Addressing Water, Sanitation and Disasters in the Context of the Sustainable Development Goals

Floating house after 2011 Japanese earthquake, Sendai, Japan. March 2011. ©Wikimedia Commons


Water is life. The successful implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG 6) and its water-related targets is at the heart of the entire 2030 Agenda, and it will be crucial for its realization. Yet sustainable management of water and sanitation is currently under enormous pressure.

Water is also a threat to life. The toll of water-related disasters on lives and livelihoods has been immense, along with many other damaging short-term and long-term social and economic consequences. Unless action is taken soon, the combined effects of water-related disasters, climate change, growing populations and urbanization will negatively affect societies and economies in many regions, spur migration and spark conflict.

The issue of water, sanitation and disasters must be urgently addressed if we hope to make sustainable development a reality. Damages attributed to water-related disasters account for up to 15 to 40 per cent of annual gross domestic product for certain countries. Moreover, climate change has been exacerbating the extremes in hydro-meteorological events. Together with other global drivers under change, such as population growth, rapid urbanization and increased asset values, this may result in an increased frequency and greater impacts of water-related disasters.

Two fundamental challenges must be addressed with regard to water, sanitation and disasters: (a) provision of water and sanitation during and after disasters and emergencies, and (b) water-related disaster risk reduction. These are the two key issues that the High-level Experts and Leaders Panel on Water and Disasters (HELP) has been discussing since its establishment in 2007. In my capacity as the Special Envoy of the United Nations Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction and Water and as Chair of HELP, I have been working on these two core subjects for some years.

Water and sanitation provision systems are often severely impacted by the onslaught of disasters. Intakes and water treatment plants are flooded, and water pipes and canals are washed away. It takes a long time to remove mud and silt that bury plants and canals, paralyzing entire water systems for weeks and months. Earthquakes rupture joints of water and sewage pipes and can suspend water and sanitation services for thousands or even millions of people. Interruption of water and sanitation provision threatens the lives and livelihoods of a massive number of people. Societies experience shock due to outbreaks of diseases, social anxiety and political unrest.

All societies and countries must be prepared in order to avoid the worst of these scenarios. Preparedness and resilience are the key. After the mega disasters, such as the 1995 Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake and the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, Japan embarked upon systematic efforts to replace rigid pipes and joints with elastic ones. Water and sanitation provision systems were planned and built with redundancy so that the services will be continuously provided, even when multiple pipelines are destroyed by disasters. Wells were dug in schools and community centres in order to provide safe water to evacuees. A huge million-litre plastic bag that can be towed by a tugboat was also developed.

Good practices and lessons like these should be shared among countries and communities in order to better prepare and ensure water and sanitation services, even when they are hit by unprecedented disasters. The international community, however, still lacks a framework and mechanisms to share knowledge, exchange opinions and agree on collaborative action on water-related issues. Global water architecture is needed to bridge, inter alias, the SDGs, the Sendai Framework, and the International Decade for Action, “Water for Sustainable Development”, 2018-2018, and address water-related challenges in a more collaborative manner.

The human right to water is challenged during wars and conflicts. Interruption of access to water and sanitation in conflict zones may threaten thousands of people’s lives. Inhumane acts of intentionally contaminating and even poisoning water have been attempted in extremely hostile conditions. Yet until recently, the United Nations has not had a chance to discuss water and sanitation issues during conflicts, although they are directly related to human rights and security. The first discussion on water and sanitation at the United Nations Security Council took place in November 2016. The session broke the ice and opened a pathway to further discussion on the means of preventing such threats during future conflicts.

Most countries agreed that water and sanitation are of the highest importance for regional stability and human security, and that the discussion should continue in the Security Council. They also recognized that water can be an agent for peace and regional prosperity through transboundary cooperation. I highly commend the Security Council for initiating such political dialogue and hope that it will lead to shared understanding and even an agreement to prevent disruption of water and sanitation provision for conflict-affected populations. The recently-launched Report of Global High-Level Panel on Water and Peace, entitled A Matter of Survival, may help the Security Council proceed with effective discussion and reach an impactful agreement on the subject.

During the past decade, water-related disasters have not only occurred more frequently but have also been more severe. Global annual economic losses from natural disasters are estimated at between $250 billion and $300 billion. Although death tolls from disasters have been contained due to global efforts and the advancement of science and technology, the number of affected people and, particularly, disaster-induced economic losses have been skyrocketing. Nearly 90 per cent of the global disaster risk reduction budget is increasing year by year, while the amount disbursed for disaster prevention and preparedness is limited to approximately 10 per cent.

