A Call for Interfaith Groups to Prioritize Water Crises Dialogue – Part 1

By Husna Ahmad, Clair Brown and Sherrie Steiner[1], G20 Interfaith Forum Working Group on the Environment

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‘The failure to fully value water in all its different uses is considered a root cause, or a symptom, of the political neglect of water and its mismanagement. All too often, the value of water, or its full suite of multiple values, is not prominent in decision-making at all.’[2]

The 30th anniversary of UN World Water Day, March 22nd, is an appropriate occasion for understanding the water crisis and agreeing to improve the situation. Most faith traditions consider water to be sacred, but water conditions in many parts of the world continue to be unacceptable, even life threatening.

Because water has intrinsic value to so many sectors in society, implementation of water policies is complex. The UN has long recognized that collaboration and coordination are essential to avoid fragmentation of efforts, so UN Water has played an important role as an inter-agency coordination mechanism for water and sanitation.  In the past few years, the G20 Think Tank Engagement Group (T20) has made several water policy recommendations for implementation by the G20 nations. And yet, movement toward a virtuous[3] water nexus with climate, energy and food remains slow without adequate progress.

This year, India is hosting the G20. They are providing a G20 Water Dialogue platform and asking each G20 country to display two of their best practices on Water Management.  India is also going to be working with the Global Interfaith WASH Alliance which highlights interfaith contributions to the G20 particularly in the area of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH).

In this piece, we review several faith teachings on water which lay the foundation for the unacceptability of the current water crisis. We summarize the UN’s SDGs, which point out the water crisis occurring across countries, and point out the UNESCO water knowledge base, which helps policy makers create sustainable water policies. Then we review recent policy recommendations the G20 has received from the Think Tank Engagement Group (T20), which has developed several policy briefs related to water. This leads to an overview of the array of G20 activities related to water being planned this year in India. Hopefully, the G20 in India will be able to move forward on alleviating the water crisis. We conclude with suggestions for interfaith dialogue water themes to help bring countries together by recognizing shared values and priorities in implementing urgently needed G20 water policies.

The Unacceptability of Current Conditions

If God teaches us to regard water as sacred, blessed and life-giving, then the ongoing water crisis that is more poignant today than at any other time in history should be unacceptable. The insufficiency of freshwater resources to meet environmental and human demands impacts an estimated 1 in 10 people worldwide.[1] An estimated 771 million people lack access to safely managed drinking water services.[2] Over half of the global population lacks safely managed sanitation services.[3] As 2023 begins, the World Economic Forum has identified the gap between water demand and supply as central to the natural resource polycrisis facing the world.[4] Water stress leads to humanitarian crises in developing nations, and water scarcity is a driver for refugee migration. Meanwhile climate change is diminishing the availability of global snowmelt and rainfall, which replenish groundwater, as melting glaciers shrink and no longer act as a fresh water reservoir. Today water availability has become a concern in all regions of the world.[5]

On July 28, 2010, the United Nations General Assembly adopted an historical resolution recognizing “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.”[6]

If the right to water and sanitation is a universal human right, how can we accept that today, 2.2 billion people live in countries experiencing water stress? How do we accept that women and girls spend 200 million hours every single day just to collect water?[7] How do we accept that something so easily rectifiable as dirty water and inadequate sanitation is one of the biggest killers of children under five worldwide?

The UN Sustainable Development Goals and the UNESCO Water Knowledge Base

The relationship between water and human wellbeing can be assessed using the framework of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs have systemic relationships, so the complexity of water relationships are not entirely captured by the silos represented by discrete goals, nevertheless consideration of SDGs such as Goal 6 (clean water and sanitation) and Goal 11 (sustainable cities and communities) can demonstrate the uneven distribution of the availability and uses of water. Sub-Saharan Africa represents 49 countries and it is the only UN region that has a low performance on both of these SDG goals.[8] Sub-Saharan Africa is not overdrawing their fresh water (they only withdraw 18% of available water); the problem is that they lack the infrastructure that makes potable water accessible for households and farmers.[9]

Although the East and South Asia region, which includes India, China and Indonesia, has higher performance than Sub-Saharan Africa in providing clean water and sanitation (SDG 6), it ranks as poorly in Sustainable Communities (SDG 11).[10] That said, it is important to note that there is wide variation across performance and trends in SDG 6 and 11 in these twenty-three Asian countries. India has the lowest score for SDG 11. Although 71% of India’s people have at least basic sanitation services, only 2.2% of human wastewater receives treatment. Although 91% of India’s people use basic drinking water services, only 66% have access to piped water. Clearly more needs to be done to help people in low-income countries have basic rights to clean water and sanitation.

