2024 World Water Development Report dedicated to Water for Prosperity and Peace

25 Mar 2024 by The Water Diplomat

Water for Peace

The 2024 World Water Development Report Water for Prosperity and Peace was launched on the 22nd of March - World Water Day - explores water’s capacity to unite people and serve as a tool for peace, sustainable development, climate action and regional integration. In his foreword to the 2024 report, UN Water Chair Alvaro Lario stated that water, when managed sustainably and equitably, can be a source of peace and prosperity.

The report explicitly links peace and prosperity. Water infrastructure and its management systems, the report argues, promote growth and prosperity by securing a reliable water supply for key economic sectors such as agriculture, energy, industry, and a broad range of businesses and services that support livelihoods worldwide.

Although it is not easy to directly link GDP to water availability because of the huge diversity of ways in which water influences the economy, in low and lower-middle-income countries, an estimated 70–80% of jobs are water-dependent. In addition, safe, accessible and functioning water supply and sanitation systems foster prosperity by enhancing the quality of life, supporting education and ensuring a healthy workforce. The cost-benefit ratio of investments in water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services has been shown to provide significant positive returns, especially through co-benefits such as health, education and employment.

In the realm of peacebuilding, the report emphasises the positive role that water plays in fostering cooperation, ranging from community-led initiatives that have relieved local tensions to dispute settlement at the transboundary level. And although water is not usually a trigger for conflict, inequalities in the allocation of water resources or in access to water services can be undermine peace and stability. This is all the more so in the context of factors which may exacerbate the problem, such as climate change, geopolitical unrest, pandemics, or mass migration.

Against this broader background, the report presents some thematic and regional observations. Agriculture, in particular, is a key driver of broad-based sustainable development and it is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Investment both in smallholder production and in larger infrastructure for development remains critical, but this needs to be carried out in a context where water tenure is well governed- a theme current under investigation by the Food and Agriculture Organisation. 

In human settlements, more collaborative and inclusive approaches are needed to overcome differences between formal and informal areas in cities and inequities in service provision between rural and urban areas. In conflict settings, essential water infrastructure can be either directly damaged or break down, and providing sustainable water and sanitation services remains a challenge. Furthermore, focusing on disaster risks is important in settlements to reduce the risks associated with flooding.

For industry, which lies at the heart of prosperity in many areas, water quality and accessibility are key to maintaining production, with implications for economic growth. Water scarcity and pollution issues can lead to conflicts involving industry, with a particular emphasis on mining which is particularly prone to conflicts with local (indigenous) populations.  

A lot of potential remains for transboundary cooperation to ensure the joint management of shared rivers, lakes and aquifers to ensure economic, social, environmental and political benefits which lie at the heart of peace and prosperity. Ideally, all shared waters would be covered by an operational agreement for cooperation, but presently, only 32 out of 153 countries responding to the UN Water questionnaires for reporting on SDG 6 progress, have more than 90% of their transboundary area covered by an agreement.

Looking at the different regions of the world, the report makes some general observations in relation to the most important peace and prosperity issues in each location. For the African continent, the emphasis is on economic water scarcity, whereby water resources are generally available but the financing options for infrastructure development are insufficiently available. In this context, given that Africa has the highest proportion of transboundary basins relative to other continents, there is a string premium on collaborative action to ensure water, energy and food security.

In North America and Europe, there is a high prevalence of transboundary agreements on water which facilitate inclusive dialogue on water management. Nevertheless, there is armed conflict in some areas which has had a devastating impact on water and sanitation infrastructure. In Latin America there is a high prevalence of multipurpose dams which are central to economic prosperity. At the same time a healthy dialogue is needed among stakeholders in order to maintain a balance between the needs of different sectors, ensure that decisions are taken on the basis of a solid evidence base and include indigenous communities in decision making.

In Asia and the Pacific region ensuring access to basic services for all remains a challenge, especially in rural areas, while water quality is deteriorating across the region. The vulnerability to climate change and associated extreme weather events remains high in this area.  In the Arab region, water scarcity is high and transboundary cooperation is of crucial importance. Many countries in the region have been in conflict in recent years, with wide ranging implications for water supply and infrastructure.       

To respond to these challenges, the report argues that action is required in the area of governance, through investments in collective, multi-level action over water allocation and reallocation. This will contribute to prosperity and peace by addressing competition and resolving disputes and ensuring effective and equitable water allocation within a perspective for investment and benefit-sharing. Science and technology have their role to play also, with the emergence of techniques for remote sensing, sensor equipment and artificial intelligence. To manage water effectively, adequate data and information is necessary on water’s location, quantity, quality, temporal variability and demand. Capacity development is important, especially in the areas of law, policy and institutional development that lie at the heart of cooperation on water.  Lastly, in the area of financing, there is room to make better use of existing resources and to mobilise new sources of capital. There is a need to direct these resources more towards developing countries, as well as to mainstream water security concerns within the decision making in other sectors.

The report concludes that sustainable water management generates a plethora of benefits to individuals and communities, including health, food and energy security, protection from natural disasters, education, improved living standards and employment, economic development, and a variety of ecosystem services. It is through these benefits that water leads to prosperity, and by equitably sharing these benefits, peace is promoted.