The close relationship between water and poverty has been emphasised by the United Nations Environment Programme, which warns that without access to clean water, development is impossible, and therefore poverty cannot be eliminated. Despite access to safe drinking water and sanitation being recognised as a basic human right, billions of people around the world still lack these essential services. The impact of lack of access is felt most acutely in low-income countries, where inadequate water supply and sanitation facilities undermine economic development, contribute to disease and malnutrition, and impede progress towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
At such a critical time when there is a pressing demand for action on water-related issues, the United Nations General Assembly had convened the United Nations Water Conference. The event held in New York from March 22-24, is the first UN event dedicated to water in almost half a century. Within that 50 year time period, the world has lost over one-third of its wetlands and is still losing them at a pace faster than that at which it is losing its forests.
With an aim to restore these degraded wetlands as well as the rivers and the lakes, the conference announced the launch of the Freshwater Challenge which is a collaborative initiative by governments of various countries. It is the first of its kind large scale water restoration project which aims at restoring over 300,000 kilometres of rivers and about 350 million hectares of wastelands by 2030. The challenge calls on all governments to meet their goals in their updated national biodiversity strategies and action plans, national determined contributions, and national implementation plan for the SDGs. Spearheaded by the governments of Colombia, Mexico, Ecuador, Zambia, Gabon, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, this challenge will help reverse the alarming trend of wetland and river degradation and secure the long-term resilience of global water systems. Applauding their effort, Inger Anderson, the Executive Director of UNEP has said, “Healthy rivers, lakes and wetlands underpin our societies and economies, yet they are routinely undervalued and overlooked. That is what makes the commitment by the governments of Colombia, DR Congo, Ecuador, Gabon, Mexico and Zambia so commendable.”
Driven at a national level, the Freshwater Challenge seeks to invite a collaborative venture between the governments and the respective local indigenous people, in order to devise solutions that would be pragmatic and executable. One of the key objectives of the Freshwater Challenge is to provide country-specific data to effectively develop and execute restoration strategies that would help target specific high-priority areas and mobilise resources to achieve the set goals. The programme is set to supplement the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, a worldwide initiative working towards healing the planet. Co-led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), it aims at preventing and healing the degradation of various ecosystems all across the planet.
The Freshwater Challenge has garnered support from the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, the Secretariat of the Convention on Wetlands, WWF, IUCN, The Nature Conservancy, Wetlands International, and ABinBev. The voluntary commitments of these organisations and governments bring the world closer to achieving its global water-related targets and objectives.