For more than 40 years, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has focused on water research, water resource management, and capacity-building through its Division of Water Sciences.  Over time, the hydrological research programme has expanded its focus to embrace a more holistic approach to water resource education, management and governance. The UN has built a scientific knowledge base to support countries to better manage their water resources.[11] The UNESCO World Water Assessment Programme coordinates the work of 31 UN-Water members and international partners to produce the World Water Development Report,[12] an annual comprehensive review of the world’s freshwater resources so that decision-makers can have the information they need to formulate and implement sustainable water policies.

T20 Policy Recommendations

In relation to the G20 meetings, the G20 Think Tank Engagement Group (T20) has developed several policy briefs related to water over the past few years for the G20 to consider. The T20 is an Official Engagement Group of the G20, serving as the “ideas bank” of the G20. Given the various crises associated with climate change, COVID-19 and its impact on economies during this time period, many of these recommendations may have been overlooked.

Several of the briefs mention water tangentially. Repeated themes include recommending policies to enhance water security,[13] and taking a nexus approach to water, energy and food system concerns, which they refer to as the WEF Nexus approach. Proposed in 2020, the WEF Nexus approach is a way of understanding how water is embedded in a complex relationship with energy and food systems.[14] The 2020 T20 brief demonstrates the WEF Nexus approach with three examples: to balance the full cost of desalinated water and its socio-economic benefits; to develop food policies that improve health and preserve natural resources; and to develop renewable energy.[15]  Additional water policy recommendations were made in 2020 to prioritize investing in energy access and enhanced water security for Sub-Saharan Africa.[16] A theme that has been repeatedly emphasized since 2017 is the identification of policy actions for sustainable land and water use to serve people.[17]

In 2022, T20 scholars from the Italian National Research Council added climate change to the water, energy and food nexus so that synergies, rather than vicious cycle triggers, could be developed across resources, sectors, and even societal and environmental goals.[18] Mainstreaming climate change into the WEF nexus results in policy recommendations such as decoupling WEF production from fossil fuels, increasing renewable energy, and developing sustainable WEF intra-regional and inter-regional cooperation. It uses integration models that move beyond national borders to promote economically efficient and environment-friendly WEF exchanges between countries. A policy approach that includes multiple bidirectional interactions between climate change and water, energy and food is recommended as a way to move away from a vicious cycle of triggered trade-offs towards a virtuous climate-water-energy-food nexus.

This Year in India

In 2023, the G20 will work together to realize India’s guiding theme of ‘One Earth, One Family, One Future’. The defining ideas framing India’s Presidency are “Hope, Harmony, Peace and Stability”.[19] One of their priorities is to accelerate progress on the Sustainable Development Goals. They are continuing with the G20 Water Platform that was launched in 2021 by Saudi Arabia. The G20 Water Platform is a digital instrument for sharing experiences on sustainable water management across the world.

This year in India, G20 nations are encouraged to display two of their best practices on Water Management.[20]  The Environment and Climate Sustainability Working Group (ECSWG) will conduct the Fourth G20 Dialogue on Water during the second meeting of the ECSWG, March 27-29, 2023 at Gandhinagar, India.

India is also working with the Global Interfaith WASH Alliance (GIWA) to address the vision of water, sanitation and hygiene for all. GIWA is a prominent interfaith organization that actively partners with governments on water issues, and engages in high-level global meetings to discuss providing water, sanitation and hygiene for all. For example, GIWA’s Clean Revolution campaign in India builds toilets, plants trees, ensures trash-free streets and waterways and spreads crucial messages on the importance of cleanliness.

Regional Approaches to Valuing Water

The UN looks at five major ways water is used and how water is valued in each case:

  1. Valuing water sources (water resources and ecosystems);
  2. Valuing water infrastructure (water storage, use, reuse or supply augmentation);
  3. Valuing water services (water for drinking, cooking, sanitation and related human health aspects);
  4. Valuing water as an input to economic activity (food and agriculture, energy and industry, business and employment);
  5. And other socio cultural values of water (recreational, cultural and spiritual).[21]

The regional approaches to water reflect culture and politics as well as geography.

Taking this approach, the Arab region appreciates the value of water. More than 85% of the people living there are impacted by water scarcity. Because two-thirds of the Arab region’s freshwater crosses country boundaries, countries in the region are at-risk of water driven conflicts and they need to make cooperative arrangements of how to share the scarce water with payments and regulation of use.[22]

Sub-Saharan Africa is a regional perspective that reflects the unequal distribution of water resources across countries, with six water-rich countries in Central and Western Africa holding 54% of the continent’s water resources and the 27 most water-poor countries holding only 7%.

The Latin American perspective reflects the low value placed on water with resulting misuse of water, including pollution or overexploitation by hydroelectric plants, mining companies and even farmers.

In Asia, water is a relatively scarce resource associated with unsustainable withdrawals of fresh water. Reusing wastewater and improving water efficiency present opportunities to provide usable water to agriculture and industry.

