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Amid conflicts and climate change, UN puts focus on 'deep trouble' in water worldwide

Ian James, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

For the first time in 46 years, the United Nations convened a global conference on water, creating new impetus for wide-ranging efforts to manage water more sustainably, adapt to worsening droughts and floods with climate change, and accelerate solutions for the estimated 2 billion people around the world who live without access to clean drinking water.

The conference this week in New York brought together about 10,000 participants, including national leaders and scientists, with a focus on addressing the world’s many water problems and making progress toward a goal of ensuring clean drinking water and sanitation for all people.

“Water is humanity’s lifeblood,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said. “But water is in deep trouble. We are draining humanity’s lifeblood through vampiric overconsumption and unsustainable use, and evaporating it through global heating. We’ve broken the water cycle, destroyed ecosystems and contaminated groundwater.”

Governments, nonprofit groups, businesses and other entities made hundreds of commitments in what the U.N. called a Water Action Agenda, with pledges as diverse as addressing scarcity in water-stressed regions and cleaning up lead-contaminated drinking water. Countries from the United States to Japan pledged to spend billions of dollars helping to improve water infrastructure.

The conference also prominently featured discussions about nature-based solutions, such as restoring river floodplains and coastal wetlands, and dismantling concrete flood-control channels to allow stormwater to recharge aquifers.

Leaders discussed strategies for adapting water management to become more resilient as climate change melts glaciers, raises sea levels and intensifies droughts and floods. With most natural disasters linked to water, U.N. officials said reducing risks should be an urgent priority.


As water scarcity has worsened in arid regions, violence over water has been on the rise.

Peter Gleick, a climate scientist and co-founder of the Pacific Institute, presented research showing that over the past two decades, water-related conflicts have grown increasingly frequent, with more violence erupting over access to water in India, Iran and other countries in the Middle East and Africa.

“No region of the world has been immune from the risk of violence associated with water resources,” Gleick said.

“There is growing competition for water. Populations are rising. Economies are expanding. Demands for the fixed amount of water on the planet [are] expanding,” Gleick said. “There are inequities, major inequities around the world, in who has access to and control of water resources. That contributes to tensions.”


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