World Water Day calls for building peaceful, inclusive futures

Gender-inclusive, multilevel, and cross-boundary water governance approaches are ever more crucial for achieving peace and safety. Such approaches can improve access to safe sanitation and water, prepare for future shocks and threats, and tackle present-day social inequities, especially impacting women.

*This blog was written by Paul Currie, Director of Urban Systems Unit, and Luka Dreyer, Junior Professional Officer, both from ICLEI Africa.


Since the onset of the new millennium, we have been confronted with warnings that future armed conflicts will be fought over water. Although this vision still looms as a potential future, it also obscures the ways that water touches a myriad of existing social inequities, particularly between men, women, and children in households, communities, and at the city level.

Instead of looking to a dire future conflict, should we not be addressing the current interdependencies between water, security, and gender, in pursuit of peace, equity, and the sustainable stewardship of our aquatic systems?

Access to water for all is a fundamental human right, inextricably linked to the right to life, and thus sits at the core of human wellbeing and societal equity. However, on a global scale, 26% of the world’s population – 2 billion people – do not have access to safely managed drinking water services, while an estimated 46% (3.6 billion people) lack access to safely managed sanitation. This lack of access not only exacerbates pre-existing conflicts in homes and communities, such as higher instances of gender-based violence but also leads to new forms of societal tensions across various scales. Cities, as ever the concentrators of resources and people, are vital arenas for intervention, facilitating broader water stewardship outcomes.  

At the household level, water is intimately tied to food insecurity, health, and entrenched gender roles, with several vulnerabilities amplifying one another. Globally, women and girls are significantly more likely to be responsible for fetching household water, spending more time doing so than boys and men. In addition, they also hold a greater burden of caregiving responsibilities, through cooking, cleaning, and looking after family members. The disproportionate allocation of time towards care duties deprives many girls and women of time for education, leisure, livelihood development, and participation in decision-making processes. This requires a shift in the status quo.


Urban water management: Challenges and opportunities

Much of the mentality about how to provide water and sanitation is based on the ‘first wave urbanization’ worldview in which ‘inclusive urbanism’ was achieved through the state resourcing large-scale networked infrastructures to serve the whole population. The emergence of larger settlements and cities gave way to the proliferation of private entities to manage infrastructure networks and led to the ‘splintered’ reality of our cities, with some people serviced and others without. What does a second urbanization wave logic suggest about water management? 

The emergence of informal urban strategies for accessing resources, amidst calls for sustainable resource management, is a potentially useful tension in which water providers must be increasingly more creative in their approach. Given limitations in fresh water and infrastructure investment and maintenance budgets, growing communities, settlements, and cities require a broad set of actors and companies to invest in distributed sustainable infrastructures with the goal of equitable access. Keeping this goal central for each entity requires strong leadership and coordination from governments. 

In many cases there remain tensions about how to allocate resources for water sourcing, treatment, and distribution. Here, the vital relationship between government and water utilities is important to note. Utilities are key partners for water planning and management, and can potentially be more agile than government. With rapid urbanization taking place worldwide, these types of partnerships are ever more crucial to designing and implementing novel infrastructures that can address water access in sustainable ways. 

Given the current and expected shortages of fresh water, paradigm shifts are needed if we are to provide safe sanitation for the 46% of the population that is currently without it. Can we continue to use clean potable water flush toilets? Does there exist any convincing alternative to networked waterborne sewerage in the context of large, densifying settlements? 

Compromised local water security at the city scale has the potential to spill over into broader regional conflict for shared resources. Water-catalyzed conflicts are themselves further exacerbated by other threats to peace and security. Displacement and migration, driven by armed conflict and climate impacts, add further pressure on existing water systems. The disruptions experienced through climate, economic, and health crises have resulted in cities consistently assuming a reactive mentality to crises, with a broader need to plan for long-term water infrastructures. We need to provide further tools for water managers to enable them to plan for the long-term, while under conditions of crisis. 


Multilevel governance for water equity

Urban water schemes depend on catchments stretching beyond their administrative borders, linking water security at the community and city levels to regional management. Local and subnational governments handle water distribution, while ‘water sourcing’ falls under national mandate. This raises governance issues like ethics, sectoral claims, urban-rural water competition, and financial responsibilities. Therefore, holistic, institutionalized collaboration across government levels is essential for managing shared water catchments effectively.

Multilevel governance is a key mechanism through which we must address these competing needs, aligning different perspectives on water stewardship and drawing resources for improving access to water and sanitation. By connecting all levels of government, as well as stakeholders working at all levels, there is less duplication of efforts, more opportunity to develop shared values, and pooling of resources to ensure co-benefits across systems. 

To be successful, multilevel initiatives need to simultaneously address gender gaps in water governance. Despite being most affected by climate impacts and the lack of access to water and sanitation, and arguably best positioned to contribute valuable insights, women have largely been excluded from governance and decision-making processes surrounding water and sanitation. It is therefore essential for the governance of water and sanitation across Africa to adopt inclusive approaches that are built upon meaningful engagement with women — not merely as voices to be heard, but as agents of change. 

Only by adopting a unified lens of equity, peace, and inclusivity on water management can we begin to collectively address the underlying causes of water insecurity, conflict, and inequity, and envision an alternative, sustainable paradigm.

ICLEI, in its advocacy role on behalf of local and subnational governments, as well as in its role as an intermediary between sustainability practitioners and governments of all levels, remains committed to enhancing multilevel governance, multi-stakeholder inclusion, and relational approaches that ensure collective decision-making, project design and improved delivery of water and sanitation services around the world.   



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