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We need to do more than recognise that water is a human right

The great statesman Kofi Annan declared in 2001 that “access to safe water is a fundamental human need, and therefore a basic human right”. In the 17 years between that declaration and his death in 2018, Annan established the millennium development goals, the precursor to today’s sustainable development goals, which included a target to halve the portion of the global population without access to water. 

Annan noted that “the battle for safe drinking water, sanitation, and basic healthcare” was critical to fighting infectious disease, and he cautioned that “fierce competition for fresh water may well become a source of conflict and wars in the future”. But, he also tempered that caution with a statement of optimism: “The water problems facing our world need not be only a cause of tension; they can also be a catalyst for cooperation.”

At a recent conference hosted by Harvard University’s Centre for African Studies, the theme of water was re-examined through the lens of health, climate and agriculture, and migration and human rights, with an eye towards Africa’s water opportunity: science, sustainability and solutions. As the keynote speaker, Martin Fregene, of the African Development Bank, stated: “Endorsing the right to water is not a silver bullet; it does not automatically address the universal access to water and sanitation in Africa. But it is a powerful tool that, if properly used, can focus attention and resources on improving access to water for those individuals and communities who constantly endure the hardships imposed by the limited access to safe water.” 

Recognition alone of water as a human right is not enough to drive access and sustainability. It is nevertheless important that we remember water as a human right in our discussions about opportunities and pathways.

A number of key findings were identified. The first was the importance of stakeholder involvement in the development of national and regional water policies as well as in the management of water resources. From local residents to national governments, from farmers to healthcare workers, from scientists to international NGOs, it is critical for Africa’s water agenda that everyone has a seat at the table. Water can be a cause of division — more wars have been fought over water and natural resources than for any other reason. But water is also a unifier — and the subject of more international agreements and treaties than any other theme. To successfully address Africa’s water opportunity, it is important that all voices have an investment and shared understanding of the outcomes. Related is the need to build capacity across sectors. To address Africa’s water opportunity in the 21st century, the next generation of leaders must be developed among academics, researchers and policymakers.

A second finding is that water is a crosscutting issue, central to human life and livelihood. Sustainable development goal 6 calls for clean water and sanitation. But we cannot separate water from the other 16 goals. Water for agricultural purposes is central to goal 2, aiming for zero hunger. Achieving goal 4, for quality education, cannot be met without access to bathroom and sanitation facilities at schools. Goal 10, for reduced inequalities, cannot be met when a quarter of the population in sub-Saharan Africa travels for 30 minutes or more to collect water. We cannot separate water from the discussion about national, regional, and global development agendas. Water is an anchor that must be at the centre of these discussions and policy developments.

We also identified a need for greater investment in research that can inform evidence-based policy. The effects of a changing climate will be variable; some places will be susceptible to more rainfall and flooding while others will have more severe and longer droughts. The need for improved metrics on water resources and depletion rates will only increase, and these data points are essential for designing approaches to conserve resources. 

Apollos Nwafor, of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, noted, “Being futuristic means that we should be able to consider policies that are predictable and that are anticipating what might be, based on data. Data helps us understand how we not just build back better but how we grow.” Evidence building and data collection helps government and policymakers to plan better and determine actions to take.

Expanded and creative models of financing investment in Africa’s water resources and infrastructure today is critical to avoid long-term costs and consequences tomorrow. Making the choice to invest today in sustainable water solutions avoids the healthcare costs of tomorrow. We need resilient solutions that will stand the test of a changing climate and evolving agricultural needs. Locally driven solutions are also important to adapt to unique circumstances and gain local level support. There is also an opportunity for the private sector to be a partner to the government in thinking about sustainable water resources and access to sanitation, without privatising for profit the water industry.

The solutions identified here are the collective thinking of the about two dozen presenters and moderators from academia and international NGOs, as well as Unicef, the African Ministers’ Council on Water and the African Development Bank.  

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Wafaie Fawzi
Wafaie Fawzi is interim Oppenheimer faculty director
Alex Taylor
Alex Taylor is executive director at the Harvard Centre for African Studies

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