Report: UN Proposes a Common Definition for Water Security on World Water Day 2013

Water security should have a common language, and it should be a priority for global sustainable development goals, according to a new report by UN-Water.

By Brett Walton
Circle of Blue

In a report released today to mark World Water Day and 2013 as the International Year of Water Cooperation, UN-Water is proposing a common definition of water security. UN-Water, which coordinates water programs within the United Nations system, claims that a single description of the problem will help global collaboration around water, one of the world’s most vital needs.

world water day 2013 united nations un-water water security paper report analytical brief

Image courtesy of UN-Water
‘Water Security and the Global Agenda’ is the title of an analytical brief published by the United Nations for World Water Day 2013. Click image to enlarge.

The authors define water security as: “The capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being, and socio-economic development; for ensuring protection against water-borne pollution and water-related disasters; and for preserving ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability.”

At least 17 organizations affiliated with UN-Water contributed to the paper. Most contributors are United Nations agencies, but others include the International Association for Water Law, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the Stockholm International Water Institute, and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

“Common understanding has central importance in international discussions, and water security can’t continue to have a variety of meanings,” said Zafar Adeel in a statement. Adeel, who contributed to the report, is the co-chair of the UN-Water Task Force on Water Security and director of the Ontario-based Institute for Water, Environment, and Health.

“A shared and working definition is needed to get everyone on the same page,” Adeel said. “Only then can we collectively start to write a coherent response to the challenges.”

Words Into Action

In recent years, water has attracted some prominent advocates who want the world’s leaders to take notice. Last September, the InterAction Council, a public-policy group of 40 former heads of state and government, encouraged the UN Security Council to address water scarcity.

The report was followed later that month by a roundtable discussion of water security during the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York. The General Assembly declared water and sanitation a human right after a vote in 2010.

A few months earlier, former U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton ordered the first cabinet-level assessment of global water security.

“Every definition results in more debate on the definition instead of focusing on the problem, which is access to water.”

–John Hartley, CEO
Future Directions International

“You can’t work on water as a health concern independently from water as an agricultural concern,” Clinton said a year ago, during a World Water Day event in Washington, D.C. “And water that is needed for agriculture may also be water that is needed for energy production. So we need to be looking for interventions that work on multiple levels simultaneously and help us focus on systemic responses.”

Some water advocates are hoping that the water security definition newly proposed by UN-Water leads to action, rather than introspection.

“Every definition results in more debate on the definition instead of focusing on the problem, which is access to water,” said John Hartley, CEO of Future Directions International, a nonprofit institute in Western Australia that does research on food and water. Hartley told Circle of Blue that the definition is important and nearly all encompassing, but that food security needs to be considered alongside water.

Patricia Wouters agreed that results matter more than the particular definition, especially if that definition is in a policy document, rather than a legal agreement. Wouters, who reviewed a draft copy of the report, is a professor of international law at the UNESCO Center for Water Law, Policy, and Science at the University of Dundee, Scotland.

“I’m not bothered by the breadth or the multitude of issues. I’m happy that the UN is grappling with this.”

–Patricia Wouters, international law professor
UNESCO Center for Water Law, Policy, & Science

“I’m not bothered by the breadth or the multitude of issues,” Wouters told Circle of Blue. “I’m happy that the UN is grappling with this.”

Precision will come into play in the next few years. Food and water, as well as sanitation, are drawing attention as the United Nations prepares to write a new agenda for social and economic well-being. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which came into effect at the turn of the century, expire in 2015. The United Nations announced last year that the MDG for water was attained, but the sanitation target will not be met.

Today’s UN-Water report calls for the still-evolving sustainable development goals to include a numerical target for water security. The report argues that water security — because of the broad definition — is something of an umbrella goal. In other words, if water is adequately addressed, success will cover other areas such as health, nutrition, environmental protection, and employment.

“It is safe to state that investment in water security is a long-term pay-off for human development and economic growth, with immediate visible short-term gains,” the report states.

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