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International Decade of Water for Sustainable Development 2018-2028

In Africa, Being a World Citizen, Current Events, Environmental protection, Human Development, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa, Social Rights, Solidarity, The Search for Peace, United Nations, World Law on April 10, 2018 at 7:50 AM

By René Wadlow

On March 22, World Water Day, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly proclaimed “The International Decade for Action: Water for Sustainable Development 2018-2028. The Decade seeks to forge new partnerships and to strengthen capacity to manage fresh water supplies and sustainable use. Ecologically-sound water use is one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, N°6 “Ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.” The aim of the Water Decade is to raise the profile of water in the global agenda of governments and nongovernmental organizations.

There have already been two UN-sponsored Water Decades: 1981-1990, and a second decade called UN Water for Life Decade, 2005-2015. Water and sanitation have been set out as human rights and the UN Human Rights Council has a Special Rapporteur for the Human Right to Water and Sanitation, most recently Mr. Leo Heller. However, real difficulties remain. Some 660 million people still draw water from an unimproved source. Urbanization, population growth, desertification, drought and climate change all put pressure on water supply and use.

We will look briefly at an aspect of the world-wide water challenge: desertification and at some of the steps which the UN along with non-governmental organizations in consultative status with the UN are taking to meet this challenge creatively.

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UN efforts began in 1977 with the United Nations Conference on Desertification held in Nairobi. The desertification conference was convened by the UN General Assembly in the midst of a series of catastrophic droughts in the Sudan-Sahelian region of Africa. The conference was designed to be the centerpiece of a massive world-wide attack to arrest the spread of deserts or desert-like conditions not only in Africa south of the Sahara but wherever such conditions encroached on the livelihood of those who lived in the desert or in its destructive path. The history of the conference is vividly recalled by James Wallis in his book Land, Men and Sand (New York: Macmillan, 1980)

At the conference, there was a call for the mobilization of human and financial resources to hold and then push back the advancing desert. “Attack” may have been the wrong word and “mobilization” too military a metaphor for the very inadequate measures taken after the conference in the Sudan-Sahelian area. Today, there are still real possibilities of famine in West and East Africa on the edges of the desert. Niger and Mali and parts of Senegal and Chad in the Sahel belt are facing the consequences of serious drought as are parts of northern Kenya and Somalia.

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The most dramatic case is that of Darfur, Sudan which partakes of the Sahel drought but which also faces a war in which conflicts between pastoralists and settled agriculturalists have become politicized. It is estimated that over 300,000 people have been killed since the start of the war in late 2003. Some two and a half million people have been uprooted. The agricultural infrastructure of homes, barns and well have been deliberately destroyed. It will be difficult and costly to repair this destruction. The Darfur conflict highlights the need for a broader approach to the analysis and interpretation of active and potential armed conflicts in the Sahel region. This analysis needs to take into consideration the impact of environmental scarcity and climate variation in complex situations.

What are the causes of the desertification process? The destruction of land that was once productive does not stem from mysterious and remorseless forces of nature but from the action of humans. Desertification is a social phenomenon. Humans are both the despoiler and the victim of the process. Increasingly, populations are eking out a livelihood on a dwindling resource, hemmed in by encroaching plantations and sedentary agriculturalists, by towns and roads.

Desertification is a plague that upsets the traditional balance between people, their habitat, and the socio-economic system by which they live. Because desertification disturbs a region’s natural resource base, it promotes insecurity. Insecurity leads to strife. If allowed to degenerate, strife results in inter-clan feuding, cross-border raiding and military confrontation.

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Only with a lessening of insecurity can pastoralists and cultivators living in or near deserts turn their attention to adapting traditional systems of compromise between the two. There can be no reversion to purely traditional systems. For insecurity to abate, a lengthy process of conciliation must begin and forms of conflict resolution must be strengthened. People must be encouraged to understand that diversity is a crucial element of ecologically-sound development. Judicious resource management breeds security and an improved quality of life for everyone. We can see what efforts can be made to encourage reforestation and to slow the unwanted advances of deserts.

Desertification needs to be seen in a broad way. If we see desertification only as aridity, we may miss areas of impact such as in the humid tropics. We need to consider the special problems of water-logging, salinity and alkalinity of irrigation systems that destroy land each year. We need to identify major clusters of problems, bringing the best minds to bear on them so as to have a scientific and social base on which common political will can be found and from which action will follow.

Prof. René Wadlow is President of the Association of World Citizens.

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