antigua and Barbuda, Comoros, Seychelles, and the Solomon Islands — requested international assistance to overcome the negative impacts of climate change. The speakers also pressed developing nations for help and investment in their uphill battle against the ecological and economic devastation associated with climate change.

We cannot wait for our lands to disappear before we act. We must act now to respond to the climate crisis and ensure that not a single country is sacrificed, no matter how small.”
–Winston Baldwin Spencer, Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda

kiribati mangroves climate change
Image © UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe
Mangrove seedlings along the shoreline of Kiribati. Click image to enlarge slideshow.
Wednesday, September 26, 2012
Kiribati: Climate Migration “Just a Matter of Time”

Anote Tong, the president of Kiribati, told the the General Assembly that his Pacific archipelago has been focusing on preparing citizens for their future integration into the international labor market, because it is “just a matter of time” until the nation’s land is uninhabitable due to sea rise and climate change. He commended the UN Security Council for including climate change mitigation on its priority list, and he urged collective action to hedge off its uncertain, risky future effects.

“I frequently find myself watching my grandchildren and wondering what sort of a future we are leaving them.” –Anote Tong, President of Kiribati

Wednesday, September 26, 2012
MDG Advocacy Group: Efforts Must Intensify to Meet 2015 Deadline

In a separate meeting, a group of eight delegates — representing academic, civil society, government, and private groups — urged nations to ramp up their efforts to meet all the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by the 2015 deadline. The good news is that a few of the goals have been met, including improved drinking water access. But poverty and education goals are still quite far off, and, according to the 2012 MDG Gap Task Force Report, factors like dwindling aid, food infrastructure, and health, as well as overburdened institutions, are all contributing to the slow progress of fully realizing the MDGs in time.

“We have seen what can be accomplished when the international community works together. We have made real progress towards the MDGs, but we still have a lot to do — and we are running out of time.”
–Julia Gillard, Prime Minister of Australia and co-chair of MDG Advocacy Group

Wednesday, September 26, 2012
UN Secretary-General: Sahel Needs Answers to Many Risks

Addressing a high-level meeting on the Sahel region of Africa, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted that Mali’s unstable and volatile political situation has been particularly threatened by a “perfect storm” of factors including extreme poverty, food insecurity and malnutrition, environmental shocks like drought, floods, and locusts, and trafficking of arms, drugs, and humans.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012
U.S. Secretary of State Clinton on Water, Peace and Security

At a high-level meeting, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke to a roundtable on Water Security about the security nexus of water, food, and energy. She urged cooperation and swift action to prevent water scarcity and suggested water management be improved by partnerships between government, business, and education institutions.

We can’t wait until we already have a crisis. So I think water should be a priority in every nation’s foreign policy and domestic agenda, and we need to work together to advance cooperation on shared waters.–Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State of The United States

Tuesday, September 25, 2012
Marshall Islands and Nauru: The Time Is Now

Speaking to the General Assembly, leaders of the Pacific island nations of Marshall Islands and Nauru urged the UN body to commit to a legally binding emissions-reduction agreement. Not only is international assistance imperative for the adaptation measures, the island leaders said, but economic independence in the face of global downturn is needed if these nations are to survive the risks from climate change.

“If multilateralism is to have any credibility, then we must move to an emergency footing, and those countries with the greatest capacity must immediately begin mobilizing the significant resources necessary to remake the energy infrastructure that powers the global economy.”
–Sprent Dabwido, President of Nauru

united nations general assembly debate water hungary
Image © UN Photo/Marco Castro
Hungarian President János Áder speaks at the 67th General Debate of General Assembly. Click image to enlarge slideshow.
Tuesday, September 25, 2012
Hungary: Water Cooperation a Global Imperative

Hungarian President János Áder told the General Assembly that wastewater management must embrace international cooperation, particularly in areas where water resources are shared between many nations. He said Hungary readily embraces sharing knowledge to ensure that water pollution is minimized.

“We have ample work waiting for us during the coming years. We are ready and willing to share our knowledge.” –János Áder, President of Hungary

Author: Allison Voglesong   is an editorial intern for Circle of Blue based out of Traverse City, Michigan. She holds a BA in International Relations from Michigan State University's James Madison College. Her interests include water pricing, environmental economics and policy, and conflict mediation.

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4 Comments
  1. On quick review of the scope of what is happening in the U.N., finally after adoption of human right to water and sanitation 2 years ago, I’m at once hopeful and concerned — primarily, beause the context of the discussion does not include a more explicit (there is some) discussion of water as a commons and public trust. Public trust principles and a commons framework would overlay a context for solving water issues, and their connection with climage change, energy, and food so well documented by Circle of Blue, that was a level higher than a “rights-based” or purely regulatory system. It would lead to a rights-and-respect-based approach to water, held in a framework of trust, water as commons, and beneficiaries, with preference for water in watersheds tempered by respect, stewardship, and principles of equity among competing uses of a common water body, all with the idea of integrity under a trans-generation or multi-generatinal standard or body of principles like public trust.

  2. Thanks Jim for sharing your hopes and concerns. So true, water policy does not end with a rights-based framework. Looking to the future and including a multi-generational water standard is key to sustainable water policy. The very qualities that make water a human right are qualities that define water as a commons, namely because all people need it. Water is also a part of our livelihoods, embedded in food and energy, which makes its management that much more complex. There are water “choke points” around the world that are proof of the iniquity that results from the current state of regulatory systems. How might a “rights-and-respect-based approach” or public trust framework be shaped around the current policies as they vary from basin to basin? What kind of public trust doctrine would be practical at an international (i.e. United Nations) policy level?

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