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World Water Day

21 March 2024

Transboundary waters should be managed as ecosystems, not as economic resources, says UN expert

GENEVA (20 March 2024) – Transboundary waters, those shared by two or more countries, must be managed as living ecosystems, not merely as economic resources, UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, Pedro Arrojo-Agudo, said today. Ahead of World Water Day, the expert issued the following statement:

“In the context of World Water Day 2024, which the United Nations is combining under the motto "leveraging water for peace", I am urging the adoption of a human rights approach to transboundary water management. Such an approach can help prevent conflicts and build lasting peace.

Throughout history, rivers have brought people together regardless of their cultures, languages, and religions. Today, 153 countries share aquatic ecosystems composed of almost 300 river basins and around 600 transboundary aquifers, comprising 60% of the planet's accessible freshwater.

Water viewed solely as an economic resource can lead to conflicts due to hydraulic structures, overexploitation, contamination, extractive activities, land grabbing, and plunder of indigenous territories. These can escalate into armed conflicts, especially in transboundary basins. Climate change exacerbates this risk.

We need to manage rivers as living ecosystems, sharing the responsibility to manage them sustainably for the benefit of all in order to maintain an adequate standard of living, according to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The urgency to shift from a resource-based to an ecosystem-based approach is higher than ever due to the risks of climate change-induced droughts, floods, and massive migrations that destabilise regions.

Natural disasters like floods and droughts disregard borders in transboundary basins and aquifers. Therefore, we must transition from national sovereignty over water to shared responsibility for managing these ecosystems. In areas with transboundary basins and aquifers, governments are responsible for ensuring the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation for people living in these regions.

To manage resources sustainably, we must negotiate agreements, prioritise human rights, and include everyone. Women's participation is essential regarding their commitment and leadership in providing water to their families and communities. States must comply with UN Security Council Resolution 1325 which addresses women’s full and equal participation in conflict resolution.

The UN Water Convention offers guidelines for creating transboundary agreements. Its implementation promotes sustainable management of rivers and aquifers, minimises risks from droughts and floods, and prioritises the basic needs of dependent populations. Many African countries have endorsed it. I encourage other regions to follow.

Ensuring access to water and sanitation can prevent conflicts and promote peace, particularly in post-conflict situations, by encouraging dialogue and practical solutions.

Unfortunately, water is being used as a weapon of war against civilians in conflicts, particularly in the Gaza Strip. The Palestinian population is facing a blockade of drinking water, food and medicine, which is a crime against humanity.

On World Water Day, let us use water to promote peace and cooperation between nations by responsibly managing transboundary basins and aquifers. Water should be a symbol of peace.”

Mr. Pedro Arrojo Agudo (Spain) is the Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, appointed by the Human Rights Council in September 2020. He is Emeritus Professor of Economic Analysis at the University of Zaragoza and previously served as an elected member of the Spanish Parliament during its eleventh and twelfth legislature from 2016 to 2019.

The Special Rapporteurs, Independent Experts and Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

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