In March 1977, representatives from 116 countries gathered in Mar del Plata, Argentina, for the inaugural United Nations Water Conference. At the time, the event received very little attention. Global politics was dominated by a handful of powerful countries, most of them in temperate regions where water scarcity, severe pollution, and flooding were not considered major issues.
The atmosphere at this year’s UN Water Conference, which took place in New York in March, was markedly different. Instead of apathy, there was a palpable sense that the water crisis is a global problem. Today, every country in the world faces water-related challenges, underscoring our collective vulnerability as the planet’s most vital natural resource is increasingly threatened. The robust engagement of the scientific community and civil society was also instrumental in shedding light on the far-reaching consequences of this crisis.
Unsurprisingly, the countries that were most at risk in 1977 are even more vulnerable today. The reckless exploitation of the planet has accelerated humanity’s breach of planetary boundaries. The long-anticipated sea-level rise is now submerging vast areas, while deserts are expanding at an alarming rate as water sources diminish and aquifers become depleted. Meanwhile, pollutants from human waste, along with the byproducts of industrial activities, contaminate our rivers, lakes, and oceans. At a time of growing scarcity, our seemingly insatiable thirst for consumption has aggravated these trends.
The fact that some remain unaffected by this crisis attests to their privilege. While many experience environmental degradation on a spiritual level, some of the world’s poorest populations face immediate and tangible consequences as they try to adapt to rapidly changing conditions.
Much like the response to the climate crisis, the response to the water crisis suffers from a lack of global coordination and opposition from entrenched interests seeking to prevent crucial reforms. As the Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva puts it, “When the rich, powerful, and dominant economic forces of society” exceed their fair share of Earth’s resources, “indigenous communities and minority groups are deprived of their share of water for life and livelihoods.” This, she writes, forces entire communities “to carry the heavy burden of water poverty.”
A recent petition proposed by prominent water-rights activist Rajendra Singh offers a potential path forward. Singh, chairman of the People’s World Commission on Drought and Flood, outlines ten critical transformations required to restore water harmony. By transcending anthropocentrism, his proposed pledge aims to rejuvenate the global water cycle and harness its immense power to promote the well-being of all living things.
At the heart of Singh’s pledge lies the bedrock principle of climate-oriented thinking: a complete system overhaul. This perspective views humanity as part of a much larger whole that encompasses the diverse species with which we share our planet. Instead of commodifying natural resources for profit and relentless consumption, this ethos encourages people to be mindful of the potential consequences of their actions and commit to repairing any damage they cause.
This raises three fundamental questions. First, what actions are required to address the global water crisis? Second, which key stakeholders must step up? Third, how can we ensure that these stakeholders implement vital systemic changes?
For too long, policymakers have emphasized minor changes in household consumption habits, thereby unfairly shifting the burden to families and communities whose contributions to the water crisis have been negligible. The root causes of water scarcity are large-scale industrial production, lack of attention to quality, and the failure to address rampant pollution. At the macro level, extractive industries and an economic system centered on profit maximization drive the increase in global temperatures, further disrupting water cycles.
While reducing household consumption is important, it pales in comparison to the potential impact of forcing corporations to adopt sustainable practices. But the increasingly symbiotic relationship between politics and big-business interests complicates this task. Instead of pursuing systemic changes, the world’s most powerful governments have opted for incremental reforms to create the appearance of commitment.
The recent UN Water Conference underscored the urgency of today’s crisis. If governments are unwilling or unable to pursue the necessary structural reforms, they must be replaced by political leaders with the vision and determination to overhaul the systems that jeopardize the natural resource sustaining all life on Earth.
Growing up in India, I observed the country’s relentless drive to catch up with wealthier economies. By investing in higher education, building roads and hospitals, and boosting economic growth through consumption and increased production, the thinking went, India could become richer and eliminate poverty. The mainstream education system frequently championed the commodification of nature, anthropocentric dominance, and extractivism. It revered the architects of our flawed economic system, treating their words as sacrosanct.
Indigenous communities have long warned that such “progress” was misguided, but they were dismissed as hidebound and out of touch with reality. As climate change disrupts water and food systems around the world, many now recognize the prescience of these warnings. Given that we might be the last generation capable of mitigating the worst effects of the water crisis, it is our responsibility to hold accountable those who are exploiting the planet for personal gain.
Joshua Castellino, Co-Executive Director of Minority Rights Group International, is Professor of International and Comparative Law at the University of Derby and Founder of the School of Law at Middlesex University London, where he served as dean from 2012-18.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.