‘Water is peace, life, dignity’: why the UN deputy chief has a thirst for saving lives
September 09, 2016 / Glen Reynolds
He is the UN deputy secretary general and was the Swedish foreign minister. He has brokered any number of deals between warring parties and negotiated the world’s development targets. But whatever he does, diplomat Jan Eliasson is happiest to be known as the “water man” – the individual who, for nearly 25 years, has ceaselessly pressed governments and the UN to lift water and sanitation up the global agenda.
“I got angry,” he says, by way of explaining his commitment to a cause that has not always been high on UN or government agendas.
“I was in a Baidoa camp for internally displaced people outside Mogadishu in Somalia, in 1992. One morning I counted the body bags of people who had died overnight from water diseases. There were two children and five adults. It had a great effect on me. The nurses and doctors there were inspirational. ‘Don’t feel despair,’ they said. ‘Get angry.’ When you see something horrible, don’t fall into the trap. Use anger.
“I tried to imagine the grief of those children’s parents and siblings. I asked myself what the victims might have made of their lives had they had what all human beings should have – a healthy start in life. And I decided, then and there, to never stop fighting for the fundamental right for all to water and sanitation.”
Eliasson barely hides his frustration and anger about the global neglect and abuse of the one resource without which, he believes, there can be no peace or development. The human right to water, says Eliasson, is a “historic, noble, even sacred, mission and cause”.
He reels off the statistics to show how far there is yet to go: “1.8 billion people worldwide drink contaminated water; 2.4 billion people lack improved sanitation. In poor countries, 90% of sewage is discharged untreated into rivers, lakes and coastal areas. An estimated 800 to 900 children under the age of five die every day from diarrhoeal diseases.
“If we continue on our current path, the world may face a 40% shortfall in water availability by 2030.
“I am puzzled about why it is not a bigger issue. There are few issues I can think of that are more essential for our survival than water. Water is peace, water is life, and water is dignity. When you see children dying of dehydration, dysentery and diarrhoea for want of clean water and sanitation … it’s about time it was put high on the agenda.”
Eliasson is convinced progress is being made. Since late 2015 when, in quick succession, countries backed the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals and then the climate change agreement in Paris, the development and environment agendas have merged, with water recognised as key to both.
But water is not just part of the climate and environment agendas, says Eliasson. Water and sanitation are relevant to human rights, peace and development. You can’t draw a sharp line between peace, security, development and human rights.
“Now we have new tools with the SDGs and the Paris treaty. The development and climate agendas are mutually reinforcing and one cannot be be achieved without the other,” he says.
“Awareness of climate change helped the SDG process. They reinforce each other.”
As the first head of humanitarian affairs, Eliasson led UN missions to Somalia, Sudan, Mozambique and Nagorno-Karabakh, and saw for himself how water is used as a weapon of conflict. In Darfur, he saw dead dogs thrown down wells to clear villages. “In Iraq, I learned how extremist groups exploit access to water to expand control over territory,” Eliasson recalls.
He fears that in an age of climate change, population growth and the burgeoning of cities, access to water will become a factor in more disputes. “All over the world, water scarcity can become a reason for conflict. Droughts are driving people from the countryside to cities, increasing pressures on water, which can lead to instability. A long period of drought and its consequences may have been one of the factors behind the war in Syria.
“Droughts reduce agricultural production and lead to rising prices in the marketplace. When staple food prices rise, civil unrest can follow. Water easily becomes a source of conflict when this precious resource is inequitably allocated.
“In the past there was a silo approach to water and sanitation both in governments and the UN. Sanitation was taboo until just a few years ago. Many people made jokes when, at official meetings in New York, I talked about toilets and open defecation. But bringing these words to the diplomatic discourse is, to me, very essential. In fact, they bring the stark realities into our meeting rooms.”
He congratulates President Narendra Modi’s drive in India to make sanitation a priority. “It’s an investment. By having sanitation you can save so much on health and productivity. People go to work. Children go to school.
“Politicians lack long-term planning. They look at budgetary needs now but don’t see the larger picture. But they must look beyond their mandate periods. Ministers of finance should have responsibility for the long-term effects of public expenditure.
“Water and sanitation cannot drop off the agenda now. There is such a commitment to it. You have the development community, the World Bank and the big development banks, but also the scientific and health communities along with civil society, and philanthropists all backing it.”