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Women and girls suffer first when droughts hit poor and rural areas, says UN | Water

Women and girls are the first to suffer when drought strikes poor and rural areas, and water strategies around the world must reflect this, the UN has said in a plea to countries to mend conflicts over water resources.

Stress on water resources, which is being exacerbated by the climate crisis, as well as overuse and pollution of the world’s freshwater systems, is a large source of conflict, according to the latest UN world water development report.

The impacts of sharing water, and the possibilities of harnessing cooperation over water resources into wider peace strategies, are often overlooked, the report’s authors found. Better cooperation over freshwater access would also play a role in improving the lives of women and girls.

Women and girls carry primary responsibility for water collection in poor and rural areas around the world, and a lack of safe sanitation is a factor in girls dropping out of education, and increases their vulnerability and that of women.

Audrey Azoulay, director general of Unesco, the UN agency that produces the annual report on water, said: “As water stress increases, so do the risks of local or regional conflict. Unesco’s message is clear: if we want to preserve peace, we must act swiftly not only to safeguard water resources but also to enhance regional and global cooperation in this area.”

Access to water is a vital issue in the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Some observers have accused Israel of “weaponising” access to fresh water, as Gaza is reliant on Israel for most of its water supply. Hundreds of thousands of children are in severe hunger or facing near-famine in Gaza, while a lack of clean water is increasing thirst as well as disrupting medical treatment and hygiene.

Unesco’s annual world water development report did not delve into such conflicts, as that would have been “too politically sensitive”, according to the report’s editor-in-chief, Rick Connor.

He said: “Water has most often been a tool, a target or a victim of warfare but not typically the cause of war. Disputes over water can occur when demand exceeds supply, when availability is compromised due to pollution, when access to an allocation of water is restricted, or when water supply and sanitation services are disrupted. These disputes can range from legal disputes to violent altercations, often reflecting event specific and location specific social, political, environmental, demographic conditions.”

The impacts of water shortages and tensions over water include forced migration, food insecurity and other health threats and particular dangers for women and girls, the report found.

Connor also said: “International humanitarian law, including the Geneva convention, explicitly prohibits the targeting of civilian water infrastructure. Tools at the international level to promote peace through water, include agreements and cooperation over internationally shared waters and human-rights-based approaches.”

The report found that tensions over water were exacerbating conflicts around the world. But while the role of water in war has often been cited, too little attention has been paid to the potential for cooperation over water to engender or preserve peace, according to Alvaro Lario, the president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development who is also chair of UN-Water.

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“Water, when managed sustainably and equitably, can be a source of peace and prosperity. It is also the literal lifeblood of agriculture, the major socioeconomic driver for billions of people,” he said.

Little progress has been made on water issues in recent years as the climate crisis, pollution and overuse of freshwater resources in some areas have put further stress on water. Nearly half of the world’s population lacks access to hygienic sanitation, and about 2.2 billion people cannot rely on a safe supply of drinking water. These levels of unmet need around the world have increased markedly over the past two decades, despite being targeted as one of the UN’s sustainable development goals for 2030.

Instead, if trends continue, water shortages are likely to affect even more people in the future. Global freshwater demand will outstrip supply by 40% by the end of this decade, according to the preliminary findings of the biggest report yet on the world’s water, which is due to be published this September by the Global Commission on the Economics of Water, which is separate to the annual world water development report of UN-Water.

In 2022 about half of the world’s population experienced severe water scarcity for at least part of the year, and between 2002 and 2021 droughts afflicted more than 1.4 billion people.

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