The global challenge for securing access to clean water persists for about two billion people and its demand keeps rising. Beyond threatening our basic individual human needs, this scarcity also poses a risk to our collective prosperity and peace.

Today, March 22, 2024, is the 31st World Water Day, with the theme, “Leveraging water for peace”. Under the ‘World Water Assessment Programme’, UNESCO led the development of the 2024 edition of the flagship United Nations World Water Development Report, “Water for Prosperity and Peace” as a part of UN Water (an interagency coordination mechanism on water and sanitation of 35 UN entities along with 48 other international partners).

Throughout history, water has been a pivotal resource for some of the greatest civilisations such as those that arose around the Indus, the Nile, the Tigris and the Euphrates. But it is also true that in these civilisations, conflicts arose on account of this resource, like the well documented tensions between the Mesopotamian cities of Lagash and Umma. This conflict, one of the oldest known wars in human history, centered around a fertile piece of land and water resources. Notably, this historical episode also yielded what is considered the world’s first peace treaty, the Treaty of Mesilim, recognised as one of humanity’s oldest legal documents.

Water diplomacy in a time of extremities

Today, the world is also experiencing countless meteorological extremities: from intense heat waves to turbulent floods, magnifying concerns about the climate crisis as well as its continuing implications over water insecurity. For example, here in India, the monsoon has become erratic over the years and brings with it major uncertainties for agriculture, which lies at the heart of India’s $3 trillion economy.

Within the added climate change-related pressures we face, the world needs to foster improved cooperation over water-sharing and embrace universal principles for International Water Law. By governing the use of shared waters and encouraging the use of water sustainably, we can strive for better water diplomacy — making water a force for peace.

The shared recognition that water is a vital resource, with limitations in quality and availability, necessitates collaborative governance to ensure effective and equitable water allocation among nations, fostering regional stability and peace, and an understanding of the intricate relationships between water, climate, and international stability.

Water diplomacy also requires inclusive approaches, acknowledging the indigenous and local communities’ extensive cross-border networks, as well as involving civil society and academic networks, who can also play an important role in facilitating political processes to prevent, mitigate, and resolve water-related disputes.

This year’s report also highlights a general shortage of water quality data globally and points more specifically to a prominent urban-rural divide, finding that “four out of five people lacking at least basic drinking water services live in rural areas”.

Addressing rural India’s needs

Within India, a total of 70% of the rural population relies on water to run their households, where agriculture remains the principal source of livelihood. This is even more striking as we know that agriculture also accounts for 70% of the total freshwater use, globally.

With improved water accessibility, these differences can be erased, and increased water investments in the rural areas have the potential for returning positive outcomes — in health, education and employment, not to mention basic human needs and dignity.

In the agrarian sector, the efficient use of emerging artificial intelligence (AI) technology in the conservation of water, ranging from tackling crop and food loss, to minimising chemicals and fertilizers, and saving water, is starting to show that outputs that are both productive and sustainable can be enabled.

The issue of transboundary waters

The report reminds us that a “large proportion of the world’s freshwater resources are in transboundary waters” including in India. With its expansive landmass, India boasts a network of long rivers, not only serving its own needs but also shared with its neighbours. And, yet, in the South Asian region, the extent of water pollution has worsened considerably in recent years, especially the Meghna, Brahmaputra, Ganga and Indus, warns the 2024 report.

To solve these problems, the world needs a sophisticated form of cross-border water governance, promoting effective and equitable water allocation among nations that share water resources. Out of UNESCO’s 194 member-states and 12 associate members, 153 countries can be classified as water-sharing nations, and all transboundary waters account for 60% of the world’s freshwater flows.

Of these 153 countries, just 24 have managed to reach a 100% cooperation agreement on their shared waters, as per a 2021 UNESCO progress report on Sustainable Development Goal indicator 6.5.2 titled “Progress on transboundary water cooperation.”

Since time immemorial, we have of course made significant progress in fostering peace; however, if freshwater runs scarce, it threatens our collective well-being and peace. This is also crucial for the 2030 Agenda and achieving the SDGs. Through transboundary cooperation on the sustainable management of water, we can realise benefits across various sectors including health, food and energy security, protection from natural disasters, education, improved living standards, employment, economic development, and numerous ecosystem services.

Tim Curtis is the Director of UNESCO New Delhi Regional Office for South Asia and UNESCO Representative to India (UNESCO New Delhi is part of Team UN in India)

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