Although drought is a slow onset disaster, it affects millions of people in various ways, as it can disrupt social, economic and even political situations in disaster-stricken areas. Compartmentalized water use and management often aggravate already devastating impacts, but the complex causes of droughts should not be an excuse for non-action.

Climate change is exacerbating extreme hydro-meteorological events. Nearly 80 per cent of climate change impacts are channeled through water. Action is needed now. We must share our experiences and lessons learned, strengthen regional coordination and collaboration, and set common goals and targets to lay a foundation for weathering future water-related disasters, and make progress towards creating a better-prepared and more resilient society.

As we have seen, there are a number of actions that the international community should take to address this critical and complex water, sanitation and disasters issue. An advisory function is needed for the international community to prioritize actions, establish a framework, and ensure coordination among actors and partners. A promotional function is also needed to raise political awareness and keep interest and motivation for actions at the highest levels. HELP set its own target under its Action Strategy and took voluntary actions to fulfil its mission as recommended by the United Nations Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation (UNSGAB). It has initiated dialogues and co-organized a number of workshops, as well as biennial Special Thematic Sessions on Water and Disasters, which took place in 2013, 2015 and 2017. The Panel has also launched two Flagship Documents, comprising a compilation of good practices and lesson cases on the past mega disasters, as well as position papers on key subjects such as climate change and water-related disasters.

Currently, HELP is compiling “Principles on Investment and Financing for Water-related Disaster Risk Reduction” in order to aid the effective utilization of financial resources for water-related disasters. HELP also supports the development of Alliance of Alliances, established in September 2017 as an academic research partnership on water and disasters, which aims to encourage the creation and use of resources and tools, facilitate decision-making, and promote the application of related innovative technology.

Urgent actions are needed for ensuring the provision of water and sanitation services during disasters and conflicts, and for reversing the trend of increasing losses caused by water-related disasters. Which actions should be prioritized to reverse the current situation in a global scheme? And what would help us to achieve the goals and targets on water, sanitation and disasters under the 2030 Agenda?

The High-level Panel on Water (HLPW), which was convened by the United Nations Secretary-General and the President of the World Bank Group, and which consists of 11 Members and one Special Advisor, has discussed priority actions for the international community since its establishment in April 2016. Water and disasters have been positioned high in its agenda.

I have led the discussion on water and disasters as the Special Advisor to HLPW in partnership with HELP. The resulting recommendations on key actions include:

Raising disaster risk reduction and resilience to a higher level on the political agenda

  • Special Thematic Sessions on water and disasters should be organized biennially in the United Nations General Assembly.
  • Disaster risk prevention and increasing resilience should be integrated into long-term planning.

Doubling investment on disaster risk reduction

  • Financing and investment for water-related disaster risk reduction should be doubled globally within the next five years with a focus on disaster risk reduction and preparedness. The proportion of financing aimed at disaster risk reduction and preparedness, and that for emergency response and rehabilitation should shift from 10:90 per cent to 90:10 per cent by 2030, at least for the international development aid.
  • “Principles on Investment and Financing for Water-related Disaster Risk Reduction” should be developed, adopted at the global level, and widely used in countries to provide Member States with practical guidance to effectively utilize financial resources in line with the Sendai Framework.

Development of education, science and technology in disaster risk reduction and resilience spheres

  • Alliance of Alliances on disaster risk reduction research networks should be promoted.
  • The disaster database on a global scale should be developed to enable assessing and announcing direct and indirect loss from disasters immediately after the events.
  • Good practices and lessons on these and other key issues on disaster risk reduction should be widely shared by governments and stakeholders through, inter alias, compilation and publication of such cases and practices on water-related disasters.
  • Higher education covering policy studies and natural science and technology in an integrated manner should be promoted. A Platform on Water and Disasters involving all stakeholders should be formulated in each country.

I sincerely hope that the international community joins hands, expands partnership and enhances coordination to jump start the actions stated above.

We will inevitably face many uncertainties in terms of climate change, economic instability, societal challenges and political issues if we are to take bold decisions and actions to address risks related to water, sanitation and disasters. Yet uncertainties are no excuse for inaction. We have to turn uncertainties into opportunities to pursue a more sustainable future. Let us work together to build a disaster-free, water-secure world for the next generation.