IBES director unites with UNESCO, fellow scholars to address global water challenges

Amanda Lynch, director of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, explains why she became a founding signatory of the Geneva Actions on Human Water Security, formalized last week in Switzerland.

Amanda Lynch
Amanda Lynch: "We need to face the reality that we have a global water problem."

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Every year, more than a million people die due to a lack of clean water. Most of the world’s rivers are not suitable for direct human use. Management of water resources is ineffective and inequitable. And polluted waters take a major toll on life on Earth.

In short, we face a global water problem.

That’s according to a group of 54 scientists and scholars from around the world, who last week signed a declaration, sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), aimed at helping assure water security for world’s entire population.

The Geneva Actions on Human Water Security declares water to be a basic human right and calls for the establishment of an international water security fund equal to 1 cent per person per day worldwide, which would total $27 billion in 2017. The declaration was unveiled in Switzerland at an international meeting of UNESCO Chairs in Natural Sciences, with the 54 scientists and scholars joining the effort as founding signatories.

Founding signatory Amanda Lynch, director of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, discussed why the scholars felt compelled to create the declaration.

What motivated you and other scientists to create this declaration?

All over the world, people are experiencing challenges related to water in the form of droughts, floods or water of insufficient quality. These issues are related in part to climate change. It appears to be the case that climate change is causing extremes of water availability to become more frequent and intense. Another aspect is that there are simply more people and more things of value in harm’s way. So we need to face the reality that we have a global water problem.

Could you summarize what the document calls for?

The declaration makes three statements that we feel are critical to adopt. The first is that access to water is a human right and should be supported as part of the World Health Organization’s Millennium Development Goals. Second, we stress that water access is contingent upon the environmental sustainability of the surrounding ecosystems — watersheds, rivers, streams and aquifers. Those ecosystems have to be protected, supported and kept clean. Third, we declare that adequate water governance — especially in transboundary regions — is critical to achieving water security goals.

Why is transboundary governance so important?

There has been a lot of scholarly work showing that very often there’s enough water to go around if only we manage it well. What’s lacking is proper governance, and the problem is particularly acute in areas where water resources cross boundaries and borders. What we’re seeing around the world is that transboundary water disputes are becoming the sparks that set off larger conflicts. The Syrian conflict, for example, was in part initiated by severe drought that led to famine.

As it is now, agreements on water tend to bi-partite or tri-partite agreements between countries or other parties. It tends to be a treaty that’s negotiated in the context of an economic and power relationship, which often leads to inequality. An example is the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico. The imbalance of power between the two countries means the outflow of the Colorado River, which is in Mexico, is in really bad shape. There’s no recourse for Mexico in this situation because there’s no international organization they can go to.

Are there any existing strategies for dealing with these issues?

There are some mechanisms around. In Australia, for instance, there is a water trading market on which people can trade their water entitlements from one year to the next. What this means is that people don’t feel compelled, as they do in the U.S., to use their water allocation in a given year or lose it. That allows people to be much more flexible when there’s an oversupply or undersupply.

What makes this declaration different from others that have been issued?

When we think about water security, we tend to get very caught up in the issue of drought. But it’s very important to remember that water quality is a key issue. It’s often the case that water is available, but it’s polluted. So I think that it’s important that this declaration considers both water quantity and water quality. That’s a bit of a new perspective. Previous declarations have focused in the minimum amount of water a person needs to survive — the number of gallons per day, per person. But what this declaration says is that we need to consider quality as well. We think this is a bit more of a holistic way of thinking about the global water problem.