Upcoming UN day highlights need to share precious global water

20 March 2009

Mustapha, Musa and Adam, subjects of a recent United Nations documentary, speak different languages, come from different African countries and eke out their subsistence in three different ancient ways: fishing, farming and herding.

But they share something precious – their lives and their families’ survival depend on the water of Lake Chad, which is rapidly disappearing and could soon be engulfed by the desert if bordering countries do not progress on a restoration plan.

Their situation, as explored in a recent episode of the series “UN in Action,” sums up the reason behind this year’s theme for World Water Day, observed on 22 March, “Transboundary Waters: Shared Waters, Shared Opportunities.”

According to the Organization’s focal point on the issue, UN Water, nearly 40 per cent of the world’s population lives in river and lake basins shared by two or more countries, with 263 trans-boundary basins within the territory of 145 countries.

Many of these areas are experiencing scarcity, due to increased population pressures, pollution, climate change and other factors and it is anticipated that by 2025, two-thirds of the world’s people could be under water stress, vying for scarce liquid resources.

Whatever the cause, regional cooperation is critical to putting an end to the deterioration of shared wetland ecosystems, according to the World Water Day information put out by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).

“History shows that cooperation, not conflict, is the most common response to transboundary water management issues,” it says, citing only 37 instances of violence between States over water rights in the past 60 years, as opposed to nearly 300 international agreements.

Once the sixth largest freshwater lake in the world, Lake Chad used to cover more than 10,000 square miles, according to the UN in Action episode, “Saving Lake Chad.” Over the last four decades, however, it has been reduced to a fifth of its original size.

The lake is shared by Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria and Niger, where the water has totally disappeared, causing fisherman Mustapha Adamou to drift from the latter country to the Chad side.

“The grass in the water drags the nets and then we have to replace them,” says Mr. Adamou, speaking in Hausa in the video as he and his brothers gut the fish they will smoke and take to Cameroon via the lake.

Meanwhile, farmers such as Musa, who grow corn and other crops, have seen the water levels in their area of Chad dip so low that they must negotiate with their neighbours to determine which day each will irrigate.

“One will say I will take water Friday, and the other will say, no, today is my day and I will take it,” Mustapha says in the Kanembou language.

At the same time, in the Sahelian, desertifying interior, herder Adam recalls, in Arabic, that his family had to move when the water retreated completely. “The cow’s belly was full of sand,” he said.

By the year 2020, some 35 million people – almost double the amount who live there now – will depend on Lake Chad for their survival, according to the documentary, and the water could completely disappear if nothing is done to save it.

More competition would surely arise between the fishermen, who depend on higher water levels and the farmers and herders who divert the water.

The only possible solution is regional cooperation, since the water supply for the lake comes from a complex international system, as the video’s narration shows.

A regional plan long under consideration to replenish the lake proposes building a channel 100 to150 kilometres long to divert water from the Obangui River in the Central African Republic.

The nations making up the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC) have been appealing for international support for such a proposal for several years.

It is that kind of cooperation that will be promoted in this year’s observation of World Water Day, according to UN Water, and the UN specialized agencies are marking the Day through the perspectives of their own area of expertise.

In the area of agriculture, for example, FAO notes that farming accounts for 70 per cent of all global freshwater withdrawals, with 3,000 litres required to produce the daily food of each individual human being.

“It is only by investing in sustainable agriculture based on good water management that we will meet our food and energy needs while at the same time safeguarding the natural resources on which our future depends,” Jacques Diouf, FAO Director-General, said at the 5th World Water Forum that closed today in Istanbul, Turkey.

The international observance of World Water Day grew out of the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro.


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