In the Americas, the long-term consequences of water privatization policies are cause for concern. Prior to 1990, international funding went exclusively to public entities, but by 2001, 93 countries had private sector involvement in their water systems. However, privatization has failed to deliver on several key outcomes.[23] By 2003, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights found it necessary to officially recognize the human right to water. The privatization of natural resources was initially proposed as a way of combating problems of inadequate financing for infrastructure and inefficiency in the provisioning of water systems and other public services. As time progresses, the privatization of water is also raising equity and justice concerns regarding the consequent impact on public health. Water privatization represents an unacceptable shift—from understanding water as a natural resource that requires common social management of a human right that is essential for life, to understanding water as a commodity that individuals can purchase according to their income. [24] Social movements against water privatization have emerged in the United States and Canada.[25] Some protests contesting water infrastructure privatization, such as those in Argentina, have contributed toward the renationalization of water.[26]

Continued in Part 2

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Dr Husna Ahmad OBE is the CEO of Global One 2015, which is a faith based International NGO focused on women. She is currently a Board member of Faith for the Climate and Palmers Green Mosque (theMCEC). She is also a member of the Women’s Faith Forum UK; and Executive committee member of Barnet Faith Forum She is a member of the Multi faith Advisory Council [MFAC] to the UN Inter-agency Task Force on Religion and Development.

Clair Brown, PhD, is Professor of Economics and Director of the Center for Work, Technology and Society at the University of California, Berkeley. Brown has published research on many aspects of how economies function, including understanding inequality, mitigating the climate emergency and improving sustainability, and evaluating the quality of life and the standard of living. She works with environmental justice and faith-based groups on climate policies that reduce carbon emissions in a way that improves the
lives of vulnerable populations and meets the Paris goal of under 1.5 0 C temperature rise.

Sherrie M. Steiner, PhD, is assistant professor of sociology at Purdue University Fort Wayne and the official historian of the G20 Interfaith Forum. Dr. Steiner’s research focus is on religious soft power, environmental sociology and improvement of public health. This research is conducted transnationally in relation to the G20 Interfaith Forum and at the community level through collaborative relationships with public not-for-profit organizations. Dr. Steiner teaches courses on religion, development, social movements, and the environment.

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[1] The Global Water Crisis | Water.org

[2] WHO/UNICEF 2019 Water | United Nations

[3] WHO/UNICEF 2020

[4] WEF_Global_Risks_Report_2023.pdf (weforum.org)

[5] WEF_Global_Risks_Report_2023.pdf (weforum.org), p. 61.

[6] A/RES/64/292

[7] No wonder UNICEF has referred to the gendered task of water collection as often a colossal waste of time for women and girls UNICEF: Collecting water is often a colossal waste of time for women and girls

[8] Sustainable Development Report 2022, Fig 2.8. See individual Sub-Saharan country performance in Fig. 2.15. https://s3.amazonaws.com/sustainabledevelopment.report/2022/2022-sustainable-development-report.pdf

[9] Sustainable Development Report 2022, p 485.

[10] Sustainable Development Report 2022, Fig. 2.8.  See individual East and South Asia country SDG country performance in Figure 2.10. See India’s performance by indicator, p 236.

[11] Schlegel, Flavia (2018). Building the Scientific Knowledge Base to Support Countries to Better Manage Their Water Resources | United Nations

[12] https://www.unwater.org/publications/un-world-water-development-report-2021

[13] For example, see Global food and water security, trade and market stability – G20 Insights (g20-insights.org)

[14] The WEF Nexus approach: An imperative enabler for sustainable development in the MENA Region – G20 Insights (g20-insights.org)

[15] Integrated nexus policies for sustainable and resilient energy, water, and food systems – G20 Insights (g20-insights.org)

[16] Enhanced water security and energy access: Key investments for Sub-Saharan Africa – G20 Insights (g20-insights.org)

[17] Key Policy Actions for Sustainable Land and Water Use to Serve People (g20-insights.org)

[18] Moving Towards a Virtuous Climate-Water-Energy-Food Nexus – G20 Insights (g20-insights.org)

[19] G20 University Connent-Primer.pdf

[20] https://g20waterplatform.org.sa/en/Researches/Pages/BestPractices.aspx

[21] https://www.unwater.org/publications/un-world-water-development-report-2021

[22] https://www.unwater.org/publications/un-world-water-development-report-2021

[23]Shah, Alveena, “Leasing the Rain: Water, Privatization, and Human Rights,” International Human Rights and Corporate Accountability: Current and Future Challenges, 2022, Vol. 1, p. 89.

[24] https://www.scielosp.org/article/rpsp/2006.v19n1/23-32/

[25] Robinson, Joanna. Contested Water: The Struggle Against Water Privatization in the United States and Canada, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2013.

[26] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/15356841221139249

[1] We would like to acknowledge Rev. Patricia Usuki, Women’s Faith Forum UK, and David Ball for their contributions regarding faith-based teachings about water.

[2] UN World Water Development Report 2021, p. 1.

[3] https://www.unwater.org